The federal government’s largest conservation program — by acres affected — plans to add an estimated 10 million more acres to the rolls through September.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday that $150 million in funding for the additional acres is available for agricultural producers through the Conservation Stewardship Program. The popular program helps producers who sign five-year contracts to improve the health and productivity of agricultural lands by boosting soil and air quality, conserving clean water and enhancing wildlife habitat.

Participants are paid for conservation performance. The higher the operational performance, the higher their payment.

There currently are 2,541 Conservation Stewardship Program contracts in Nebraska covering more than 4.9 million acres. In Iowa, there are 1,008 contracts covering 578,411 acres.

The USDA has provided more than $4 billion in assistance to the nation’s farmers, ranchers and forest managers to enhance conservation on more than 70 million acres under the program since 2009. A record 400 million acres across the nation are enrolled in all of the agency’s conservation programs.

Enrollment in federal conservation programs climbs and falls as farmers respond to commodity prices, climatalogical factors and other influences. Some programs — such as the Conservation Reserve Program — shrink as others expand.

Vilsack told The World-Herald that acres enrolled in the Conservation Stewardship Program don’t necessarily replace acres lost in other initiatives when farmers expand crop production.

Nationally, the Conservation Reserve Program — which pays farmers to take marginal and highly erodible land out of production and return it to grassland or other cover crops — has shrunk to nearly 24 million acres from 32 million acres in recent years. Nebraska has nearly 800,000 acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, down from a peak of more than 1.34 million in 2007.

Vilsack said that although the Conservation Reserve Program’s acreage has dwindled, the land currently enrolled may be the most important acres protected because of the nature of the land.

The Conservation Stewardship Program’s goal is to protect soil and water quality in slightly different ways, Vilsack said. Funding is available for more than 100 kinds of enhancements nationwide to help participants:

» improve soil quality through use of cover crops, conservation crop rotations and other activities that increase soil productivity.

» use water wisely and improve water quality through enhancements such as more efficient irrigation systems and weather monitoring.

» restore habitat for wildlife and pollinators such as the greater sage-grouse, lesser prairie-chicken and monarch butterfly through the use of better grazing systems and improved plant management.

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service accepts applications for the program throughout the year, but producers should submit applications by March 31 to a USDA service center to ensure that they are considered for enrollment this year.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1127, david.hendee@owh.com

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