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Some producers have learned they were ineligible for the Livestock Forage Program due to details of their leasing contracts and conditions. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

Eligibility for Livestock Forage Program explained

FARGO, N.D. — Programs to help producers affected by emergencies have gotten a workout in the last couple of years. Many North Dakota livestock producers were able to recoup some losses through the Livestock Forage Program.

The program compensates livestock producers who have suffered grazing losses due to a qualifying drought condition.

Ag groups earlier this month had the opportunity to meet with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue at a roundtable session during his visit to Fargo. And though most applauded the USDA's relatively quick response on drought needs in 2017, the need for improvements came up.

In an interview with Agweek and the Forum Editorial Board, Perdue said the 2017 drought, as well as other disasters across the country that have affected agriculture, provided some real-world evidence of what has worked and hasn't worked in programs in the 2014 farm bill.

"We probably need to look at beefing up some of our disaster programs," Perdue said.

Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, was the first representative of an ag group to address Perdue, and she used most of her time to hit on one of the most popular topics of the day: drought.

Ellingson thanked Perdue for the USDA's work on drought response but also highlighted some issues some of her membership had in using some drought programs, specifically the Livestock Forage Program.

In numerous cases brought to Ellingson's attention, North Dakota ranchers who believed they should have been eligible for the program learned that they were not covered. Several have appealed decisions and are not comfortable talking publicly about it until their cases are resolved, Ellingson told Agweek.

The common thread seemed to be that the land on which the ranchers' cattle grazed during the drought was leased land, and contract language didn't fit into criteria set by the Farm Service Agency, which administers the program.

State FSA officials in Fargo explained to Agweek some points of the program and conflicts of which they have become aware.

Jay Hochhalter, program specialist in the conservation division in the North Dakota FSA office, said there are basically two main requirements for qualification under the LFP: "You have to be able to show that you have control of the grazing land as well as ownership of the livestock."

That means producers who lease land on an animal unit monthly basis, which means they are paying a set amount per head or per pair per month, often are ineligible, as are the landowners in such scenarios. The reason, Hochhalter explained, is that the rancher has control over the animals but not the land, and the landowner has control over the land but not the animals.

Such AUM arrangements aren't bad, Hochhalter said. In a regular year, the arrangements allow landowners to protect forage and grazing lands and allow livestock producers to minimize risk by paying only for the grazing they use rather than a lump sum for an entire year.

And an AUM contract isn't necessarily ineligible for LFP in all situations; if the rancher is contractually obligated for some inputs, such as maintaining fences, wells or water supplies, they may be eligible, Hochhalter said.

Brad Olson, farm program director in the conservation division of North Dakota FSA, said policy writers do the best they can to write policy for hypothetical situations and can't anticipate every scenario. Some issues only were brought to light because the 2017 drought tested out the rules, and there have been "tons of growing pains."

Ellingson said every producer has a slightly different scenario, making it hard to say there is a right way or a wrong way to operate. What she would like to see is more certainty so that producers and landowners can plan accordingly.

Hochhalter said another complicating factor that often crops up is a lack of written contracts. Many pasture rental agreements still are done on a handshake basis. Though there is a form producers can fill out to help determine eligibility, the more detail and explanation FSA gets helps, he said.

"Certainly if they have a written lease it makes it better for us," he said.

Hochhalter said FSA does not have any numbers on how many producers may have appealed decisions in North Dakota, though he said only a small number have made it past the county committee level and onto the state level.

Ellingson has spoken to representatives from cattle groups in other states who have been affected by droughts and wildfires in the past year, and they indicated they also have producers that have appealed decisions on LFP coverage.

Perdue told Ellingson to get him more information on the problems producers in North Dakota have had so that he can look into it more.

More points to consider on LFP

FSA officials offer the following guidelines for the LFP program.

The following are requirements to be considered eligible livestock:

• Livestock must have been owned, purchased or entered into a contract to purchase during the 60 days prior to the beginning date of a qualifying drought or fire condition.

• Livestock must have been held by a contract grower or sold or otherwise disposed of due to a qualifying drought condition during the current production year or one or both of the two production years immediately preceding the current production year.

• Livestock must have been maintained for commercial use as part of a farming operation on the beginning date of the eligible drought or fire condition.

• Livestock must not have been produced and maintained for reasons other than commercial use as part of a farming operation, including wild free-roaming animals or animals used for recreational purposes such as pleasure, hunting, pets, roping or for show.

• Livestock must not have been livestock that were or would have been in a feedlot on the beginning date of the qualifying drought or fire as part of the normal business operation of the producer.

The following is required of producers in order to be eligible for the Livestock Forage Program.

• Producers must own, cash or share lease, or be a contract grower of covered livestock during the 60 calendar days before the beginning date of a qualifying drought or fire.

• Producers must provide pastureland or grazing land for covered livestock, including cash-rented pastureland or grazing land that is either physically located in a county affected by a qualifying drought during the normal grazing period for the county or rangeland managed by a federal agency for which the otherwise eligible livestock producer is prohibited by the federal agency from grazing the normally permitted livestock because of a qualifying fire.

• Producers must certify that they have suffered a grazing loss because of a qualifying drought or fire.

• In order to qualify for the Livestock Forage Program, the producer in control of the grazing land must have an acreage report on file with FSA. The deadline to report 2018 perennial forage for grazing was Nov. 15, 2017, but late filed reports can be done until Nov. 15, 2018.

For more information, visit your local FSA or read https://www.fsa.usda.gov/Assets/USDA-FSA-Public/usdafiles/FactSheets/201....