Cropland Expansion

When native grasslands or sagebrush are converted into annual row crops or hay, we lose fertile soils and valuable habitat.

Cultivating native range comes at a high cost...

Cropland expansion is increasing in lands that are important wildlife habitat.

Most of the best land for growing crops has already been converted from grasslands to cropland. The native rangeland that's left is not ideal for crops, but these grass and shrub lands provide critical habitat for wildlife and for producers who graze livestock. When those lands are cultivated, the costs to wildlife and grazing economies often outweigh the benefits.

The examples below highlight these impacts when cultivation replaces native range.

Southwest Kansas

Center pivot irrigation is transforming native range.

More than 500 square miles of prairie near Lakin was converted to crops irrigated by center pivot sprinklers.

  • W101.101, N37.915
  • 506 sq. miles
Historical imagery shows native Kansas prairie prior to conversion to cropland.Modern imagery shows the impacts of crop expansion and groundwater withdrawal in Kansas.

Over half of America’s prairies have been turned into cropland, like this example in Kansas. Every year, one million acres of native grasslands in the U.S. is converted to cropland. This means that we’re tilling up 4 football-fields worth of rangelands each minute, according to the World Wildlife Fund’s Plowprint Report.

While growing food is certainly vital, most of the prairie or sagebrush that’s converted these days is marginal quality for growing row crops. That same rangeland, however, may be more profitable for raising livestock.

Rangelands evolved hand-in-hand with herds of grazing animals like bison, deer, elk and pronghorn. These animals’ hooves create pockets for new plants to take seed, and their constant grazing promotes leaves and stems to grow. Livestock can serve the same ecological purpose, when grazed sustainably. Plus, wildlife and livestock can roam together through diverse, healthy, native plants.

Several Farm Bill programs help landowners keep grasslands and shrublands "green side up”. The USDA's Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to take cropland out of production and plant perennial grasses instead. And the Environmental Quality Incentives Program helps landowners create profitable, wildlife-friendly livestock grazing lands.

North Dakota Badlands

Critical habitats lost to crops.

Prairie potholes and the birds that depend on them disappear when grasslands are converted.

  • W101.593, N47.459
  • 9 sq. miles
Modern imagery from North Dakota shows how crops have exapnded and how prairie potholes have been drained for agriculture.

The northern Great Plains is renowned for its potholes—small ponds, marshes or wetlands that are fed by snowmelt and rain. These shallow wetlands support more than 50 percent of North America’s migratory waterfowl. Prairie potholes like the ones pictured above also reduce the risk of property flooding, since they absorb surges of rain or snowmelt.

Sadly, potholes dry up when water is diverted to crops, as this example shows. An estimated 40-50% of America’s productive prairie wetlands have been drained or destroyed due to agricultural and commercial development.

When grasslands and shrublands are uprooted, we also lose precious soil carbon stores and contribute to climate change. Worldwide, 12 percent of terrestrial carbon stocks are stored in rangelands. Agricultural practices that keep plants on the ground year-round—like no-till farming, planting cover crops, or sod-saving programs—are a great way to conserve water and soil on America’s rangelands.

Central Great Basin, Nevada

Converting marginal lands for crops like hay has high costs to wildlife and water.

Rangeland was tilled for hay crops, drying up seasonal streams and destroying sagebrush habitat.

  • W115.993, N39.688
  • 36 sq. miles
Historical imagery shows intact sagebrush range in the Great Basin area of Nevada.Modern imagery shows how native sagebrush has been converted to crops growing hay.

In rocky sagebrush country like the valley pictured here, rangeland is typically converted into hay for cattle. Nevada’s native plants are adapted to living without much water. But non-native crops require irrigation to survive the state’s extremely arid climate.

Each pivot sprinkler shown above irrigates a quarter-mile of crops. This diminishes the amount of water available on the surrounding landscape. Notice that the historical creeks and washes on the right half of the image disappeared after the land was converted to irrigated crops.

Sagebrush landscapes and prairies may look unassuming from above—but that’s because all the action is happening underground. Four times more biomass grows below ground than above. The deep, fibrous roots of perennial plants (like wildflowers, bunchgrasses, or sagebrush) are underground forests that stockpile carbon, cycle nutrients in the soils, and store freshwater. When tractors turn over the soil to plant crops, all of these ecological processes are disrupted.

Conservation in Action

Success Stories

The Burke Family’s long partnership with NRCS has led to better forage for livestock and wildlife and, in 2017, their ranch was protected in perpetuity through a NRCS-supported conservation easement.

Learn how one producer worked with the NRCS to turn expired CRP lands into profitable grazing lands that support wildlife while producing income for the ranch and local community.

Learn more about cropland expansion and how YOU can help!

Because so much of our grasslands have already been converted to crops, most of the remaining native habitat is marginal quality for farming, providing limited returns for farmers and a big loss for wildlife.

Learn more about the impacts of cropland conversion and the conservation solutions that keep our range "green side up" below.