Hay, grazing plan in court | TSLN.com

Hay, grazing plan in court

Chris Clayton, DTN Staff Reporter

DTN file photoJust a little more than 10 percent of eligible CRP land is enrolled in the Critical Feed Use initiative, according to a USDA federal court brief.

OMAHA (DTN) – Only slightly more than 10 percent of eligible Conservation Reserve Program land is enrolled in USDA’s initiative to boost available livestock feed, even though the decision to open up the set-aside program has led to another USDA legal fight.

When announcing the Critical Feed Use initiative in May, the USDA secretary said allowing haying and grazing on CRP land would open up as much as 24 million additional acres from which livestock producers could draw feed. Officials said the initiative could generate as much as $1.8 billion in potential feed. Yet, in defending the feed program, a USDA federal court brief filed on Sunday stated that landowners were only expected to sign up about 2.5 million acres in the livestock feed program.

Regardless of how much land is involved, USDA finds itself tied up in another court case over a rule-making decision with a preliminary injunction now blocking landowners from haying or grazing CRP land after the primary nesting season for birds. The end of nesting season varies from state to state, ranging from July 1 to early September in some cases. The National Wildlife Federation brought the lawsuit last week, along with the NWF’s state affiliates in Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, South Dakota and Washington. The wildlife groups argue USDA should not be allowed to change the rules for haying and grazing because USDA has not done an environmental impact study.

A federal judge in Seattle issued a 10-day temporary injunction on July 8, after landowners in some states may have already begun to hay or graze affected property. A hearing is set for Thursday in Seattle on whether to continue the injunction.

The lawsuit deals specifically with the critical-feed use program established by USDA last May that included a $75 sign-up fee for all landowners who participated. The lawsuit does not affect emergency haying and grazing enrollment in counties considered disaster areas or contiguous to disaster areas.

USDA, responding to the lawsuit over the weekend, stated that the department did an environmental impact study on its rules for CRP haying and grazing following the 2002 farm bill. In preparing for the May 27 announcement, USDA conducted an “environmental evaluation” as well as a “matrix of environmental relationships” based on the different options USDA considered before choosing its haying and grazing decision.

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USDA spelled out several restrictions on haying and grazing meant to minimize the environmental impact. Those restrictions included ensuring that land could only be hayed or grazed after the primary nesting season for birds. Some land or forage must remain reserved for wildlife by landowners, so only 50 percent of a farm may be hayed or grazed. The stocking rate for grazing also is limited to 75 percent of the normal level. The most environmentally-sensitive lands cannot enroll in the haying or grazing program and the entire program will end by Nov. 10.

Agricultural groups support USDA’s initiative. On Tuesday, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation will file a joint amicus brief backing USDA’s decision.

USDA argues that none of the individual plaintiffs in the case can show they are being truly affected by the haying and grazing rule. The plaintiffs also have not identified any specific lands where the National Wildlife Federation’s members have been harmed by the decision.

The 2002 farm bill gave USDA the authority to manage haying and grazing on CRP land. Because of disputes over the way USDA’s Farm Service Agency was using its authority in regards to haying and grazing, the national Wildlife Federation sued USDA in 2004 in the same Washington federal court dealing with the current case. USDA and the National Wildlife Federation settled that lawsuit in 2006 with an agreement that allowed haying in one year out of 10 on CRP land in the western U.S. and “sharply limited” USDA’s ability to use grazing as a management tool, according to the current court record. USDA agreed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act before modifying any terms of the 2006 agreement.

In mid-March of this year, FSA announced 13 state offices were preparing environmental assessments on whether to make changes in the way USDA managed haying and grazing on CRP land. The National Wildlife Federation argues that to the best of the public’s knowledge, those state assessments are still being conducted.

The wildlife groups argue that the haying and grazing order did not include environmental assessments on affected ground. The groups also argue that USDA violated its own CRP handbook by not reducing rental rates for landowners who enrolled in the critical-feed program.

Chris Clayton can be reached at chris.clayton@dtn.com.