OMAHA (DTN) -- Federal lawmakers may need to look no further than expanding drought conditions in South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana to understand how important the Conservation Reserve Program is to farmers and ranchers.
The expanding drought in those states and how the CRP fits in to help producers meet growing needs for hay took center stage Thursday during a U.S. Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee hearing on conservation's role in the 2018 farm bill.
In recent weeks, USDA took actions to allow emergency grazing on CRP land in those states.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told a panel of USDA representatives on Thursday that, though the help is much appreciated, farmers and ranchers in those areas need more.
"Only 9% of South Dakota is not suffering from drought," he said. "That shows how important the CRP is. So much more needs to be done. USDA opening additional counties for emergency grazing helps. I would ask that you do as much as you can to provide additional assistance. There are going to be real, serious hay and feed shortages out there."
According to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map, nearly all of southwestern North Dakota is in extreme drought, while much of north-central South Dakota faces severe to extreme drought. All of North Dakota is experiencing at least some level of drought. (http://bit.ly/…)
"I don't know how it can get much worse for ranchers out there," said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. "I urge you to go to the limit."
Misty Jones, director of the conservation and environmental programs division at the Farm Service Agency, said the agency is using its discretion to potentially allow hay donations from CRP lands.
In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue earlier this week, Thune questioned USDA's CRP mid-contract management requirement for farmers and ranchers to destroy usable hay instead of donating to needy producers. (http://bit.ly/…)
"It makes no sense for USDA to simultaneously offer assistance to livestock producers through emergency grazing on CRP acres in drought-impacted areas and then require hay to be destroyed from land enrolled under certain CRP practices," Thune said in the letter on Tuesday.
"These CRP participants are being required to destroy hundreds, if not thousands, of tons of hay that could otherwise be used for livestock feed in drought-stricken areas of the state," Thune wrote.
NEW USDA STEPS
USDA authorized emergency grazing of CRP acres on June 23 during the primary nesting season in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana in the counties meeting D2 or higher classification of drought conditions, as indicated by the U.S. Drought Monitor.
On Thursday, USDA authorized emergency grazing of CRP for any county in which any part of its border lies within 150 miles of a county approved for emergency grazing of CRP.
Also, according to a USDA news release, in those same additional counties approved for emergency grazing of CRP, USDA will allow CRP contract holders who hay their acreage according to their mid-management conservation plan to donate their hay to livestock producers.
USDA said that CRP contract holders still have the ability to sell their hay with a 25% reduction in their annual rental payment.
"Emergency haying is not authorized at this time," USDA said. "The secretary will continue to monitor conditions and will consider expanding emergency authority if conditions worsen."
DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Mike Palmerino said drought conditions continue to worsen in the Northern Plains.
"The crop that is of most concern right now is clearly spring wheat," he said.
"Crop conditions deteriorated significantly during the past few weeks in South Dakota and Montana due to some very hot conditions, accompanied by very dry conditions. The latest drought monitor is showing extreme drought, classification three out of four intensity, over western North Dakota, north-central South Dakota and northeastern portions of Montana. I'm also pretty sure, looking at that information, that dryness is also extending up into the Prairies, especially right now southwestern Saskatchewan."
As for the extended outlook, Palmerino said conditions do not appear to be improving in the Northern Plains and the southern Canadian Prairies.
"It looks like they will be under dry conditions or just a few light showers during the next seven to 10 days," he said. "And it also looks like we're going to be looking at some surges of hot weather. The hot weather will move back and forth a little bit, it looks like the farther west you go, the more persistent the heat will be over the next week to 10 days, so areas like Montana, western North Dakota, southern Alberta, southwestern Saskatchewan, those areas could be looking at quite a bit of temperatures in the 90s with little rainfall here in the next week to 10 days."
In a down agriculture economy, there have been calls from Midwestern lawmakers, farm groups and others to expand the CRP acres cap currently at 24 million acres. The hope for CRP expansion, however, may knock heads with the reality of expected budget cuts.
Steve Horning, a corn, soybean and wheat farmer in Watertown, South Dakota, said the current CRP cap and rules are hurting the ability of farmers and ranchers to expand practices.
Horning said he has seen about 75% of his CRP applications approved historically -- until the 49th CRP signup in 2016.
"I was zero for six in my applications," he told the committee. "In fact, the whole state of South Dakota only had two contracts approved for a total of 101 acres. There were over 43,000 acres offered. This was one of the worst acceptance rates in the country. I would ask that you take a serious look at the CRP cap and how landowners can sign up."
In addition, he said there are concerns about some of the requirements in CRP contracts. Every four to five years, farmers and ranchers are required to do prescribed burns, mow, bale and destroy CRP grasses.
"I suggest instead of you paying me cost-share to waste the grass, you let me hay it and use it for livestock feed," he said.
Because of drought conditions in 2012, Horning said, he was allowed to hay some of his easement ground. As a result, he has neighbors asking every year to hay his CRP ground, he said.
Horning said he'd like to see changes to the CRP that would allow him to sell hay instead of disposing of it, and to then receive a reduction in his CRP payment to reflect the value of the grass.
Editor's Note: DTN Associate Managing Editor Elaine Shein contributed to this story.
Todd Neeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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