Western SD counties opened for emergency federal aid for ranchers

Farm Forum

Ranchers in six westernmost counties in South Dakota can sign up for federal forage subsidies to help feed livestock in parched pastures and ranges under the extreme drought in the region.

“We’re just getting a good start,” said Dan Whetham, district director of the Farm Service Agency in 15 counties in western South Dakota, of sign-ups for the Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP).

The forage program is opened for any county once it’s determined it has been in extreme drought for three months.

Lawrence, Meade and Pennington counties were named eligible for LFP on June 28 and on July 21, three more counties, Butte, Harding and Custer, were named as eligible.

Things don’t look green on South Dakota’s far west.

“It’s not good,” Whetham said. “It’s very brown and crunchy out here. You feel like you are walking on Rice Krispies. Livestock are walking off as much grass as they use, it’s so dry and brittle.”

On the east side of Rapid City, only 7.55 inches of precipitation have fallen so far this year, according to the National Weather Service. That’s down 44 percent, or nearly six inches, from the 30-year norm for the period of 13.41 inches.

In Buffalo, it’s worse: only 5 inches of precipitation has fallen there since Jan. 1, less than half the normal amount of 10.5 inches.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s FSA uses a technical process that goes beyond the snap, crackle and pop sound cattle might be making on the range, or even just the precipitation.

“It’s all triggered by the Drought Monitor,” Whetham said of the project hosted at the University of Nebraska as a joint effort of the National Drought Mitigation Center and federal weather and agriculture experts. Once any part of a county is rated in “extreme drought,” or “D3,” the county is opened for producers to apply for certain federal aid, including the LFP.

For many producers in the six counties, it’s as bad or worse than 2012, the big drought year, Whetham said. The saving grace this year in South Dakota is the extreme drought is not as widespread as 2012 when the whole state was in D3, he said.

The LFP is part of the 2014 Farm Bill that compensates livestock producers for “grazing losses” due to drought by giving them money to buy extra feed. Although that feed typically is hay, the payments are pegged to the cost of corn, which is an easier feed to price out than hay, or grass.

Cattle, horses, sheep and buffalo are eligible, as well as elk, emus and reindeer, if it comes to that.

That means livestock producers in Lawrence, Meade and Pennington counties now are eligible for four months of LFP aid, while in Butte, Harding and Custer counties, livestock producers are eligible for three months of payments, Whetham said.

The payments vary each year depending on the price of corn, which is lower than it was two years ago.

The payments are aimed at meeting about 60 percent of the calculated loss of forage, or grazing.

So this year, Whetham said, the payment to a producer amounts to amounts to about $18.25 per cow (or bull), and the same for buffalo, per month.

Payments are higher for higher-valued and eating dairy cattle, and less for sheep, which count for something less than $5 per head in LFP payments.

Since 2011, the Livestock Forage program has kicked in for three years, including 2016, said Lynn Tjeerdsma, senior policy advisor for U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and formerly a high-level USDA official.

In 2012, the drought hit the whole state and 13,261 livestock producers applied for LFP and a total of $169.6 million was paid out, Tjeerdsma told the Capital Journal.

In 2013, LFP was active again , with 6,755 applicants receiving a total of $95.7 million in forage subsidies.

That works out to an average of about $12,879 per producer in 2012 and $14,177 in 2013.

It’s not huge, but it’s welcome, said Bill Kluck, a rancher in Mud Butte in Meade County, who is president of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association.

“The drought is starting to have an impact,” Kluck said “There have been some cattle moved around,” to find greener pastures, Kluck said. “I know some people have bought some irrigated forage crops to go to later.”

The effects vary across the region and the drought conditions lessen substantially nearer to the Missouri River, he said.

Also a factor are the lower cattle prices from the record levels seen for two or three years.

“Since the 15th of June last year, our fat cattle market has dropped almost 40 percent,” Kluck said.

With good stockpiles of hay from the previous two years that had good precipitation and pastures also in long term good shape because of more lush conditions in previous years, the extreme drought this summer won’t be as critical, Kluck said.

“The hay has not been good at all in our area. But for most people, we had a good couple of years, so people have carryover hay . . . and we do have some carryover grass. We are going to get by this year. But next year we hope we get some moisture.”

Producers need to bring in their lease information so FSA can determine they are the owners of the animals and are “in control” of the grazing lands in question, Whetham said.

Many ranchers have leases on federal, state or private land for grazing in addition to any grazing lands they own.

The counties in D3 also qualify for emergency conservation programs,which include aid for low water supplies. Many stock dams have dried up, Whetham said. If there’s a lack of water for livestock, FSA can help with piping in or hauling in water, with the feds paying part of the cost.

Emergency haying of Conservation Reserve Program lands also has opened up in some of the state’s western counties, as soon as the Aug. 1 deadline for the primary nesting period for birds is passed, Whetham said.

These programs are an example of USDA’s use of ad hoc emergency programs to respond year-to-year to situations that threaten livestock and ranchers, Tjeerdsma said. The fact that some years no federal money is spent on the program shows the system works without wasting funds, he said.

And it’s not a windfall situation for ranchers, he said.

“No disaster programs are meant to make anyone whole,” Tjeerdsma said. “They are there to make a safety net, to help producers in a survival mode, rather than make a profit.”

“I’m sure that any cattle producer would rather have enough rain and never have to darken the door of his FSA office to apply for benefits,” Tjeersdma said.

Right now, those doors are open in the driest counties.

And ranchers can apply for the forage subsidies until the end of January 2017, Whetham said.

“Producers should call their FSA office,” Whetham said.