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Published February 14, 2014, 09:30 AM

Implementation of farm bill livestock disaster programs to be expedited

Ranchers in the Dakotas and other areas who experienced losses from winter weather will get disaster assistance faster because President Barack Obama has directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to implement the livestock disaster programs in the farm bill within 60 days, rather than the usual six to eight months.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

Ranchers in the Dakotas and other areas who experienced losses from winter weather will get disaster assistance faster because President Barack Obama has directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to implement the livestock disaster programs in the farm bill within 60 days, rather than the usual six to eight months.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made the announcement on Feb. 13 on the eve of Obama’s trip to Fresno, Calif., to inspect drought conditions. The decision to speed up the disaster assistance was undoubtedly made to address the severe drought in California, but Vilsack said the implementation of the disaster aid programs would be nationwide.

The livestock disaster programs are expected to provide $100 million in assistance to California ranchers and more than $1 billion nationwide, Vilsack said.

During the call, Vilsack noted that the new farm bill reauthorizes disaster programs that have not been operational since 2011.

Beginning in April, producers will be able to sign up for the livestock disaster programs for losses not only for 2014 but for losses they experienced in 2012 and 2013, according to a White House fact sheet.

The program will pay ranchers and farmers for lost animals and provide money for them to purchase feed. The farmers should be paid “shortly” after they sign up, Vilsack told reporters.

Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., led a bipartisan coalition of senators to write to Vilsack urging him to expedite implementation of the livestock disaster program.

“In 2012, U.S. grazing livestock producers experienced the most devastating loss of pasture, rangeland and forage in decades due to the widespread drought,” the senators wrote to Vilsack on Feb. 5.

“In October 2013, winter storm Atlas, an unexpected early fall blizzard, killed more than 20,000 cattle, sheep, horses and bison in the Dakotas and Nebraska, leaving many livestock producers with less than 50 percent of their livestock herds surviving …

“Due to the magnitude of pasture, forage and livestock losses and the urgent need for financial assistance these losses have created, we strongly urge you to place implementation of 2014 farm bill livestock disaster programs as a top priority.”

Vilsack also said the administration will provide an additional $15 million in conservation assistance for the most extreme and exceptional drought areas.

This includes $5 million in additional assistance to California and $10 million for drought-impacted areas in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado and New Mexico. The funding is available through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program administered by USDA.

The assistance helps farmers and ranchers implement practices that conserve scarce water resources, reduce wind erosion on drought-impacted fields and improve livestock access to water.

Vilsack noted that this assistance is in addition to other conservation assistance to California that was previously announced.

The decisions to speed up implementation of the disaster programs and provide more disaster assistance were undoubtedly motivated by the drought in California, which John Holdren, director of the White House science office, described in the Vilsack call as the worst in the 100 years that records have been kept and probably the worst in 500 years.

No single weather event “can be said to be caused by climate change,” Holdren said, but weather everywhere is becoming more severe, which is a sign of the impact of climate change.

“The severe droughts are getting more frequent and drier. We understand a substantial part of why that is happening in a warming world,” he said.

More rainfall is occurring in extreme downpours, which means less is saved, Holdren noted. More of the moisture coming down over mountains is rain rather than snow and it runs off faster, he said, adding that higher temperatures also mean more loss to evaporation.

Vilsack said that for now the administration will focus on executive actions to help California rather than on legislation. The House has passed a California drought bill that the White House opposed and Feinstein and Boxer have introduced a bill in the Senate.

“We will work with the Senate and the House if they can reach consensus. Obviously there is a difference of opinion. Rather than wait for congressional action, we will try to put the resources that are available to work as quickly as possible,” he said.

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