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USDA To Boost Wildlife Habitat, Trim Cropland

Date: 02-Mar-10
Country: US
Author: Charles Abbott

USDA To Boost Wildlife Habitat, Trim Cropland Photo: U.S. Forest Service
A wild bison and her eight-day-old calf are seen at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge outside Denver August 6, 2009.
Photo: U.S. Forest Service

WASHINGTON - The federal government will maximize enrollment in the land-idling Conservation Reserve, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a policy that would reduce U.S. cropland by 1.5 percent if successful.

The amount of land involved, around 5 million acres, could produce more than 150 million bushels of wheat, 200 million bushels of soybeans or 700 million bushels of corn, based on recent abandonment rates and the Agriculture Department's projected yields for the three crops this year.

Growers planted 320 million acres to the principal U.S. crops of grains, cotton, oilseeds, hay, tobacco, potatoes and sugarcane in 2009, says USDA.

Some 31.2 million acres are enrolled in the reserve at present with contracts for 4.5 million acres to expire on September 30. With the expirations, enrollment would be more than 5 million acres below the 32 million-acre ceiling set by the 2008 farm law.

Over the weekend, Vilsack announced the Agriculture Department would try to add 300,000 acres to the reserve for wildlife habitat and would give all landowners a chance to enroll land. Dates and other details of the "general signup" will be announced after an environmental impact statement is completed, he said.

"It is my goal to ensure that we maximize enrollment -- and holding a general signup is an additional step we can take to enroll acres in this program," said Vilsack on Saturday to a sportsmen's convention in Iowa.

Created in 1985, the reserve pays an annual rent to owners who agree to idle fragile cropland for 10 years or longer. Offers are examined for benefits in reduced erosion and improved air quality, water purity and wildlife habitat and the cost. Average rental payment is $53 an acre.

The Agriculture Department faces potentially large turnover in Conservation Reserve. Besides the 4.5 million acres in contracts that expire on September 30, contracts on 4.4 million acres expire on September 30, 2011, and 6.5 million acres on September 30, 2013.

(Editing by Leslie Adler)

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