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Feds allowing haying, grazingin of conservation land

BISMARCK (AP) -- North Dakota ranchers will have 1.6 million more acres available for haying and grazing beginning next week, though not all of the land is likely to be useful to cattle producers trying to keep their animals fed during drought.

Ranchers will be able to graze animals or cut grass and bale it for hay on land set aside in a federal conservation program. The Conservation Reserve Program pays landowners to plant grass on environmentally-sensitive land as a way to reduce soil erosion and provide habitat for wildlife such as pheasants.

The federal government is allowing ranchers across the nation to use CRP land for grazing or cutting hay -- but not both -- this year because pastures have dried up in the widest drought in decades.

"It has been a difficult year for many of our North Dakota livestock producers to source feed, and this will certainly help," Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said.

Land in North Dakota is being opened Thursday, after the primary nesting season in the state ends, according to Aaron Krauter, state director for the federal Farm Service Agency. Landowners who opt to graze or cut hay will lose 10 percent of the government payments they get from the program, but they will be able to cut grass through August or graze through September.

"It would have been nice if a person could have gotten in (to hay CRP land) sooner ... but it helps a lot," Zap rancher Jack Reich said.

Reich ranches in western North Dakota, which is abnormally dry and on the edge of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Some of his CRP land will not be suitable for haying because of the dry conditions, he said.

"The same issue on our hay fields is actually in the CRP as well ... there isn't really enough there to make it worth the time," he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest crop and weather report shows that about one-third of the grazing land in North Dakota is in poor or very poor condition, and more than one-third of the hay is rated in those categories.

Reich said ranchers in need might have to seek out landowners with CRP land in wetter areas of the state.

"They might have to haul (the hay) home but at least there's some forage out there for people," he said.

Ranchers looking to buy or sell feed can use the North Dakota State University Extension Service FeedList website, at

.edu/feedlist, or contact their local extension office. The FeedList serves as a clearinghouse for the purchase and sale of feed.

Nearly all of North Dakota is considered abnormally dry or in moderate-to-severe drought, but the state is better off than many others that are dealing with extreme drought. Many ranchers also are in decent shape because the mild winter enabled them to save feed that they can use now.

"If we didn't have that, we would be in a lot of trouble," said Reich, who normally makes about 2,000 bales of hay during the summer but has made only 200 this year. "I've got enough carry-over from last year that I'm going to be OK."

The CRP opening will be a blessing to North Dakota ranchers who sold hay last year to their drought-stricken counterparts in southern states such as Texas and did not have a lot of carry-over, he said.