Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) signups start in one month, but economic pressures could be tempting many farmers to choose crops rather than conservation, says Paul Kassel, Iowa State University Extension field agronomist. "With grain prices and land prices as high as they are now, the economic situation may be causing farmers to return any retiring CRP acres into corn and soybean production," says Kassel. "However, before farmers do so, they need to make sure they have a realistic yield expectation. Former CRP ground typically has less yield potential than other land, due to soil type."

Kent Politsch, UDSA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) public affairs branch chief, confirms that last year's CRP re-enrollment has lagged since contracts expired in September. During 2011, 4.4 million CRP contract acres expired, 2.7 million acres were either re-enrolled or newly enrolled, leaving 1.4 million fewer CRP acres at the start of 2012 that could be planted to crops, he states. However, new CRP general signups are being scheduled between March 12 and April 6 that could make up for that deficit, he adds.

Still, the 6.5 million CRP acres set to expire this year, plus the 1.4-million-acre CRP deficit leftover from last year, represents nearly one-fourth of the 32-million national CRP enrollment cap, according to FSA data. With the sheer volume of CRP acres still in question this year, the impact on corn, soybean and wheat markets, this year and next, could be significant, says Chad Hart, Iowa State University agricultural economist. He adds that these markets are already highly volatile, due to current global uncertainties about stocks, weather scares, and crop size for 2012 and beyond.

"The bulk of the CRP land is in the Great Plains," points out Hart. "Both Texas and North Dakota will each have more than 800,000 acres come out in September 2012," he says. "So, the first crop that CRP might go into would be wheat, not corn. In these states, we might see the Wheat Belt shift a few counties farther west and the Corn and Soybean Belt might also shift a couple counties farther west."

In addition, more than 200,000 CRP acres will expire in Nebraska, more than 230,000 acres in Iowa, nearly 300,000 acres in Minnesota and more than 500,000 acres in Kansas this September, according to FSA. By comparison, relatively few CRP acres are set to expire in eastern Corn Belt states like Illinois (111,000 acres), Indiana (36,000 acres) and Ohio (27,000 acres).

Regardless of the areain which you farm, good planning and forethought are essential prior to converting CRP acres to cropland, says Mahdi Al-Kaisi, Iowa State University Extension soil management specialist. "Before you break open CRP land to grow crops, remember that there is a good reason that this land was put into CRP in the first place," says Al-Kaisi. "It’s likely to be highly erodible land or land that is near sensitive watersheds, or both. So, if you’re going to do this, a lot of planning needs to be done beforehand."

Farmers should consider contacting their local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office to help develop a conservation plan on the land before they do anything else, advises Al-Kaisi. "The NRCS will be able to help you plan where to put grass waterways, contours and filter strips to minimize erosion, protect water quality and maintain wildlife habitat," he says. "To maintain soil health, I would also advise using no-till. Strip-till might also work if the slope of the field will allow it. The main goal is to do as little soil disturbance as possible. Another goal is to have as much residue on the surface as manageable to keep the soil in place."

Soil testing should also be done prior to planting, advises Al-Kaisi. "Nitrogen (N) tests are essential every year for corn production and adequate phosphorus and potassium levels are critical for both corn and soybean production," he says. "If you start with soybeans, you won’t have to worry about applying N like you would with corn. However, you’ll probably need to use a rhizobia inoculant for soybeans."

Former CRP ground is loaded with good nutrients and good organic matter, he adds. "It will be good soil for either crop (corn or soybeans) and should be productive initially," says Al-Kaisi. "However, with improper management, the productivity of the soil will decline fairly quickly. So, make sure you start out with a good fertility program. The best thing to do is get the soil tested right away to check your field’s soil nutrient status."