Conservation areas opened for grazing in wake of floods

DES MOINES, Iowa — The federal government will allow livestock to graze on thousands of acres set aside for conservation as a part of its response to record flooding in the Midwest.

The move, announced late Monday, is a response to what U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Ed Schaeffer called a ”crisis situation in the Midwest and other parts of the country that calls for drastic action.“

”Floodwaters inundated thousands of acres that cannot be salvaged for production this growing season, and it happened at a time of record crop, food and fuel prices,“ Schaeffer said in a statement.

The release of land in the USDA's Conservation Reserve Program is designed to provide some relief to farmers — particularly livestock producers — who have struggled to cope with rising grain prices and spring floods that have left their fields sopping.

The move comes after several officials — including Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, as well as Iowa Gov. Chet Culver and Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey — asked Schaeffer to release land for grazing and to grow hay.

The USDA's decision on Monday stopped short of allowing the conservation land to be used for hay. But it will open up thousands of acres in the Midwest to grazing.

”The recent flooding and excessive rainfall have adversely impacted each sector of agriculture in the Midwest,“ Harkin said in a statement. ”Crops have been lost, but now we are seeing a shortage of feed availability coupled with high feed prices, which could jeopardize the survival of many producers this year. That's why access to CRP land, carefully done, is so critical.“

Harkin said he would continue to pressure Schaeffer to release CRP land to grow hay.

Culver agreed that Monday's announcement ”must be an initial, and not a final step.“

”I encourage the U.S. Department of Agriculture to immediately release Conservation Reserve Program lands for both haying and grazing, just as Secretary Northey and I asked for last week,“ Culver said in a statement. ”By doing so, we will reduce costs for livestock producers, and help Iowa continue to feed the world.“

Monday's move affects land in 16 states, including Kentucky. The USDA will allow grazing on Conservation Reserve Program land in counties that have been declared Presidential Disaster Areas and counties that are nearby.

The bulk of the land included is in Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Indiana and Illinois, key farming states that all bore the brunt of severe weather this spring.

Other states include Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia. In Kentucky, the affected counties are Boone, Gallatin, Carroll, Henderson, Trimble and Union.

Under the Conservation Reserve Program, the USDA pays farmers to leave erodible cropland or other environmentally sensitive areas idle to prevent erosion. Strict conditions are typically set on the land's use, although opening it for grazing and other purposes is not unprecedented.