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Converting marginal cropland to grass yields soil carbon and more

In 1989 farmer and rancher Jim Faulstich, Highmore, South Dakota, saw the writing on the wall: The marginal cropland on his family’s Daybreak Ranch was just not paying the bills, especially in years of drought.

That’s when Faulstich began converting marginal land back to the native grasses that once covered it. Today, Faulstich, who manages the operation in partnership with his wife, Carol, and their daughter and son-in-law, Jacquie and Adam Roth, has seeded 700 acres back to native grasses.

Now, instead of seeing struggling crops in some fields, he sees robust, thigh-high grasses. “It’s gratifying to see the grass production that’s out there,” he says.

The marginal cropland that now grows grass provides managed grazing for the family’s 350-cow beef herd along with habitat for pheasants and other wildlife for their commercial hunting enterprise. For their conservation efforts, they received in 2009 the Region VII Environmental Stewardship Award from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Faulstich’s role as former chair and now vice chair of the South Dakota Grassland Coalition involves him in land-use issues on a broader stage.

“As producers, we’ve really overlooked the value of ecosystem services grassland provides for the land,” he says. “Those services include building soil health, sequestering carbon, improving water infiltration, enhancing flood control and drought management, along with providing hunting opportunities, to name a few. Grasslands just take the lead in making those available. But in producers’ eyes, these have taken a back seat to production.”

The upshot is, when crop prices spike, the conversion of grasslands to cropland also increases. This trend concerns Tyler Lark, assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, where he leads research on U.S. agricultural land-use changes and their impacts on the nation’s land and water resources.

Daybreak Ranch

“Grasslands are a critical ecosystem — one of the most endangered ecosystems,” says Lark.

In the United States, about half of all grasslands have been converted to cultivated cropland or other uses compared to before European settlement, says Lark in a 2020 paper published in Land Use Policy.

Yet conversion of grassland continues. He estimates grasslands in the United States are lost — converted to cropland — at a rate of more than 1 million acres per year, with much of the carbon stored in the grasslands released back into the atmosphere.

“When long-term grasslands are plowed up to expand cropland area, carbon stored in the grassland’s soil is released to the atmosphere, where it contributes to ongoing global warming,” says Lark. “Preventing that conversion prevents significant carbon emissions. Similarly, restoring converted grasslands can help sequester new carbon.”

Lark writes in Land Use Policy, “Given the magnitude of conversions, halting the ongoing loss of grasslands has been deemed the largest natural opportunity to address climate change in the U.S. agricultural sector and would also generate substantial co-benefits for the nation’s waters, soils, and biodiversity.”

Lark’s statement references a study, which he coauthored, published in 2018 in Science Advances. The study was a collaboration of 21 scientific partners.

“The research highlights the significant opportunity of our natural ecosystems to help combat climate change and reduce carbon emissions,” he states in a research summary cowritten with Seth Spawn, a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student.

“The study finds that up to 22% of the United States’ current net annual emissions could be offset by adjusting the management of our land resources across 21 different pathways,” he writes. “If all approaches were implemented, they could fulfill nearly all of the country’s pledged greenhouse gas reductions under the Paris Agreement.

“The total potential emissions reduction from avoiding grassland conversion is estimated to be … roughly 10% of the United States’ Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement,” says Lark in the research summary.

Corroborating the value of grasslands is an issues brief on land degradation and climate change put out by the International Union for Conservation of Nature: “Recent studies suggest that soil carbon management presents one of the most cost-effective climate change mitigation options. Rangelands, for example, contain more than a third of all the terrestrial above- and below-ground carbon reserves. With improved rangeland management they could potentially sequester a further 1,300 to 2,000 million metric tons of CO2 by 2030.

“Small increases in global soil organic carbon will have a high impact on the global carbon cycle and on the atmospheric concentration of CO2. An increase of just 1% of the carbon stocks in the top meter of soils would be higher than the amount corresponding to the annual anthropogenic CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning.”

Daybreak Ranch

Yet despite grasslands’ benefits to soil, climate mitigation, and other ecosystem services, farm gate economics and agency policies often instigate their conversion to cropland.

“We need to find ways to help make grassland economically more competitive with cropland,” says Lark. “Right now, federal subsidies and crop insurance incentivizes grassland to be turned into cropland. Cropland has an inequitable economic advantage over grassland.”

That has not been the case for Faulstich. Asked whether his family’s conversions of marginal cropland to grassland have been profitable, his answer is an unequivocal “absolutely!”

He says, “Our profitability on that former cropland converted back to grassland turned around when we focused on it as a natural resource whose best use was to grow grass. But profitability aside, simply restoring the land to its best use has given us reason enough to do it. By converting the land back to grassland, we also achieved more drought resistance for our operation.”

Despite the relatively high costs of establishing fencing and water developments on grasslands converted from croplands, the Faulstiches have in some cases paid for these out of their own pockets. In other cases, they’ve received cost sharing from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), private organizations, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program.

“All kinds of agencies and organizations are offering incentives for restoring or maintaining grasslands,” says Faulstich. “I believe we’re entering a new frontier in terms of managing landscapes according to what’s most important — putting land back to what it’s best used for.”

Support for grasslands

The NRCS through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) offers cost-sharing for converting cropland back to grassland. Cost categories shared include expenses for grass and grass-legume plantings, water development, and boundary and interior cross-fencing for the managed grazing of livestock.

“We’ll work with any type of land, including land that has an expiring contract for the Conservation Reserve Program,” says Doug Dragseth, an NRCS Conservation Delivery Unit supervisor in North Dakota.

The USDA has also recently revitalized its Grasslands Program offered through the Conservation Reserve Program. “It can be used on existing grassland and prevents the land from being broken out for farming,” says Dragseth. “The contract term is for 10 or 15 years, and the grassland can be used for haying or grazing, according to a basic NRCS-prescribed grazing plan. The present annual payment is $15 an acre.”

Other agencies or private groups offering incentives for maintaining or restoring grasslands include wildlife agencies or organizations, waterfowl groups such as Ducks Unlimited, and bird groups such as Pheasants Forever and the National Audubon Society.

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