Rod Christen and his sister Kay farm corn, soybeans, and wheat on the family’s land near the small town of Steinauer in southeast Nebraska, but their main crop is grass.
200 to 300 cows and their calves graze year round on the family’s native prairie pastures. Rod Christen said grass is both a natural resource and their farm’s foundation.
“Grass under management has the ability to store water and prevent erosion and provide wildlife habitat, which is all a side benefit because what keeps us in business is the feed value,” said Christen.
But Christen said it has become common in recent years to see farmers take cattle off nearby pastures to plant more corn.
Mary Kay Thatcher of the National Farm Bureau Federation said it’s easy to tell why farmers are trading grass for corn or soybeans – look at grain prices.
“When you have corn and bean prices as high as they’ve been for the past year plus, you expect some pasture land is probably going to go to crop land,” Thatcher said.
Grain prices, spurred by the ethanol boom, set off a nationwide plow-up. A study from the Environmental Working Group shows from 2008 to 2011 farmers reclaimed 23.7 million acres of grasslands, wetlands and woodlands for farming – an area roughly the size of Indiana.
Some of that land had been enrolled in a federal conservation program that pays farmers to keep land out of production. But some of it is marginal land – land that might have poor soil or be prone to erosion – and isn’t suitable for farming long-term.
If the crop thrives, farmers cash in on high prices. If it fails, they can lean on the insurance.
A bi-partisan “sodsaver” provision in the farm bill would change that. It would cut premium subsidies and lower the potential insurance payout on crops planted on busted sod.
Some environmental groups are campaigning for the Senate version of the sodsaver rules, which would apply nationwide. The House would limit sodsaver to the prairie pothole region, a group of wetlands in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Iowa.