This summer's drought and dry weather has South Dakota farmers frantic; not only in terms of production, but in finding ways to feed their livestock. Although farmers are permitted to cut and bale from state highway ditches in such conditions, farmers involved in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), are concerned about their easements.
The Conservation Reserve Program is administered by the United States Farm Service Agency, and prohibits the mowing or haying of grassland until July 15. The paid agreement, made between landowners and the FSA, is legally binding and exists in perpetuity. The program aims to keep the land as grassland rather than agricultural land, and to allow grassland birds time to finish nesting before disturbing the grass.
Wildlife Refuge Manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service David Azure states that while the FSA and related programs are aware of the issue, "it's actually a right that the landowner sells to the Fish and Wildlife Service. And they're paid for that right." Although permits and exceptions have been issued previously for changes to the contract that will benefit the nesting birds or improve the land quality, shortening the wait period is not considered such a benefit.
However, the FSA is helping where it can. "We are trying to do what we can to ease the pain a little bit. Our managers here, for example, are going to get their hay packets out for bids a good two, three weeks earlier than they typically would to try to give the producers some certainty or some idea of what might be available. I've asked them to go back and review what their management plans were for the year and if they can find more acres to make available for hay. They're making a conscious effort to do that, so you know, we are trying to use the flexibility and latitude where we can where it aligns with our management objectives to find the overlap with producers and do what we can to put more acres up into hay," said USFWS Public Affairs Specialist Ryan Moehring.
The FSA began forming these agreements in 1990. In Spink county, easements for approximately 14,000 acres of grassland have been purchased, only 10-20% of which consists of hay land. There are 55 grassland easements in the county.
The United States Department of Agriculture has recently released CRP land for areas in severe or extreme drought conditions, determined by the U.S. Drought Monitor. These areas include Brown, Campbell, Walworth, Potter, Edmunds, and Faulk counties.