The USDA is expected to announce a series of relief efforts to help American growers and ranchers hurt by the severe drought that has plagued much of the country – slashing hay output and leaving corn and soybean crops withering in bone-dry fields.
The announcement from the USDA will center on changes in disaster assistance to producers struggling with the drought by focusing on increasing their flexibility in the Conservation Reserve Program – a program that pays producers an annual rent for taking fragile land out of production – and within the department’s authority to provide emergency loans.
The first half of the year was the country’s warmest on record, with thousands of new high temperatures set so far, according to government data. The national temperature in 2012 has averaged was 52.9°, 1.2° above the next-warmest year in 2006. The unusually warm conditions have placed more than half of the country in a drought, the highest in a century.
Sen. John Thune, R-SD, asked USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in a letter to release land from the reserve program for emergency haying and grazing in South Dakota, which currently has more than 1.1 million acres enrolled in the program. “Due to the scope and magnitude of 2012 drought and high heat conditions, hay supplies are exceptionally limited in the states surrounding South Dakota as well, making it even more urgent to allow access to CRP haying and grazing within the state’s boundaries,” Thune said in the Tuesday letter.
“Timely availability of additional pasture and hay is (livestock producers’) immediate concern and utmost need, or many will be forced to liquidate part or all of their herds of sheep and cattle,” he said.
An estimated 29.6 million acres are currently enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program with contracts for 6.5 million acres set to expire on Sept. 30, 2012. Congress has a cap in place that limits the number of acres allowed in the program to 32 million. The program normally requires reserve land to be kept off limits to haying and grazing.
The program is highly popular with conservation and sporting groups in several Midwestern states such as Iowa and South Dakota because the idled land reduces erosion and provides wildlife habitat. But livestock producers have pushed for the land reserve to be cut, in order to increase crop production and potentially reduce the cost of feed.
The USDA was given the authority to operate five disaster assistance programs in the 2008 Farm Bill, but the authority expired on Sept. 30, 2011. The relief to be announced on Wednesday will be made to existing USDA programs. Vilsack has urged Congress to pass a new farm law to restore the department’s disaster assistance authority.
“Letters like the one from Thune; we are seeing letters like that from other folks asking what can we do to provide assistance,” said Matt Herrick, a spokesman for the USDA.”I think the message is that the secretary is looking to provide assistance to producers using existing authority.”
The Midwest in particular has been ravaged recently by record-breaking 100°-plus temperatures and widespread drought conditions that have hurt hay output for livestock producers and threaten to affect the country’s massive corn crop.
“We’re hearing that the second crop cuttings of hay have been very meager and with corn prices moving 40% to 45 % higher in the last month, clearly the cost of maintaining livestock has skyrocketed,” said Dave Miller, director of research and commodity services for the Iowa Farm Bureau. “We’re happy to see the action” from USDA,” he said.
The USDA said on Monday the percentage of the country’s corn crop rated good to excellent fell from 48% a week ago to 40% through Sunday as a week of 100° temperatures and no rainfall took its toll. Corn rated poor and very poor totaled 18% in Iowa and 48% in Illinois, the top two U.S. producers.