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USDA to expedite livestock disaster programs: Heitkamp’s ‘pressing’ goal reached

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp on Friday received the news she had been waiting for, and it could bode well for ranchers affected by last October’s blizzard.

In a release sent on Valentine’s Day, the North Dakota Democrat’s staff announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will expedite the implementation of the livestock disaster programs which were reauthorized as part of the Agriculture Act of 2014.

Commonly known as the farm bill — and flagged by Heitkamp as one of her most pressing goals during her first year in office — the legislation was signed into law by President Barack Obama on Feb. 7.

“When we started with this, people would ask me what the injury would be for not having a farm bill,” Heitkamp said. “We knew that we could maybe make it through until the beginning of the next crop year, but we’ve had ranchers with uncompensated losses for almost three years now. This has always been a high priority because this is the one spot we could point to where the delay in passing a farm bill has had an effect.”

Though negotiations for the bill dragged on for months — much to the chagrin of many growers and ranchers in North Dakota — Heitkamp said Friday’s announcement is important because the USDA will begin accepting applications to cover losses dating back to October 2011 on April 14. Heitkamp also encouraged all affected parties to file for assistance for also foliage losses.

“Right after the farm bill passed, we encouraged Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to immediately begin to look at how we could provide this assistance as soon as possible,” Heitkamp said. “He sprang into action and it looks like we’re going to see this in April, which is really good news for the ranchers who suffered losses. Hopefully it will come in enough time so that they can rebuild their herds.”

A nasty winter storm known as the Atlas blizzard dumped several feet of snow in parts of southwest North Dakota and northwest South Dakota last October, leading to the deaths of thousands of cattle in the region. Heitkamp and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., sent a letter to Vilsack On Feb. 5, urging the secretary to expedite the implementation of the disaster programs. Heitkamp also met in person with Vilsack last week, according to her staff.

“In the Dakotas, our ranchers have felt the dire consequences of not having livestock disaster assistance available,” Kenny Graner, president of the Independent Beef Association of North Dakota, stated in a release. “The storm in October devastated so many of our cattle herds — the livelihoods of so many of us. But now things have changed. (Friday’s) announcement is great news for ranchers all across North Dakota and South Dakota, especially for some of our neighbors who would be forced out of business if this support wasn’t made available.”

Though the blizzard received national attention, it wasn’t the only cause of hardship for ranchers over the past few years, Heitkamp said.

“We had some other pretty serious livestock losses before the snowstorm,” Heitkamp said. “We want to make sure that those are also taken care of. What people need to do now is to call the FSA office as soon as possible and find out how to make that claim.”

Heitkamp told a room full of ranchers to document any and all losses during a late October visit to Hettinger. She said affected parties can call their USDA’s Farm Service Agency or visit the FSA website — — for more information.

“We’re grateful for Senator Heitkamp’s efforts and appreciate that the USDA recognized the importance of expediting the reauthorization of the livestock disaster assistance programs,” Jason Zahn, president of the North Dakota Stockman’s Association, said in a statement. “Renewal and retroactivity of application of the livestock disaster programs were the Stockmen’s Association’s top farm bill priority and took on added significance after winter storm Atlas, which claimed tens of thousands of animals in the Dakotas in October.”

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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