Helping hay could save ranchers

BURT, N.D. -- Trish Schneider carries the weight of 150 cows on her young shoulders and they feel mighty heavy in a year of poor hay. Schneider, 25, is the sole operator of a cow-calf operation on family land southwest of Burt, a fading but pictu...

BURT, N.D. - Trish Schneider carries the weight of 150 cows on her young shoulders and they feel mighty heavy in a year of poor hay.

Schneider, 25, is the sole operator of a cow-calf operation on family land southwest of Burt, a fading but picturesque hamlet in eastern Hettinger County. She's strong, cheerful and hardworking, but none of those worthy attributes can scrape this year's hay into bigger piles or make her animals less hungry when winter rolls around.

Like many livestock producers, she's looking for hay ground and finding some on nearby Conservation Reserve Program acres that are set aside from crop production for erosion control and wildlife habitat.

It's an odd crop out west this year: Grains are rolling in fairly strong, the corn is standing lush and tall, but the hay grasses and alfalfa were heavily damaged in a dry spring.

Hettinger County has the second-most CRP acreage of all 53 counties in North Dakota and a strong number of landowners enrolled in the program are opening it up for hay.


Margie Herner, director of the county Farm Service Agency, said her office has released 260 contracts for haying amounting to about 50,000 acres, close to half of all enrolled acres. She estimates about half the hay is going to livestock producers from out of the area - Belfield and beyond - where the hay crops are struggling, or to local producers, such as Schneider.

"There's a lot of pressure for hay and a lot of contracts that need management anyway," Herner said.

In Schneider's case, a nearby neighbor had some CRP that was available under his contract conditions and gave her a call. The set-aside land has to be managed with some disking or harrowing every five to six years, or owners can mow it for hay every three years.

She was more than glad to take him up on the offer.

"I'm trying to make as much hay as I can," said Schneider, who is out baling until after midnight, a one-woman fencing, corral-building, feeding and hay-making machine getting a helping hand up from friends and family. "If it weren't for them, I'd be in trouble.

"I'll be looking for more. I'm really hoping to get 1,200 bales," she said as she did the math in her head and hopes her carryover hay and the hay acreage she can cut here and there and on her own place will add up to enough.

If not, she'll sell cows this fall.

Good deal for all


On the other side of the equation are landowners such as Ben and Nadra Auch, of rural Mott, who own a couple of quarters in Bowman County. They were due to manage their CRP with hay or disking and were happy to find a livestock producer in Bowman County willing to cut hay on their ground.

It was a good coincidence since it saved the Auchs the time and the expense of doing the management themselves.

The Auchs aren't charging the producer anything, though it's customary for the landowner to charge the 25 percent deduct he gets in his annual CRP payment for taking the hay off. The contracts normally pay from $38 to $40 an acre, so the hay-taking cuts that payment back by about $10 an acre.

"It would have been time out of our pocket, and they are really short of hay down there," Auch said.

Bowman and Slope counties were recently released for emergency CRP haying, which exempts the 25 percent deduction if landowners provide the hay to an in-county livestock producer. Auch said they missed that opportunity by a few weeks.

"Our deal was in place before the emergency declaration come out. We're just giving him the hay. The quality's not bad, but then it's so dry down there in Bowman County," she said.

Dry hay, fire threat

Jim Honeyman, a livestock producer on the Enchanted Highway country north of Regent, said other counties in the district are also releasing sizable numbers of hay contracts this year.


"It's higher than normal because it's not normally this dry. On my own hay acres, the yield is down about 50 percent. Ranchers are looking for anything they can get," said Honeyman, the district director for the Farm Service Agency, overseeing 13 counties in the southwest region.

He also cuts on neighbors' set-aside acres and can count on three to four bales an acre, normally.

"This year, it'll be two to an acre, fair to poor," he said.

Some landowners worry about releasing CRP for hay when it's so dry because of the fire danger, according to Honeyman.

Back at the Farm Service office in Mott, Herner digs out her cell phone, where she captured pictures of a hay cutter engulfed in flames on the family's CRP. A Belfield rancher was cutting hay northeast of Mott with a John Deere demo model and sparked a flame in the dry grass. The machine was a total loss and about 14 acres burned to a black crisp.

The operator was fine, but the Aug. 5 incident does underscore the need for hay-makers to equip themselves with fire extinguishers.

Herner said rain that came through Hettinger County Tuesday night will help with the fire danger and could spark some additional interest in CRP hay, which could improve with this late-season shot of moisture.

"A few could still straggle in, but it's getting late and it is so dry," she said.


Wildlife prime goal

The federally managed conservation program has a lot of rules and one of those is that haying can't start until Aug. 2 and has to be completed by Aug. 31, though the bales can be loaded out late into the fall.

That's admittedly a fairly short and late window - for prime hay anyway - but Herner said it's important to remember the intention of the CRP.

"It's not a haying program. It really is intended to benefit wildlife," she said.

Anyone who needs a list of landowners with available CRP should contact the local county extension agent, who keeps track of who's looking for hay and who's got it.

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