By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has computed what land qualifies to enter the Conservation Reserve Program in the latest round of signups, with only four Montana counties reaching their legal cap.
After the applications from ag producers were ranked nationally, far less land in the Havre area was accepted for CRP than in past signups.
FSA Hill County director Mike Zook said Tuesday that Hill County didn't reach its limit because of the low acceptance of bids. That happened even though local producers offered nearly twice as much land as could be enrolled.
"We didn't reach our cap, which was a huge surprise to me," he said.
He said it's too soon to tell if Hill County will hold onto its status of having more acres in CRP than any other county in the United States.
Before this signup, Hill County had 292,000 acres. If all landowners approved actually enroll their land, Hill County will have 310,500.
Zook said Hill County will offer CRP signups in the future until the cap is reached.
CRP pays ag producers to manage land to promote wildlife habitat and prevent erosion. Producers may not plant and harvest crops on land enrolled in the program. Under new rules, managed haying and grazing are allowed at certain times.
Once applications are submitted, they are ranked on a national level, and those that best meet the criteria are accepted for the program.
CRP bids are ranked on an ndex based on five environmental factors: soil erosion, water quality, enduring benefits, air quality and wildlife enhancements.
Only Daniels, Musselshell, Teton and Toole counties reached their limit, with 25 percent of cropland being eligible for CRP, an FSA press release said.
Statewide, a total of 82,058 acres were accepted into the program, 22 percent of the nearly 373,000 acres offered by landowners. Nationally, 2 million acres were accepted into CRP.
Zook said ag producers submitted 239 applications to place 42,000 acres in Hill County in CRP. USDA accepted 109 of those bids for a total of 18,492 acres, or about 44 percent.
Hill County has had up to 90 percent of land submitted for the program accepted in other recent signups.
Up to 21,300 acres in Hill County could have been enrolled under the 25 percent cap.
Some of the land accepted in this signup is new to CRP, Zook said. Other land accepted will be re-enrolled in the program if the owners choose to do so, and some land previously in CRP was not accepted, he said.
Other counties in the area had even lower acceptance of tracts offered. Rusty Cowan, FSA executive director in Liberty County, said 13,109 acres were bid and 2,479 acres accepted there.
Tracy Harshman, FSA executive director in Blaine County, said 24,292 acres were offered and 4,354 accepted there.
Chouteau County's FSA executive director, Bill Evans, said his office suspected the acceptance might be lower than the 75 percent to 85 percent Chouteau County offerings have averaged in CRP signups since 1998, but didn't expect it to be as low as it was.
Chouteau County had 11,638 acres accepted from about 48,600 offered, close to the state average, Evans said.
FSA will notify producers in writing whether their bids were accepted. Producers have 15 calendar days from the date of notification to contact the local office about whether they will participate.
Evans said he doesn't expect everyone who had land accepted to enroll it in the program. Every tract has to be submitted as a separate offer, and if a producer had some offers accepted and some rejected, the producer might decide to keep farming the tracts, he said.
Zook said he also expects some farmers in Hill County not to enroll their accepted acreage.
He said bids that showed the producer was willing to take action to enhance wildlife habitat seem to have been accepted more in this signup. That might have affected Hill County's acceptance rate, he said.
This signup used new technology, including satellite global information system technology, to help rank bids.
The signup also includes new regulations on haying and grazing CRP land. Managed haying and grazing will be allowed after Aug. 1, outside of the prime nesting season for waterfowl and upland birds.
Previously, haying and grazing of CRP land was allowed only under emergency conditions. It has been allowed in north-central Montana several times during the drought conditions of the last five years.