Dayton requests emergency haying, grazing from USDA

St. Paul — In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, due to drought conditions, allowed emergency haying and grazing on CRP lands in Minnesota.

What a difference a year makes.

In mid-June, Gov. Mark Dayton requested the USDA again allow emergency haying and grazing on CRP and Wetlands Reserve Program lands  – this time because there’s too much water.

“I am writing to urge you to take swift action to assist Minnesota livestock producers who are experiencing serious difficulty in sourcing feedstuffs due to the widespread winter kill of our alfalfa crop and the persistent wet conditions that have prevented many Minnesota farmers from planting a crop in a timely fashion,” Dayton wrote in his letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.

As of Monday, the USDA had not responded to Gov. Dayton’s request, according to the governor’s press secretary, Matt Swenson.

However, Dayton also directed state agencies to look at what state lands potentially could be opened to emergency haying and grazing.

Some lands that won’t be open, at least because of the water emergency, are those lands enrolled in Reinvest in Minnesota.

That’s because, by statute, RIM lands only can be opened to emergency haying and grazing due to drought. There’s no mention in statute of too much water, said Bill Penning, conservation easement section manager for the state Board of Water and Soil Resources, which administers RIM.

“We can’t open RIM lands for an emergency related to too much moisture,” he said. “We’re not going to do that.”

But that doesn’t necessarily mean those lands can’t be hayed or grazed. Why?

“We’ve always allowed haying and grazing on RIM lands for habitat management purposes,” Penning said. “If you want to hay or graze RIM land under a (water) emergency, we can’t do that. But if you want to do habitat management (via haying and grazing), then we would be willing to work with you on that.”

According to John Jaschke, executive director of BWSR, there are about 250,000 acres of private land that have RIM conservation easements, the majority of which are wetland restorations with grassland buffers.

Under statute, a RIM easement holder who wants to hay or graze would have to submit a management plan to local Soil and Water Conservation District. No hay, he said, can be sold at market. In addition, at least 50 percent of each easement area must remain undisturbed for wildlife, and haying/grazing grasses should be harvested no shorter than 6 inches in height to ensure regrowth.

“There may be a special circumstance on the height requirement if the management plan calls for over-seeding an area to diversify the plant community,” Jaschke said, noting the period for haying and grazing ends Nov. 1.

Dave Nomsen is the vice president for governmental affairs with Pheasants Forever. He says the issue of authorizing haying and grazing on state or federal conservation lands in Minnesota in general has become “more complicated and complex” as the state losses grassland acres to agricultural production.

“Because of the loss of CRP (acres), native prairie and pasture, the pool for wildlife is shrinking rapidly and makes these decisions much more difficult,” he said. “In the long term, we need to better balance the needs of wildlife, the environment and agriculture.”

Tom Kalahar, a longtime conservation technician with the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District, wonders if opening conservation easements to haying and grazing is warranted.

“We basically haven’t heard a word from any producer that there is a shortage of forage or a need,” he said. “I’m not sure where the pressure is coming from, and it’s really kind of baffling. It just seems to me it really doesn’t make much difference if it is drought or rain, there’s always pressure to utilize the forage source. What we have is a grassland shortage, because we’re growing so much corn and soybeans. If we need more grass, plant more grass. That’s the solution.”

Jaschke said that all grasslands, especially older stands, need periodic management.

“We don’t have any natural disturbances anymore, and this is one way to protect our public investment and realize conservation benefits,” he said. “I’m confident we can do this and preserve habitat benefits. Any disturbed grass will come back bigger and better in the years to come.”

— Joe Albert contributed to this story.

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