State lawmakers from southeastern Minnesota are assessing their options to help livestock producers who are facing steep prices for forage to feed their cows.
Three extreme weather trends have happened in succession in the last year to create the hay shortage, said Minnesota Farmers Union lobbyist Thom Petersen. Last year’s drought conditions put pressure on alfalfa and other plants that are used to make hay. Minnesota then lost about 750,000 acres of alfalfa due to a large winter kill. And the wet spring prevented farmers from getting into their fields until much later than usual.
“The dairy farmers are some of the ones that got hit the hardest,” Petersen said. “They had their winter kill of alfalfa. Then they couldn’t seed it in because it was too wet [this spring]. And forage was already tight because of the drought we had last year that put extreme stress on our system.”
In a letter dated June 14, Gov. Mark Dayton asked for assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In the letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Dayton asked for a waiver related to the federal crop insurance program. Farmers receive payments if they are unable to plant crops due to bad weather. But they are assessed a penalty if they harvest crops before Nov. 1.
Dayton asked for a waiver of the Nov. 1 deadline to provide temporary relief for livestock farmers being affected by the hay shortage. Dayton also asked for federal conservation lands, such as the acres held in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), to be opened up for emergency haying and grazing.
As of Thursday afternoon, Dayton hadn’t received a response from the USDA. But observers like Petersen and state Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, concede the Nov. 1 waiver has a slim-to-none chance of being granted. Federal officials are hesitant to make exceptions to the rules of the crop insurance program.
“I understand where they care coming from, I just disagree with it,” Schmit said.
Schmit said he hopes that the federal government declares the winter kill a disaster, which will make low-interest loans available. But the deadline waiver is the “most straightforward way” of replenishing the region’s hay stocks, he said.
Petersen said there’s a better chance the federal government will allow emergency haying and grazing of cover crops on CRP land. But he noted that much of the land that’s enrolled in CRP is located in northwestern and west-central Minnesota, far from the epicenter of the problem.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, who said he’s heard several constituents talk about the high prices for hay, said he’s talked to officials with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) about allowing mowing along highway ditches as a source of hay. He said that will be possible for farmers who receive a permit after Aug. 1.
“It’s really tough on livestock farmers,” Drazkowski said. “Not only is the supply of hay low, but if they are going to buy hay, the price obviously is very high and it costs money to have it hauled in.”
John Jaschke, the executive director of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BOWSR), which oversees a number of conservation land programs, said his agency plans to communicate with conservation landowners about their options after the federal decision is made. He noted that haying or grazing can be done on land in the Reinvest in Minnesota conservation program if it’s deemed a better management technique than burning.
“After August 1,” Jaschke said, “if there’s a plan developed for how the land will be hayed and grazed, [then] for conservation benefit, we will do some proactive communication to tell people that if they’ve got an old stand of grass that could benefit from removal via either haying or grazing, let’s see if we can line up people who can use that material rather than burning it.”