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USDA’s Haying & Grazing Announcement has Positive and Negative implications

Washington, D.C. – Pheasants Forever (PF) and Quail Forever (QF) have a mix of reactions as a result of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s announcement to open more than 24 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands to haying and grazing later this summer. While the move holds some habitat benefits, it does create problems for hunters this fall and sends the wrong message about the value of CRP to America. Also looming is the recurring discussion about “early-outs” from CRP contracts.

On the positive, haying and grazing can be an excellent tool for landowners to perform the contractually required mid-contract management activities on their CRP acres. Disturbance of “old” grass stands does improve the cover’s vigor as wildlife habitat, as well as the stand’s ability to produce insects for young ground-nesting birds. In fact, nearly one-third of these acres are eligible for haying and grazing every year without this USDA announcement. The USDA appropriately opened these acres after the primary nesting season for ground-nesting birds has ended. Appropriately, this announcement also did not make some of the most environmentally sensitive CRP acres eligible for this activity. CRP practices that include CREP, CCRP, riparian buffers, bobwhite buffers, and the new state-specific CP 38 wildlife practices are not eligible for haying and grazing.

The move addresses escalating feed and forage costs for ranchers. Rewarding the farmers and ranchers that participate in CRP is a positive move for promoting the long-term enrollment of CRP acres as part of any successful working farm operation. Similarly, USDA also recently began the soil rental rate up-date process; a move PF & QF supports as an excellent step to maintaining CRP as an economically competitive program.

However, there are significant negatives to this USDA move. First, the USDA’s announcement sets the end date to haying and grazing at November 10th. This late date is detrimental for habitat and hunters, and should be moved up to October 1st or earlier. By November 10th, it is too late for the growth of residual grass critical as nesting habitat next spring.

The decision also will have a dramatic impact on hunter access in states where public walk-in programs for hunters are tied to CRP acres. “Core pheasant hunting states like South Dakota, North Dakota, and Nebraska and quail states like Texas and Oklahoma stand to lose considerable fall cover for hunting opportunities depending upon how widely haying and grazing is implemented,” explained Dave Nomsen, PF/QF’s Vice President of Government Affairs.

“This USDA action sends a clear message to conservationists that while we finally have a new Farm Bill, our work to continue CRP’s legacy for wildlife and natural resources is on-going,” added Nomsen. “The message conservationists need to deliver back to decision makers is that CRP acres should never be the rainy day solution to every hurdle in their path. For two years, we’ve heard of the demand for early-outs to CRP contracts to solve issues of limited commodity supplies and corn-based ethanol production. Today, it’s a different use. Tomorrow, some other special interest group will want CRP acres for something else. Acres enrolled in CRP are already ‘working lands;’ they are cleaning our waters, keeping our soils on the ground, creating habitat for wildlife, and providing opportunities for hunters. These are tangible benefits all Americans receive from CRP. We’re hopeful this USDA announcement represents a one-time action to help farmers and ranchers that will also curtail pressures for early-outs. Compromising CRP’s array of natural resource benefits will not be tolerated by conservationists, hunters, Pheasants Forever, or Quail Forever.”

Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever are non-profit conservation organizations dedicated to the protection and enhancement of pheasant, quail, and other wildlife populations in North America through habitat improvement, land management, public awareness, and education. PF/QF has more than 127,000 members in 700 local chapters across the continent.