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North Dakota rancher, congressional delegation urge USDA action on haying CRP for drought relief

On June 15, North Dakota's congressional delegation, Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer and Rep. Kelly Armstrong, wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow emergency haying and grazing of CRP acres in the state before Aug. 1.

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On June 2, 2021, a small amount of green grass is visible among old growth in a Sheridan County, N.D., pasture. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)

Josie Johnson said her ranch south of Zap, N.D., has been dry since 2017. While putting in railroad ties in March, there was no frost and no moisture all the way down. Since August, the ranch has gotten 2 inches of rain and 4 inches of snow.

There's little grass on the pasture and little on the hay fields; rain at this point isn't going to help much this year and even next year may be in danger.

"It's going to take a long time to recover from this," Johnson said. "Our pastures aren't growing."

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This pasture south of Zap, N.D., hasn't had cattle on it since fall of 2020 but has little new growth. (Photo provided by Josie Johnson)

Even so, she thinks the federal government could help drought -stricken ranchers in one way, by opening up Conservation Reserve Program acres in non-drought areas to haying by people in the drought areas.

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On June 15, North Dakota's congressional delegation, Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer and Rep. Kelly Armstrong, wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow emergency haying and grazing of CRP acres in the state before Aug. 1. CRP acres in 50 North Dakota counties are currently eligible to be grazed at limited capacity, but are not eligible to be hayed.

"Rather than delay releasing CRP and potentially losing the nutritional benefits contained in those CRP acres, we urge USDA to assist North Dakota ranchers by allowing emergency haying and grazing before Aug. 1," the letter said .

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Pasture north of Golden Valley, N.D., is largely brown in June 2021. (Photo provided by Josie Johnson)

The Johnson ranch runs 150 pairs and 40 heifers every year. Their main operation is allowing other ranches to put their embryos into the Johnson cows to raise registered Shorthorn, Maine Anjou, Angus or Simm-Angus calves. They've culled hard on open cows but likely will have to go deeper.

Despite trying to keep two years' worth of feed on hand, the Johnson said feed is running short this year.

"We are absolutely feeding out every last bale we have this year," she said.

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An alfalfa field near Zap, N.D., has little growth. Producers are struggling not only with lack of pasture now but also the prospect of not having enough feed for winter. (Photo provided by Josie Johnson)

During the 2017 drought , Johnson said her operation was able to hay CRP in parts of North Dakota that had received moisture, bringing back 17,000 bales to the drought area.

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Mercer County, where Johnson ranches, is almost entirely in exceptional drought. Sale barns in the area have added extra sales to accommodate the ranchers who are thinning their herds to account for feed deficiencies.

"We're going to lose some ranchers out here," Johnson said.

In Sheridan County, N.D., North Dakota State University Extension ag and natural resources agent Sarah Crimmins hadn't heard of any ranchers completely selling out in early June, though many had culled deeply.

"They hope not to have to dive into their herd any deeper," she said.

Crimmins said conditions were "scary dry."

"Stocking rates on pasture are a lot lower than normal," she said. "If there even is any pasture growing, it's very spotty and brown in places."

And even if hay is available, Crimmins said the cost of hauling in feed for the winter may not make sense.

"Pasture is very spotty, but I think the thing that worries them the most is if the hay doesn't grow it isn't going to be cost effective . . . to keep ranching at that point" because of the expense of trucking in feed, Crimmins said.

Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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