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USDA plan will open CRP acres to haying, grazing

You'll soon be able to graze or put up bales on your CRP acres.

Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer announced Tuesday that Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres will be opened up to livestock grazing or a single cutting for feed.

In his Tuesday announcement, Schafer was quick to point out that this designation is not an early opt-out window for farmers looking to throw acres back into crop production, neither is it a limited to a specific targeted area, like emergency grazing allowed after drought or other natural disasters.

"This authorization does not constitute an early opt-out of CRP contracts. However, it does allow producers nationwide to either hay CRP acres once or allow livestock grazing, either for their own use or to help their neighbors," Schafer said Tuesday. "I also want to distinguish this critical use of CRP acreage from emergency haying and grazing provisions that we've allowed before. These programs are limited to producers in counties that have been severely impacted by drought or natural disasters. This critical use of CRP however is being extended to all eligible producers across the nation."

The Secretary added the forage made available through this move -- from an estimated 24 million CRP acres -- will total around 18 million tons and be worth about $1.2 billion for livestock producers. And, he said, it won't harm the benefits of CRP to the land. The land won't be eligible for haying and grazing until after the "primary nesting season for grass-nesting birds has finished," Schafer said. "Most nesting seasons end in late July or early August, and the critical use for haying and grazing must end by November 10 of this year.

"It will significantly increase the amount of feed available to the livestock industry while still maintaining CRP's environmental benefits," Schafer added. "In fact there are many circumstances where removing some of the grass cover will actually help increase wildlife diversity. It will also provide long-term benefits for wildlife in the area."

Reactions to USDA's CRP announcement ranged widely. Congressman Leonard Boswell (D-IA) said the CRP change will "assist those producers who have been struggling due to feed prices." Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey praised the decision for its potential help to cattle farmers in his state whose bottom lines are bleeding capital because of high feed prices.

"While the primary impact will be on cattlemen, this has the potential to replace some corn that can be used by other livestock producers," Northey said Wednesday. "There is no doubt that the higher prices for corn and soybeans have impacted Iowans raising livestock."

But, not everyone in the industry is pleased with Tuesday's USDA CRP designation. The plan, according to National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) executive director of legislative affairs Colin Woodall, doesn't reduce CRP payments where grazing or haying on program acres will be permitted. As such, it puts farmers who obtain forage from sources other than CRP at an unfair disadvantage, Woodall said Tuesday.

"This is just the wrong solution. Any CRP relief plan must maintain a level playing field for all farmers and ranchers, and put land back into production in a meaningful way," he said. "NCBA policy favors conservation programs that make every effort to keep agricultural land in production. To do that, USDA needs to do more than just tweak CRP around the edges. The cattle industry is facing historic economic difficulty as a result of the federal government's competing policy goals.

"Tremendous pressure is being placed on our rapidly shrinking supply of agricultural land, and today's action just temporarily sidesteps the problem," Woodall added.

What's it mean for farmers? One Agriculture Online Farm Business Talk member says it will likely cause him to change some of his acreage decisions. "I guess I'll plant more not need the hay ground since the government turned CRP loose after nesting season," writes 333rancher.

You'll soon be able to graze or put up bales on your CRP acres.

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