Despite drought, more grazing unlikely soon on state WMAs
St. Paul — The months-long drought that’s gripped the Midwest this summer, and which has stretched into parts of Minnesota, resulted last week in a sweeping emergency haying and grazing declaration for private lands enrolled in federal conservation programs, including a big chunk of acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program in Minnesota.
Now, local officials are looking at measures to allow for additional haying and/or grazing of lands that are part of federal-state conservation partnerships, and possibly public conservation acres, such as state wildlife management areas.
The latter, officials, say, most likely won’t see changes beyond the grazing already being allowed on about 10,000 acres – a management practice to reduce brush and trees, and encourage new growth of vegetation productive as habitat.
Other acres, however, could see additional hooves or mowers passing through.
John Jaschke, executive director for the state Board of Water and Soil Resources, said state officials are considering how to deal with the possible additional grazing/mowing of grasses on set-aside acres enrolled in three programs: Re-invest in Minnesota, the Wetlands Reserve Program, and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, as in many cases both federal and state dollars are being used to pay landowners for the conservation benefits.
“We haven’t made a final decision yet,” Jaschke said Tuesday, adding that BWSR is working with federal officials, and that state agencies must protect the investment of state dollars in the programs.
He said there are areas where haying or grazing likely could take place without harming habitat, noting that when CRP recently was opened to emergency haying and grazing, limitations were put in place to protect “environmentally sensitive” areas.
Other restrictions on how much (percentage of the enrolled tract) may be hayed or grazed also apply.
Individual haying and grazing is allowed in some cases, sans drought, Jaschke said, but “this would be a more general and broader, but short-term opportunity.”
Grazing would be one option, but with that practice comes the need for fencing and for watering livestock. “Haying might be a little more convenient and practical,” he said.
Jaschke said he didn’t expect to see great demand for either practice, should it be made available to livestock owners, but said if some acres are opened for such use, that it likely would be allowed just through September, allowing for some regrowth of the grasses. He also said when properly managed, haying and grazing can be beneficial.
“Generally it can be a good thing for habitat, with limited duration and limited volume of animals on the land,” he said.
DNR officials hold a similar viewpoint. Ed Boggess, DNR Fish and Wildlife Division director, said the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources has recommended (Legislature must approve) a grant of $600,000 to allow the department to open to grazing another 10,000 acres of WMA land. Boggess said the DNR has an eventual goal of 50,000 acres. There currently is a total of 1.4 million WMA acres in the state.
Officially, Boggess said, the DNR is “very supportive of grazing where it makes sense.” He said the department is sympathetic to the plight of farmers in the parts of the state most affected by drought, but that the DNR must “maintain the integrity” of WMAs.
However, he added, “We’re not aware of any real pressure to open WMAs” to haying or grazing.
Boggess said the matter was raised at a meeting of farm groups in the state, along with state Department of Agriculture officials.
Fire and grazing in the southern part of the state long have been the most effective means to retain a prairie landscape, he said. Some cutting of perennial grasses also has been used to do the same.
“We’ve made it clear that for WMAs we’ve been encouraging grazing where it makes sense for management,” Boggess said.
Eventually, the DNR would like to see livestock producers paying for the right to graze animals on WMAs, rather than the department paying to have brush and trees removed from the prairie acres.
Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, attended the meeting with state ag department officials and other groups.
Peterson said he believes there would be little demand to graze WMA acres at this point, because it would be cost-prohibitive; farmers would bear the cost of providing fencing for livestock. He acknowledged that there’s a public investment in state WMAs.
On conservation lands where this is grazing, he said, “I don’t think we should over-graze habitat to the point where we lose vegetative cover.”
Mostly, Peterson said, there’s a need for a “feedstock reserve,” something that should be included in federal farm bill legislation. Such a strategy, he said, would protect against peaks and valleys in the availability of food for livestock. So far, he said, that hasn’t been part of federal legislation.
Peterson said the reserve would provide stability, and reduce the need for some emergency measures being seen during the widespread drought of 2012.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor from July 24, about one-fourth of Minnesota was experiencing “modest drought.” Another one-fourth was “abnormally dry.” The other half of the state had no drought conditions.
Boggess said state officials were “finalizing the details” regarding acres enrolled in Minnesota’s Walk-In Access program. The USDA’s move to open CRP acreage to emergency haying and grazing created another dilemma for the DNR, which is paying landowners to open some of that land in the southwest to public hunting.
Boggess said if landowners who have land enrolled in CRP take advantage of haying and grazing options – while also having a WIA contract with the DNR – would likely see a reduced payment from the DNR. He said only a portion of CRP tracts are allowed to be hayed and/or grazed, so at most locations, some habitat suitable for hunting would remain available.