Feds open grasslands for haying and grazing

Staff and wire reports

The federal government is making it cheaper for ranchers to use about 209,000 acres of protected land in Curry County for grazing and haying this year.

Federal Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said Tuesday that high crop prices and tight food supplies have increased the demand for farm land. The livestock industry has been the hardest hit, with soaring feed costs and fewer acres for grazing, he said.

The Conservation Reserve Program, which started in 1985, pays landowners to idle environmentally sensitive land for conservation. Farmers are paid to plant cover, such as grass, on the land.

Rhonda Mitchell of the Curry County Farm Service Agency said she expects more ranchers to use their CRP land for grazing and haying this year because of a one-time $75 fee.

In previous years, CRP landowners would forfeit 25 percent of what the Department of Agriculture pays them per acre to graze the land, Mitchell said. The USDA pays about $35 an acre for farmland in Curry County, she said.

A restriction that allows ranchers to graze on land every three years is also being lifted this year.

“Normally the participation is pretty light,” she said. “This year we’re expecting a high turnout because its going to be economically more feasible.”

She said she expects more than 20 ranchers to sign up to graze on the farmland, which is the most the Curry County agency has had.

The sign-up date for the program is Monday. Farmers can graze and hay CRP-enrolled farmland from July 2 through Nov. 10.

The government’s move Tuesday has its critics. Kevin Kading, private lands coordinator for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said disturbing CRP land will have an impact on wildlife, which has flourished under the program and has been a boon for hunters.

“There are many reasons we don’t want to see this going away — this is just one more thing compromising the program,” he said.

Landowners received about $1.9 billion from the CRP last year. It pays a nationwide average of about $50 per acre annually.

In mid-April, there were 34.6 million acres enrolled in the CRP, down about 2 million from a year ago, the USDA said. The program currently is authorized at 39.2 million acres, or about 10 percent of U.S. crop land.

Schafer said more than 24 million acres of land enrolled in CRP will be eligible for haying and grazing under the move announced Tuesday. It will make available about 18 million tons of forage worth $1.2 billion, he said.

“It’s a positive step, and we applaud the secretary of agriculture for recognizing the need,” said Bill Roenigk, chairman of Alliance for Agriculture Growth and Competitiveness, a group representing beef, poultry, pork, grain and feed industries.

The group has been unsuccessfully lobbying the Agriculture Department since 2005 to allow landowners to pull out of CRP contracts without penalty.

“It offers greater options for haying and grazing, but it should go beyond that, and allow people to come of out CRP early if they want to, to plant crops,” Roenigk said of Schafer’s announcement.

Schafer said he still plans to make a decision in August or September on whether to allow “penalty-free release of land” for the 2009 crop year.

The most vulnerable CRP land is not eligible for the haying and grazing program, which is in effect this year only, Schafer said. Grazing on the land this year must be completed by Nov. 10, and only one cutting of hay is allowed on it.

The USDA has allowed emergency haying on CRP land in North Dakota and other states due to drought in other years. CRP payments were reduced if the land is opened to haying and grazing during drought years, though ranchers typically pay farmers the percentage of lost income for allowing use of the land.

On the Net:

Conservation Reserve Program: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/crp