Grassland  Conversion Impacts |

Grassland  Conversion Impacts

Loretta Sorensen
for Tri-State Livestock News
There are concerns about the apparent growing number of grassland acres that are being converted to cropland and what that could mean for livestock producers. Photo by Carrie Stadheim

Are grasslands being converted to cropland at a faster pace than ever? If they are, how does that impact U.S. livestock production?

Those are questions U.S. conservation officials are not prepared to answer today. While Natural Resources Conservation Services officials do gather annual data related to grassland conversion, no comprehensive analysis of the data gathered between 2007 and 2012 is currently available to the public.

A government-mandated report analyzing grassland losses between 1997 and 2007 was released by the United States Department of Agriculture in September 2011, noting that about one percent of Northern Plains rangeland was converted to cropland during that 10-year period. The order for the report was couched in the 2008 Farm Bill.

“That report looked at incentives for converting grassland to crop production flowing from farm programs and how those incentives affect those conversion rates,” Roger Claassen, one of the report’s four authors and senior agricultural economist in the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS), said. “If a producer converts grassland to crop production they can increase the payment amount they’re eligible for under some government programs. What we found is that program incentives for crop insurance, marketing loan benefits and disaster assistance can encourage farmers to cultivate more land than they otherwise would. However, even though the effect of the programs is measurable, in regard to promotion of converting grassland to cropland, the influence is pretty modest.”

Concern about grassland conversion often focuses on “native” grassland. However, available conversion data doesn’t identify whether grasslands are “native” or “non-native.” Native grasslands are most likely to be categorized as part of rangeland. The USDA study considered a wide range of grassland categories including rangeland, pasture, hay, and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands with grass cover.

Grasslands once covered a larger share of the United States land area. In the 100 years spanning 1850 to 1950, an estimated 260 million acres of grassland was converted to other uses, most of which was cropland. In the 40 years between 1950 and 1990, an additional 27.2 million acres of grassland was lost, with 36 percent going to nonagricultural use.

As of 2007, approximately four percent of the tall-grass prairie that once covered large portions of Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Western Minnesota and Eastern Oklahoma and Texas remained. On the Eastern edge of the prairie (e.g. northern Illinois, Southern Iowa, northern Missouri, and parts of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas) the broad savannas and tall grasses once found there have been replaced almost entirely by cultivated crop production. Of the mixed-grass and short-grass prairie that once blanketed the High Plains (roughly the area west of the 100th meridian and east of the Rocky Mountains), remaining grassland ranges from 20-80 percent, depending on the State.

In the USDA report, it was noted that, between 1997 and 2007, compared with other regions, producers in the Northern Plains were more likely to convert grassland to cropland or retain land in crops rather than returning it to grass. Between 1997 and 2007, approximately 770,000 acres of Northern Plains rangeland was converted to crop production. During the same time period about 100,000 acres in the Northern Plains were converted from cropland to rangeland. The Northern Plains accounted for 57 percent of rangeland to cropland conversion between 1997 and 2007. In the United States as a whole, there was a net shift between 1997 and 2007 of roughly 10 million acres from cultivated cropland (about 3 percent of 1997 cropland) to hay or pasture. During that same time in the Northern Plains, the net shift of cropland to hay and pasture was effectively zero.

Through the CRP, during 1997 to 2007, Northern Plains producers moved some land from cultivated crops to grass. In that same time frame, they enrolled 3.6 million acres of cropland in the CRP, while 1.9 million acres were returned to crop production. An additional 1.7 million acres previously enrolled in CRP became hay, pasture or range between 1997 and 2007.

Among the concerns surrounding loss of grasslands in the Northern Plains, is changing breeding habitat for migratory birds. The Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) of the Northern Plains includes parts of Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana. Ducks are especially attracted to nesting areas in the grasslands near small wetlands or “potholes” found throughout the region. About half of all ducks born in North America come from the PPR. Other migratory birds dependent on Northern Plains native grasslands include the grasshopper sparrow, bobolink, Baird’s sparrow, northern harrier, horned lark, loggerhead shrike, and the lark sparrow.

“Vegetation such as grasses, forbs and other plants also thrive on the uncultivated land in the Northern Plains,” Claassen said. “Native grasslands support vertebrate animals, invertebrates and soil microorganisms important to native grassland habitats. Grasses can be reseeded, however, once land has been cultivated, the full diversity of these habitats is difficult to reestablish. CRP grasslands have been observed to support numerous bird species and CRP grasslands have been documented to increase duck and grassland bird populations.”

From a market perspective, value of grasslands is derived primarily from livestock forage. The value of native grass for wildlife habitat and other ecological services may be important to society at large but is more difficult for producers to measure in terms of overall profitability.

“New corn and soybean hybrids are increasingly drought resistant and offer herbicide tolerance, characteristics that may allow Northern Plains’ producers to respond to higher crop demand,” Claassen stated. “Even if historically high crop prices persist, crop insurance and disaster assistance programs could continue to influence producers’ land-use decisions. While these programs can be important risk management tools for farmers, they may also result in unintended, environmentally damaging actions.”

More information about the USDA study and its findings is available at