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Feds deny North Dakota drought request for early haying of CRP land
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Feds deny North Dakota drought request for early haying of CRP land

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A farmer raises dust while baling hay along state Highway 1804 north of Bismarck on July 1. Soil erosion and a lack of hay production are big concerns of farmers and ranchers amid this year's drought.

The federal government has denied a request by North Dakota leaders to allow ranchers struggling with drought to hay idled grassland while it's still of good quality.

The state Agriculture Department is looking into the reasons why, spokeswoman Michelle Mielke said late Friday.

The federal government is allowing limited emergency grazing of Conservation Reserve Program land, which typically is idled under a government program that pays farmers to protect erodible land and create wildlife habitat. North Dakota ranchers all summer have been seeking federal government permission to also hay that land.

CRP typically doesn't open until after nesting season ends, to protect wildlife populations. The season in North Dakota ends Aug. 1. Ranchers say that after that day, grass might not be of good enough quality to make it worthwhile to hay.

State officials and members of North Dakota's congressional delegation this summer have pushed the U.S. Department of Agriculture for earlier CRP haying. State Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring earlier this week made another plea. His department has received hundreds of calls from ranchers in recent weeks about the issue, according to Mielke.

The state office of the federal Farm Service Agency informed the department Thursday that the request had been denied, according to Mielke.

New Rockford rancher Jeff Schafer, president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, said the state's largest rancher organization is disappointed by the federal government's decision.

“Border to border, North Dakota cattle ranchers are in a dire situation that has set new records. With triple-digit temps in the forecast for the foreseeable future, the quality of the forage diminishes every day, so time absolutely matters," he said in a statement to the Tribune. "The ag community and conservation community are all on the same page that CRP should be opened for haying immediately. It’s heartbreaking that this will not happen.”

The state Game and Fish Department and several wildlife conservation groups supported the request. Game and Fish, Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust sent a letter to federal Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in late June detailing support for emergency CRP haying beginning July 16.

USDA and the federal Farm Service Agency have not responded to Tribune requests for comment. The state FSA office did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Friday. The office did issue a statement Thursday detailing drought disaster assistance available to farmers and ranchers. It mentioned early haying of CRP acres only after the nesting season.

Exceptional drought, the worst of four categories, now covers more than 8% of North Dakota -- roughly the north central region, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map. Extreme drought, the second-worst category, impacts more than 40% of North Dakota. All of the state remains in some form of drought.

The U.S. Drought Monitor is a partnership of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The latest crop report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service rates 70% of North Dakota’s alfalfa hay crop as being poor or very poor; 74% of pasture and range land in the state is in those categories.

Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or blake.nicholson@bismarcktribune.com.

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