SDSU Survey on Land Use Decisions Highlights Role of Grasslands Back »


Figure 1. A Deuel County, SD native pasture is prepared for conversion to cropland as rocks are dug and removed.

Written collaboratively by Pete Bauman and Larry Janssen.


SDSU Economist Larry Janssen and co-authors recently published the results of a survey conducted in the spring of 2015 on land use decision making by producers. The focus area for the survey was the Prairie Pothole Region of Eastern South Dakota (37 counties) and Eastern North Dakota (20 counties). They received a total of 1,026 survey responses (36% response rate), and published their key findings in the SDSU Economics Commentator Newsletter - No. 557.

Grassland Conversion: An overview

The issue of land use and grassland conversion to croplands remains a central topic in the agriculture and natural resources arenas. Generally speaking, grassland conversion is described in two primary ways, the first being conversion…or re-conversion…of ‘tame’ grasslands such as Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres and old tame grass hayfields and pastures to row-crop agriculture. The second type is the conversion of truly native (virgin) grasslands and pastures to cropping. While both types of conversion result in a overall net loss of grass and grass like cover, the former generally reflects the ebb and flow of previous cropland use over time while the latter reflects a true loss of an irreplaceable natural resource in the present day.

Cropland increasing throughout region

While not explicitly stated in the report, it appears that the majority of the respondents’ focus was crop farming, with about 71% of the average land base of the respondents reported as cropland, leading one to assume that the grassland acres in many operations were likely not a primary focus of the business. This assumption is generally supported by the types agricultural operations that dominate the broad region of the survey, but may not accurately reflect local grass-dominated regions nested within the larger survey area where culture or topography trend more toward grass or cattle-based operations (such as the hilly Prairie Coteau region of Eastern South Dakota or the sandy Sheyenne Delta area of Eastern North Dakota). Keeping those minor nuances in mind, the survey results are quite telling. Some of the survey highlights are as follows:

  • Producers are operating more cropland than 10 yrs ago in this region.
  • Nearly 90% of the respondents raised corn and/or soybeans each of the last 10 years.
  • Nearly half of respondents have increased use of no-till in the last 10 years.
  • Most respondents perceived that grassland acres in their neighborhoods have decreased in the last 10 years.
  • On average, overall grass to crop conversion rate across the study area was 7.2%. Comparatively, North Dakota converted more CRP to cropland while South Dakota converted more tame grass pastures/hayfields and native grasslands to crop production.

The participation of individuals in land conversion to grass and from grass can be complex. For instance:

  • Fourteen percent (14%) of respondents were involved in a one-way system, only converting cropland back to grass. Many of these respondents were involved in new CRP contracts, which convert cropland acres to grass cover.
  • Conversely, 26% of respondents were only involved in one-way decisions of converting grasslands to cropland. When compared to the above, this would result in a net 12% respondent action toward grassland cover loss. Unfortunately, how much of this grassland conversion was actually native or virgin sod versus some type of tame grass cannot be accurately determined. In addition, total acres converted back to grass was less than one third of those acres converted from grass to cropland.
  • Overall, 40% of respondents participated in some type of grassland to cropland conversion. Of those converted acres, about 63% were CRP acres while 37% were non-CRP (likely a mix of tame grass hayfields and pastures and native grasslands).
  • Finally, the authors report that 14% of respondents participated in two-way actions, converting grasslands to cropland and cropland to grasslands.

Two-way grassland conversion

A common two-way conversion scenario over the last 10 years would include CRP contracts on certain tracts may have expired while other tracts on the same farm were enrolled or re-enrolled in a conservation program. The drivers of participation in conservation programs can be variable, and perhaps this statistic best reflects the volatile nature of commodity and conservation markets over time and space. In some instances producers may be encouraged to remove tame or native grassy cover based on short-term economic return while perhaps returning to grassy cover as crop and livestock markets change and conservation program payments or opportunities increase.

On one hand this grass-in grass-out management method could be considered a simple rotation of grass as another crop on established cropland. On the other hand, if the grass-out practices removed truly native grasslands from the system in order to gain more cropland there are additional ecological consequences that must be considered such as permanent loss of native grassland biodiversity, wind and water erosion, etc.

Most respondents who made grass to crop conversion decisions were managers of larger operations and were under 60 years old. Not surprisingly, changing crop prices were the single greatest factor in land use decisions, followed by input costs and yield results. Weather conditions played a lesser role in overall decision making across the region, but were a primary factor for some individuals.

What the future holds?

This report not only highlights what has taken place over the last 10 years, but also attempts to capture respondents’ views of future land use trends. When asked about their own operations, respondents indicated that fewer plan to convert native or tame grass to cropland in the next 10 years while more plan to return cropland to grass or pasture. However, when asked about their view of their neighborhoods, 68% did not expect to see major changes in the grassland matrix in the next 10 years, while 26% indicated they expected continued grassland loss. Only 6% were optimistic about increased grassland acres.

Overall, this report may well reflect the general management of grasslands in the Northern Great Plains as a put-and-take system of conservation, cover, habitat, and livestock forage. This management approach is, at least in part, driven by markets and supported by short-term conservation programs offered by various agencies. It is important to note that most conservation programs do not support the inclusion of recently converted native grasslands.

Within this overall conversion matrix remains the impact to native grasslands and pastures. Direct conversion of these native acres results in a true net ecological loss that cannot be replaced. In many cases, these acres were not converted historically due to topography, soils, rocks, or their propensity for water and wind erosion. Those same considerations should apply to land use decisions today….even in high commodity markets.

The consequences of converting grass to cropland are more obvious in low markets and are captured in the desire of some of the respondents to return acres to grass over the next 10 years. Hopefully, the last 10 years will serve as a cautionary reminder to private land managers in the Prairie Pothole region of the Eastern Dakotas to consider retention of grassland acres within their operations and to explore how those acres can offer long-term financial stability that may offset the volatility of commodity markets.

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