Crop prices top reason for converting grassland to cropland

"Farmland Decision Survey" finds that 75% of farmers plant soybeans or corn on converted acres.

The changing price of crops was the number-one factor that farmers in eastern South Dakota and southeastern North Dakota considered when deciding whether or not to convert grassland to cropland, according to the 2015 "Farmland Decision Survey."

Of the 1,026 producers who responded to the survey, 40% had converted some native or tame grassland to cropland in the last 10 years. However, 28% of the producers had also converted some cropland to grassland.

The mail survey — done by South Dakota State University, North Dakota State University and Iowa State University researchers — was designed to assess the impact of land use changes in the Prairie Pothole region. Producers in 37 South Dakota counties and 20 North Dakota counties participated in the survey.

From 2006 to 2011, cropland enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in North and South Dakota decreased from 5.0 million to 3.8 million acres, with most of the tracts returned to cropland, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Of the farmers who converted grass to cropland, 75% used the new ground to plant corn or soybeans, while the remainder planted wheat. Those numbers mirror current producer output, according to Larry Janssen, retired agricultural economics professor at South Dakota State University and one of the survey authors.

Nearly 90% of the respondents raised corn and/or soybeans in the past 10 years. Most were full-time farmers, and the average size of their farms was 1,686 acres, with more than 70% of the land devoted to raising crops.

Nearly half of North Dakota respondents raised wheat each year, compared to only 28% of South Dakota respondents. Very few respondents in either state increased their wheat acreage in comparison to other crops, Janssen said.

Land going back to grass was primarily due to new CRP or Wetland Reserve Program signups, according to the survey. Only 7% of respondents turned CRP land into grass or hay acres.

In the next decade, less than 10% of  respondents anticipate converting either native or tame grassland to cropland. A greater share — 12.6% — plan to convert cropland to grassland or pasture.

“Overall, producers project more land use stability in the next 10 years than in the past 10 years,” Janssen said. “This result is partly due to uncertainty about future crop and livestock prices, farm program provisions, renewable energy policies, agricultural technology changes and other factors that affect land use decision-making.”

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