U.S. Senator John Thune (R-S.D.), a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, today reacted to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s announcement that certain Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres in counties designated as “abnormally dry” under the U.S. Drought Monitor would now be eligible for emergency haying and grazing. In an earlier announcement Secretary Vilsack made CRP acres in counties only in moderate, severe, extreme, and exceptional categories eligible. Beginning with a July 10th letter, Senator Thune has been pressuring Secretary Vilsack to use his administrative authority to make applicable land enrolled in CRP available to livestock producers. This latest announcement makes all South Dakota counties, about 550,000 acres, now eligible for CRP emergency haying and grazing after August 1, 2012.
Secretary Vilsack also announced that farmers and ranchers would be allowed to modify current Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) contracts to allow for prescribed grazing, livestock watering facilities, water conservation, and other conservation activities to address drought conditions. Additionally, Secretary Vilsack authorized haying and grazing of Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) easement areas under an expedited Compatible Use Authorization process to allow for haying and grazing.
“Although this announcement makes CRP haying and grazing available in all South Dakota counties, land enrolled in continuous CRP wetlands practices is still unavailable for haying or grazing,” said Thune. “I believe Secretary Vilsack should work with all stakeholders, including wildlife and environmental interests, and strike an agreement that would allow a percentage of these CRP acres to be accessed for haying and grazing as well, without fear of a federal lawsuit. Opening access to wetlands and stream buffers could mean up to an additional 445,000 acres in South Dakota enrolled in CRP eligible for haying and grazing.”
Earlier this month, Senator Thune wrote Secretary Vilsack asking him to use his discretionary authority to release CRP acres for emergency haying and grazing and to work with him to alleviate the increasing need for hay and grazing in South Dakota due to the ongoing drought conditions. Below is that letter:
July 10, 2012
Secretary Tom Vilsack
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave., SW
Washington, D.C. 20250
Dear Secretary Vilsack:
I write regarding the rapidly deteriorating crop, feed, and pasture conditions in South Dakota due to the dry spring, higher than normal temperatures, and lack of rainfall. These conditions have resulted in very short hay supplies and pastureland in areas of the state as low as only 25 percent of normal carrying capacity.
On July 6th, I toured an area in Southwestern South Dakota and met face-to-face with ranchers who suffered grazing losses not only to drought, but also to fires that have burned thousands of acres of grazing land in and around the Black Hills National Forest. Timely availability of additional pasture and hay is their immediate concern and utmost need, or many will be forced to liquidate part or all of their herds of sheep and cattle.
South Dakota’s number one industry is agriculture and sheep and beef cattle add more than $2.8 billion to South Dakota’s economy. As you are aware, it takes foundation livestock producers years to recover from forced breeding herd liquidation and downsizing, which is what many South Dakota livestock producers are facing due to drought conditions.
As of June 30th, South Dakota has more than 1.1 million acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). CRP plays a critical role in South Dakota’s economy as it provides nesting and brood rearing habitat for pheasants and other game birds and an annual revenue of more than $200 million in hunting related activities and more than $66 million in annual rental payments.
A portion of the acres enrolled in CRP in South Dakota could be used to play a critical role in alleviating the worsening hay and grazing land shortage for South Dakota livestock producers.
The most recent U.S. Drought Monitor indicates six Western South Dakota counties at D2 or Severe drought conditions; and nearly all of South Dakota at D0, Abnormally Dry, or D1, Moderate drought conditions. The drought conditions have worsened in recent weeks and the long term outlook for precipitation is negative.
I strongly urge you to consider using the administrative authority you have available to release as many CRP acres as possible for emergency haying and grazing in South Dakota. Although many of the livestock producers are located in Western South Dakota where fewer acres of land are enrolled in CRP, making appropriate land enrolled in CRP across the entire state available for haying and grazing to livestock producers within the state would be of considerable benefit.
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.
Emergency release of CRP for haying and grazing in the past has provided valuable feed in local areas in times of urgent need, many times keeping livestock operators from being forced to untimely liquidate their herds, without damaging the conservation, habitat, and wildlife benefits CRP was designed to provide. I ask that you consider taking these actions once again, as appropriate, for South Dakota livestock producers.
I appreciate your previous actions to allow increased continuous CRP enrollment in South Dakota and the high level of service U.S. Department of Agriculture offices provide to South Dakota farmers and ranchers.
I urge you to carefully consider my request and look forward to working with you to alleviate the increasing need for hay and grazing in South Dakota. Please do not hesitate to contact me or my staff with any questions.
John Thune United States Senate