By Ross Markman
Agriculture producers on the Hi-Line can open their Conservation Reserve Program acreage for emergency grazing.
Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman announced Wednesday that ranchers in seven Western states, including Montana, can move cattle back onto CRP land. Producers in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wyoming are also permitted to open CRP land to grazing.
Hill County is one of 14 counties in Montana authorized for emergency grazing. Others include Blaine, Chouteau, Judith Basin and Liberty counties. Mired in four years of drought, north-central Montana has been rated as an "exceptional drought" area the first in the nation classified as such this year.
Participating cattlemen are permitted to graze CRP acreage through Aug. 31 or until the FSA state committee or local county committees say emergency grazing is no longer warranted.
The CRP program pays farmers and ranchers to not use portions of their land that are susceptible to erosion. In Hill County, the USDA's Farm Service Agency pays landowners $38 an acre a year.
"We're very grateful the USDA has done this. It will be utilized," Mike Zook, executive director of the Hill County FSA, said today. "But we've had three ranchers in here within the first hour to talk about it. It's one of those kind of issues that could be fine-tuned."
Roger Lincoln, chairman of the Hill County FSA committee, said the committee is asking the USDA to reduce the rental payment it charges on each acre of CRP land grazed. If the payment is not lessened, he said, producers risk not making a profit.
"I call this a mixed bag. Certainly we need the CRP grass to graze because our native grasses are nonexistent," Lincoln said. "But to take cattle and put them on CRP, the government requires 25 percent of the annual payment, and its gets pretty marginal on making a profit."
"It's actually going to cost the farmer and rancher more than it has in the past from the standpoint of how much grazing they're going to get," he said.
The rancher who grazes cattle on someone else's land is responsible for the payment, plus may have to put up fencing and haul water to some of the land.
"We will support the position that we need to reduce the fee for grazing CRP. I'm not sure how successful we can be at it," Lincoln said.
"I would say the best scenario is we break even with the rate the way it is now," he added. "It seems to me that in an emergency situation we shouldn't try to jab the rancher with a high grazing fee."
In Hill County, about 300,000 acres of land is devoted to the CRP program. Nationwide, nearly 34 million acres of CRP land is spread over 400,000 farms.
Eligibility to graze CRP acreage is based on each county FSA office providing evidence that the county is suffering from at least a 40 percent loss of normal precipitation during the four most recent months.
To qualify for CRP grazing, livestock producers must receive written approval from the FSA county committee prior to grazing. They must also leave at least 25 percent of each field ungrazed.
That, Zook said, may not be difficult. Hill County ranchers, he said, have moved or sold off about two-thirds of their cattle in the last year. In addition, much of the land available for CRP grazing has not received enough water to allow grass to grow, leaving nothing for cattle to graze on.
"It's very difficult to find anybody who's maintained herds of any size in the county," Zook said. "And the cattle that are left won't have a huge impact."
During the last six months, Hill County has received less than half its normal precipitation, Zook said. In the last year, it received just over half.
"The dryness over the winter really affected growth," Zook said. "If you don't get snow, you don't get grass."