Now is a good time for row crop farmers to evaluate their croplands for enrolling crop borders in the new quail/wildlife buffer practice of the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program available through USDA's Farm Service Agency.

Arkansas has a 12,000-acre cap for farmers to enroll cropland field edges into the conservation practice entitled CP33-Upland Habitat for Birds. Currently only about 2,500 acres are enrolled, but as more and more farmers find out about this new income and conservation opportunity, more are enrolling.

The purpose of the practice is to establish a native warm-season grass border around row-cropped fields to develop habitat for quail, rabbits, and grassland songbirds. Other wildlife benefits received from establishing the grass buffers include providing bugging, loafing and nesting habitat for turkey and bedding areas for deer.

Farmers can easily determine if crops around the edge of fields are low-yielding, prone to drought, hard to irrigate, or have reduced growth rates because of forest edges shading and pulling soil moisture out of the field.

Comparing crop height and growth in the middle of the field to the edges is a good way this time of year to determine areas that are not very productive.

CP33 offers per-acre soil rental payments to farmers each year under a 10-year contract along with an upfront one-time signing incentive payment (SIP) of $100 per acre. Many farmers are signing up field edges after evaluating yield differences between the crop edge and interior of the field.

Farmers also receive a 50 percent cost-share along with a 40 percent practice incentive payment (PIP) for planting the native warm-season grasses. The two incentives together cover approximately 90 percent of the cost to establish the grasses.

Arkansas Game and Fish Commission regional offices make native warm-season grass planters available to farmers at no cost to plant the specialty grasses. Farmers should contact the AGFC regional office closest to their lands to reserve planters a couple of weeks prior to planting.

How much and how does FSA determine the soil rental payment for farmers enrolling? Every soil on a farmer's land has been assigned a rental rate based on productivity of that soil. In Arkansas, rental rates vary from a low of around $23 per acre up to $80 or more. A maintenance payment of $4 per acre is added to the base soil rental rate.

Native grass buffers for quail and other wildlife under CP33 may range from 30 feet to 120 feet in width. The wider the better for wildlife, and we recommend that farmers consider going out the full 120 feet.

For farmers raising dryland soybeans and other non-irrigated crops, the CRP rental payment often provides more income than income from the crop.

All cropland edges which have a cropping history four out of the six years from 1996 to 2001 qualify for CP33. Farmers may go to FSA offices to sign up. Unlike the regular CRP, farmers do not compete to get in the program. If they met the basic cropping history, they may enroll.

Management once grasses are established is very important to keep the grass buffer a premium wildlife habitat. FSA offers a 50 percent cost-share for periodic management activities such as light strip-disking, inter-seeding legumes, and prescribed burning of the native grass buffers, usually on a year-year rotation.

Without a periodic disturbance, the grass stands become too thick and build a layer of dead plant materials that makes them unsuitable for quail and other grassland birds.

This practice can do at least four things for farmers.

First, it allows marginally profitable cropland to receive rental payments which can increase the farmer's bottom line.

Second, it creates premium wildlife habitat while taking only small amounts of cropland out of production for a 10-year period while providing recreational hunting opportunities for the family and friends. A quail buffer 120 feet wide and 0.25 mile long covers only 3.6 acres of cropland but reaps huge benefits to the farmer.

Third, installing buffers on the farm now helps farm producers qualify for higher stewardship Tier III payments when the Conservation Security Program comes to his watershed.

Fourth, establishing buffers helps keep soil on the farm and improves water quality in adjoining rivers and streams.

A farmers can sign up at the Farm Service Agency office in the country where his cropland is located.

Additional information about CP33 and restoring quail and other wildlife on the farm can be received from AGFC regional private lands biologists by calling the following toll-free numbers: Brinkley, (877) 734-4581; Camden, (877) 836-4612; Jonesboro, (877) 972-5438; Monticello, (877) 367-3559; Hope, (877) 777-5580; Hot Springs, (877) 525-8606; Ft. Smith, (877) 478-1043; Russellville, (877) 967-7577; Calico Rock, (877) 297-4331; Little Rock, (877) 470-3650.