Judge limits USDA CRP haying, grazing | TSLN.com

Judge limits USDA CRP haying, grazing

Adam Templeton
DTN Staff Reporter

File photoA U.S. district judge Thursday suspended USDA's ability to allow any more CRP land to be used for the critical-feed use haying and grazing program.

OMAHA (DTN) – A U.S. district judge issued a preliminary injunction against USDA Thursday suspending the department’s ability to sign up any more landowners for the critical-feed use haying and grazing program on Conservation Reserve Program land.

U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour in Seattle wrote in his order that USDA violated a federal environmental law when the department decided the CRP feed initiative would have no significant adverse environmental consequences and chose not to do an environmental impact study.

Coughenour made the decision in a federal lawsuit against USDA by the National Wildlife Federation and six of its state affiliates. USDA and the National Wildlife Federation could not come to terms on how to fairly balance the interests of wildlife and livestock producers who could suffer economic harm by not being allowed to hay or graze.

The ruling affects the haying and grazing program created by USDA in May to deal with critical-feed use for livestock. It does not impact any emergency haying or grazing that is allowed in individual states due to various disaster declarations. Those programs are distinctly different and operate under different rules.

“What is most important is that this decision does not involve or interfere with USDA’s authority to allow emergency haying and grazing in states such as Iowa, where those most in need of assistance are still recovering from the flooding and excessive rainfall,” stated Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-IA, when he heard about the ruling.

USDA officials did not respond to a call seeking comment and had not released a statement as of Thursday afternoon. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer said Wednesday he did not know how the court’s decision would end up affecting USDA’s ability to change the CRP program, such as allowing early-out without penalties.

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Harkin was critical of any decision to open up CRP. He said Thursday if USDA goes ahead and allows an early-out option without penalties, it would be unfair to those producers who have gone ahead and paid back their rental payments and paid the penalty to get out of the program.

Under Coughenour’s injunction, any farmer or livestock producer who has already applied for and received approval to turn CRP acres over to haying and grazing prior to the judge’s July 8 temporary restraining order may continue to do so. And farmers whose applications were submitted by that date but not yet processed may also be allowed to convert their land into forage ground, subject to Farm Service Agency approval.

When USDA announced the haying and grazing program, officials boasted of the potential of 24 million acres available. However, the total acreage of applications submitted before the July 8 temporary restraining order was about 1.78 million acres. USDA officials had hoped Coughenour would allow haying and grazing on at least three million acres.

Coughenour’s order states no additional application to hay or graze CRP lands may be accepted by the FSA unless applicants are able to prove they’ve invested at least $4,500 toward haying or grazing prior to July 8. Potential new applicants must also provide a declaration of their reliance on haying or grazing CRP lands.

The judge did not take into consideration arguments by the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council that acres should be dispersed across the country and many producers had not considered enrolling by the July 8 court orders because the primary nesting season ended later in their states. Coughenour did not address this issue.

Farmers who received approval before July 8 must cease all haying and grazing by November 10. Any farmers approved after the restraining order was issued are only allowed to continue haying until September 30 and grazing until October 15.

Rental fees paid to farmers for the CRP land will not be reduced, other than a $75 per contract modification fee.

Adam Templeton can be reached at adam.templeton@dtn.com