Cost-share programs may lessen financial burden on costly farm improvements
Many farmers and ranchers may avoid costly improvements to resources and conservation because of the financial burden.
However, Bill Vodehnal, a wildlife biologist with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and Brad Soncksen, a soil conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), show producers how to obtain funding that could help pay for some of these improvements.
“We are all stewards of the land,” Vodehnal tells producers. “Everything we do has an impact on the landscape and how it responds.”
“I like to think wildlife acts as the barometer. It is the key to how we impact the grasses and the landscape,” he says.
“We have a mission to improve habitat conditions by fostering an action-oriented sense of responsibility for the health of the habitat,” he continues. “We not only offer dollars to the people making the improvements, but we also offer our wisdom in terms of developing conservation plans and resource management systems.”
“I like to look at NRCS cost-share programs as tools in the toolbox,” Soncksen adds. “NRCS also offers some other tools, like technical assistance.”
To utilize cost-share programs from either agency, producers must be prepared to engage in planning.
“As an agency, it is important to us to do planning on an individual basis because every place is different. We have range conservationists and staff in the field that can help each producer come up with their individual plan,” Soncksen explains. “We also want to make sure the plan is completed prior to the producer filling out an application for funding, so we know what we are trying to fund.”
Planning takes into account environmental, social, economic and management strategies.
The first step of the process is collection and analysis, which evaluates the producer’s objectives, the practices selected and the options available. These factors help the producer make a decision of what practices will be used to treat the problem.
NRCS offers several options of cost-share programs to help producers make improvements. The most popular is the EQIP program (Environmental Quality Incentives Program), which envelopes most resource concerns, Soncksen says.
“It offers financial and technical assistance for practices like water and water storage facilities, grazing management, cover crops, seasonal high tunnels and nutrient or pest management. It also helps producers fund the formation of terraces, diversions, grade stabs, waterways, no till, windbreaks and shelter belts, as well as sprinkler system,” he says.
The EQIP program has a continuous sign up period, and to qualify, producers must submit an application through one of the Nebraska field offices or online.
“In Nebraska, we use a ranking process to determine which applications we will fund,” Soncksen says. “We fund about one of every four applications we receive.”
Another popular program is the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which helps producers maintain and improve their existing conservation programs and adopt new ones.
“It is the largest conservation program in the U.S., with 70 million acres of productive agricultural and forest land enrolled,” Soncksen says. “It’s a very popular program.”
“In Nebraska alone, over 5 million acres have been enrolled. Participants earn CSP payments for conservation performance. The higher the performance, the higher the payment,” he adds.
Even producers with sound conservation programs can benefit. With over 70 options and 200 enhancements, anyone can find something they can use to improve their existing system, he comments.
“CSP participants are seeing real results,” Soncksen says. “Some of these benefits include improved cattle gains per acre, increased crop yields, decreased inputs, wildlife population improvements and better resilience to weather extremes.”
NRCS also offers easement programs, like the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), which has an agricultural land easement component and a wetland reserve easement. The wetlands component provides habitat for fish and wildlife, while improving water quality, biological diversity and opportunities for educational, scientific and recreational activities.
Vodehnal says the Nebraska Game and Parks also offers programs like the Partners for the Fish and Wildlife program, which is a voluntary private lands habitat rehabilitation program that assists landowners with grassland and wetland habitat restoration and enhancement.
The Nebraska Natural Legacy Project and the Enhancing Prairie Grouse Habitat in eastern Nebraska are two grassland-related initiatives designed to benefit grassland-dependent wildlife and other species, Vodehnal says.
These projects, funded by federal and state grants, are designed to restore grassland while improving quality and quantity of forage.
“I feel we should manage Nebraska as a prairie state,” Vodehnal says. “We need to manage the state for grassland birds and prairie species. It’s also important to manage our existing grasslands and establish new grasses.”
“Currently, only one percent of our tall grass prairie is still intact, while 60 percent of the mixed grass prairie and 60 percent of the short grass prairie is still intact. Most people think we are in pretty good shape, but the quality within those grasslands has declined,” he says. “We are dealing with not only the amount of grassland we have out there but what it looks like from a wildlife standpoint.”
Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to email@example.com.