Bountiful grass, more grazing in the park
A wet spring and good summer conditions have led to an abundance of grass on Beaver Creek Park, bringing some additional chances to graze cattle for local ranchers.
The Beaver Creek Park Board heard a recommendation at its monthly meeting Monday to increase the number of cattle grazing the park this year by 15 percent over the normal allotments, and unanimously approved its grazing committee's recommendation.
Park Superintendent Chad Edgar told the board he thinks most of the increase will be used — the increase will take last year's 3,000 cattle allowed to graze on the park to 3,500 head — and ranchers will need to take advantage of the increase to keep their annual allotment up.
"Times are great as far as a cow goes right now.... Grass is everywhere and the ranchers are happy, " he said. "Times aren't always going to be this good, and we're kind of basking in the glory right now.... It's not always going to be this way. "
The county allows cattle ranchers to pay to graze on the park from the day after Labor Day to the first of the next year, both as a money-maker for the county — it is the single biggest revenue source for the park — and to keep the grass cut down.
Edgar and Steve Mariani, the chair of the board, said in response to a question from board member Mel Gomke that due to the system in place, the ranchers will need to use the allowance or they would have their future allotments reduced.
The number of cattle that ranchers can graze on the park is based on a three-year rolling average of what they have used of their allowed number of cattle.
Edgar said that, to keep their allotment from being reduced next year, he expects most ranchers who graze on the park to use at least close to the maximum number allowed.
Edgar said the percentage allowed of allotments is set by the grazing committee, depending on how much grass is available, for the ranchers' allotment. The extra 15 percent this year could turn into a 15 percent cut next year, from the base allotment, if the conditions aren't as good. The increase does not affect the base allotment itself.
The board also sent a recommendation to the county commissioners for setting a hardship policy for ranchers.
Hill County Commissioner Jeff LaVoi said that at the grazing committee meeting, the committee members heard a request to allow subleasing the allotment so ranchers would not lose that allotment even though they could not graze cattle themselves due to medical problems.
LaVoi suggested the park board make a case-by-case decision when grazers petition the board to determine if a hardship exists — that would help prevent ranchers who simply are trying to make extra income when they don't need to use their allotment, he said. The board should not lose control of the grazing by starting to allow simple subleasing, LaVoi said.
"If somebody's doing it for monetary reasons, that's not a hardship... but if there's surgery, an illness in the family, there are legitimate reasons, " he said.
Gomke suggested some system be set up to require the rancher to still pay part of the allotment fee, perhaps whatever amount isn't made up by other ranchers.
The board meeting ended with agreement to a suggested change in an idea proposed by board Vice Chair Larry Kinsella — that the rancher be required to pay half the normal fees to keep the allotment. That could prevent people abusing the rule change and make getting their cattle back on the park, or giving up the allotment, a priority.
"Then they've got some skin in the game, " Kinsella said.
The board agreed to require the hardship allowance to last a maximum of three years, the normal rolling average on an allotment. At the end of that time, the rancher would have to decide whether to start using the allotment as normal or to let it expire.
LaVoi said the final approval would have to be by the county commission. After the county attorney reviews the draft and makes any necessary changes, and required public meetings are held, the commission would vote to make it a county ordinance.
Gomke suggested early in the discussion that the issue be tabled for further review, but Mariani said the board needs to act quickly to allow ranchers seeking hardship allowances to make a decision — by the next time the board meets, Sept. 12, the cattle will be in the park.
The board voted unanimously to send the recommendation to the commission, with a recommended effective date the first day of grazing this year.