Feds open conservation land to grazing, cutting

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 11, 2014 - 9:27 PM

After a torrential spring, officials opened conservation land to livestock grazing and hay cutting.

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A cornfield partially under water from torential rains the night before, near Mankato.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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With rain-ruined grasslands and hayfields unavailable to feed livestock, the federal government has decided to let ranchers in seven Minnesota counties graze their animals and cut hay on land usually reserved for conservation.

The emergency measures are the latest byproduct of a year of extreme weather conditions that have severely challenged Minnesota’s agricultural community.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Monday that so much rain fell from March to July in Carver, Kittson, Le Sueur, McLeod, Rock, Roseau and Sibley counties that livestock producers lost 40 percent or more of their available feed.

Precipitation in each of the counties was at least 140 percent of average for the spring and early summer months, the USDA’s Minnesota Farm Service Agency reported.

Farmers must still apply for permission to take advantage of the emergency grazing and hay cutting program and follow strict rules. But they welcomed the news.

“We had a very, very wet spring,” said rancher Brian Schmidt, who raises cattle in Le Sueur. “Where we usually cut hay was underwater.”

Creeks in pastures also overflowed in downpours, pushing silt over grass that livestock normally eat.

So, Schmidt will need to let his animals graze and cut hay on 150 acres that are normally part of the federal conservation reserve program.

The move will let Schmidt and others who use the emergency service avoid costs of hauling in feed for their herds.

The quality of the hay and grass on conservation lands is generally not optimal, said Le Sueur rancher Tom Helfter.

“The stems can be like a lead pencil,” he said. “But the cattle will eat the leaves.”

Conservation groups sometimes take a dim view of disturbing conservation tracts. But Bob St. Pierre of St. Paul-based Pheasants Forever said the cuttings and grazing will take place after the main nesting season for pheasants and “ground nesting wildlife.” Cutting hay and grazing “can be good for habitat when done properly,” St. Pierre added. He stressed the need to keep the activity away from water sources and trees.

Livestock producers must contact local farm-service agency offices before they begin hay cutting or grazing. They have to sign modified conservation plans with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

No more than 75 percent of their conservation land can be used for emergency grazing and no more than 50 percent for hay cutting. Neither activity can take place within 120 feet of permanent bodies of water or acreage devoted to trees. There are also time limits on how long each activity can continue.

Even with restrictions, many farmers prefer the program to importing feed after enduring a frigid winter, a rainy spring and early summer and, now, a hot, dry August. Roughly 100 days of subzero weather in northern Minnesota hurt winter grain shipments and deliveries. Then, spring floods in the south led to presidential disaster declarations for some localities. Now, an August mini-drought has burned up or stunted some of what was growing.

All of it has left some in the agricultural community feeling whipsawed.

“We’re kind of getting it coming and going,” said Dar Geiss, president of the Minnesota Cattlemen’s Association.

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