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Shelly and Robin Ziesch work on their corn chopper in anticipation of harvest. The Ziesches ranch near Pettibone, N.D., in Kidder County. They worry Livestock Forage Program payments won't be enough to keep many ranchers dealing with drought conditions in business. Photo taken Sept. 19, 2017. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

Livestock Forage Program could do more for producers, ranchers say

PETTIBONE, N.D. — Most of North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana have experienced drought conditions this year. Livestock producers, in particular, have been the focus of relief efforts in the region. But a North Dakota couple worries one program is not delivering as advertised.

The Livestock Forage Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, pays out to livestock producers who operate in counties that have been in extreme or exceptional drought at any time as determined by the U.S. Drought Monitor, or that have been in severe drought for at least eight weeks.

Robin and Shelly Ziesch believed the program paid $30 per head per month and were disappointed to learn producers get 60 percent of that amount, minus an additional “sequestration fee.” That meant their total payment came in at a little more than half of what they were expecting.

The Ziesches bounced across far more acres than usual to put feed together this year, baling their crops and some Conservation Reserve Program land to make sure they can get their 500 cows through the winter. They’re very thankful the USDA opened up CRP acres that rarely are available even for emergency haying and that some late summer rains helped their corn crop develop to the point that they should have enough silage.

They were counting on using the Livestock Forage Program payment to help cover operating expenses for the additional expense of putting up feed, as well as to help make up for the cash crops that will be used to feed their cattle.

The Ziesches don’t want to sound ungrateful for the payment they will receive. But it would be nice if the payments were “a little closer to reality,” Shelly says.

Robin says it will cost about $1.50 per day to feed each of their cows through the estimated six months of North Dakota winter, meaning about $270 per cow. In Kidder County, which was not in the worst of the drought conditions, producers can get paid for four months under the Livestock Forage Program. According to North Dakota State University’s LFP calculator, which estimates LFP payments in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, the estimated payment for a cow in Kidder County would be about $67. Ranchers in harder-hit counties will get paid for five months.

Robin and Shelly worry about the producers to the west who weren’t able to scrape together enough feed and will be using their LFP funds to try to keep the herds together. Shelly says livestock producers have few ways to plan for a disaster.

“Sometimes it feels like we’re the middle children of agriculture,” she says. “We don’t have an insurance program that helps with that.”

The Ziesches have made their opinions known to the offices of North Dakota’s Congressional delegation, and they’ve heard back from the office of Sen. John Hoeven. Hoeven’s office indicates more work will be done on the program as negotiations for the next farm bill continue.

“This drought has put severe pressure on our ranchers, and we appreciate USDA for working with us to open up all available assistance and responding to our requests for CRP grazing and haying,” Hoeven said in a statement. “Going forward, we continue our efforts to secure more help for our producers affected by drought this year and have an opportunity with the upcoming farm bill to make improvements and ensure our livestock assistance programs work for our ranchers when it matters most.”

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s office did not get back to the Ziesches directly, but staffers indicate they have had heard from farmers and ranchers about how drought programs are — or aren’t — working.

“As I talk to farmers and ranchers who have been affected by the drought, it’s clear that our current programs are simply not enough to help them get through this difficult time,” Heitkamp said in a statement. “I’ve launched a website to help provide farmers and ranchers with up-to-date information on all of the resources available to them. I'm exploring all avenues in which we can provide immediate aid to help those who are struggling, and as I work on the next farm bill, I will fight to strengthen the safety net that helps North Dakota’s agriculture industry get through challenging times like these.”

The Livestock Forage Program and several other livestock emergency programs are targets for cuts in 2018, according to the Trump Administration’s proposed USDA budget. LFP paid out $452 million in 2016 and could be cut to $423 million in 2018. The Livestock Indemnity Program, which provides funding to livestock producers who experience livestock death losses due to weather-related disasters and to prey reintroduced to an area or protected by the government, could be cut from the 2016 actual payment of $41 million to $31 million in 2018.

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