North Dakota's top agriculture official is imploring the federal government to allow ranchers to hay idled grassland while it's still of good quality, as drought deepens, record heat persists and July wanes.
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.
Montana's nesting season ends July 15, and that has created some confusion among North Dakota ranchers, according to state Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring.
“We have been receiving daily calls asking about the early release of emergency haying on CRP lands," he said in a Wednesday statement. "I have requested that USDA allow emergency haying on CRP lands enrolled in all contract types starting as soon as possible to maintain some of the nutritional quality of the hay that is harvested. In order for our livestock producers to make it through this disaster, it is necessary to marshal every available resource.”
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Calls from ranchers to the Agriculture Department in the past month and half have numbered in the hundreds, according to spokeswoman Michelle Mielke.
It's not the first time state officials and members of North Dakota's congressional delegation have pushed the U.S. Department of Agriculture for earlier CRP haying. And the state Game and Fish Department and several wildlife conservation groups are in support of 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.
Despite all the efforts, "No response has been received," the state Agriculture Department said in its Wednesday statement.
USDA and the federal Farm Service Agency did not respond to Tribune requests for comment.
Drought blanketing North Dakota worsened slightly over the past week, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map, published Thursday.
Exceptional drought, the worst of four categories, now covers more than 8% of North Dakota -- roughly the north central region -- up about half a percent from last week. Extreme drought, the second-worst category, is up nearly 1%, impacting more than 40% of North Dakota. Severe drought increased nearly 4% over the week. All of the state remains in some form of drought.
"Agricultural drought impacts across the northern High Plains remained widespread and severe, despite spotty showers," USDA Meteorologist Brad Rippey wrote. He added that "On July 18, North Dakota was the national leader in oats rated very poor to poor (50%; tied with South Dakota), along with soybeans (41%) and corn (32%)."
Spring wheat -- North Dakota's staple crop -- was rated 63% poor or very poor nationally, with 64% of the state crop in those categories, according to the weekly crop report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Rippey said that's the lowest overall condition at this time of year since the 1988 drought.
The crop report rates 86% of topsoil and 83% of subsoil in North Dakota as being short or very short of moisture -- increases over the week.
"In the driest areas of the northern and western United States, drought’s impact on water supplies, as well as rangeland, pastures, and a variety of crops, was further amplified by ongoing heat," Rippey said. "Weekly temperatures averaged as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit above normal from the interior Northwest to the northern High Plains."
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.
More record heat
High temperatures across North Dakota this week have neared or surpassed triple digits, with Bismarck, Minot and Jamestown all setting record minimum temperatures on some days, according to the National Weather Service.
For example, in Bismarck on Wednesday the mercury didn't drop below 74 degrees. That broke a record that had stood for more than a century.
The average temperature for June 1 through July 20 in North Dakota was the second-hottest on record, behind 1936, according to the weather service. Bismarck has had 11 consecutive days with a high temperature of at least 90 degrees. The record is 18 days, also in 1936.
"The record ... is certainly in jeopardy, with current forecast highs of 90 or higher continuing through next Tuesday, which would be the 17th day in a row," the weather service said.
The dry conditions have led to one of the most severe wildfire seasons in recent memory, in North Dakota and elsewhere in the west.
North Dakota this year has had 1,682 wildfires that have burned a total of 112,268 acres, according to Beth Hill, acting outreach and education manager for the North Dakota Forest Service. The blackened acres are nearly 10 times what burned in all of 2020.
Hundreds of wildfires are raging in the western U.S. and Canada, and smoke from those fires is blanketing much of the continent, reaching thousands of miles away to the East Coast. Pollution from smoke reached unhealthy levels this week in communities from Washington state to Washington D.C., according to The Associated Press.
Much of North Dakota is within normal air quality limits, though Fargo and Grand Forks at times have dipped into unhealthy levels, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality, which has been monitoring the hazy conditions in the state.
"Smoke from distant fires has been following wind and weather patterns. Higher concentrations can sometimes build in lower-lying area or where air stagnates," state Air Quality Director Jim Semerad said. "This is what we appear to be experiencing in eastern North Dakota."
People who have respiratory issues should limit outdoor exposure in smoky areas, according to the agency.
North Dakota ranchers did get some additional relief this week -- the State Board of Animal Health granted a summer grazing exemption due to the drought. The move makes it easier for ranchers to move cattle out of state for grazing. For more information, go to https://bit.ly/3hYYi1g, or call the Agriculture Department's Animal Health Division at 701-328-2655.
The federal Risk Management Agency earlier this month said it will work with crop insurance companies to ensure quick and fair payments to impacted producers, and that it will allow producers to hay, graze or chop cover crops on prevented plant acres at any time and still receive their full crop insurance indemnity.
The State Water Commission previously approved $4.1 million in funding for the the Drought Disaster Livestock Water Supply Project Assistance Program, which provides 50% cost share assistance of up to $4,500 per project. For more information, go to www.swc.nd.gov or call the Water Commission at 701-328-4989.
The state Agriculture Department has reactivated the Drought Hotline and interactive hay map. For more information, go to www.nd.gov/ndda.
Information on federal tax relief options available to farmers and ranchers who have sold or are considering selling livestock because of drought is at https://bit.ly/3vGf6OR.
Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or firstname.lastname@example.org.