If you’ve got expired CRP acres that you intend to use as pasture or hay, those acres often need several preparation steps before they meet growers’ needs. These include remove old litter, thicken stands, and develop fence and water.
The fastest and most effective way to remove dead litter and thicken grass stands is with prescribed burning in the spring. Obviously, only use fire where it can be handled safely and legally, and where it won't cause other potential problems like wind erosion. Local extension and NRCS offices have assistance and more information available.
Another way to reduce dead litter is by haying, if you haven’t already done so as permitted in some situations. This can be challenging if the terrain is rough or the amount of dead growth is great or if pocket gophers have built many mounds that plug equipment. Hay removed with much litter will have low forage quality and will need both protein and energy supplements to feed it to livestock.
Better yet might be a technique called "flog grazing". Flog grazing involves placing a large number of cows on a small area for a brief time period, usually one to seven days. With high stock density, animals trample dead litter into the ground and open the soil for new seedlings and tillers.
You can get a similar result by using your CRP as a calving pasture, getting the trampling, the nutrient recycling, and excellent bedding all at the same time.
Regarding water in these CRP pastures, plentiful, reliable, good quality water is essential for grazing livestock. Without good water, it doesn't matter how effective other grazing management practices might be.
And location is important when it comes to water. Cattle resist traveling far from water. They graze very little when more than a half mile away from water in rough country or a mile away on flat land. Under 1,000 feet is the ideal. If they do travel far for water, they spend less time grazing, they burn off pounds walking, and they graze distant areas incompletely.
Poor water distribution also transfers nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients as manure and urine are deposited near water sites or along the path to water. Nutrients in these deposits are concentrated and wasted in areas with little grass. A more even distribution of these deposits would grow more grass.
How can you improve your water distribution? More ponds, windmills, wells, and dugouts will help, but they can get expensive. Plus, they can only be placed in certain locations and can’t be moved. So my preference often is to use a pipeline. They can be put almost anywhere. And water lines are less expensive than you might think. Most folks can get pipe and frost-proof trenching for less than 1 dollar/foot, especially if you can get cost-share funds. You also can leave your pipe on top of the ground, saving trenching costs, if you only need water during the growing season.
Over time, these water improvements pay for themselves with better grass and improved animal performance.
Bottomline: if hay or pasture use is planned for your CRP after the contract expires, get it in shape ahead of time. You’ll be glad you did.