Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack opened the first of four scheduled regional drought workshops Oct. 9 by listing the programs USDA and other federal agencies have made available to producers. But those efforts, while providing some immediate aid, are hampered by the failure of Congress to pass a new five-year farm bill.
"We don't have the financial assistance we had last year to help livestock producers because provisions expired with the existing farm bill Sept. 30, or were not continued by Congress earlier," Vilsack said. "Our job would be easier if Congress would pass a farm bill after the elections."
During the day-long event in Omaha, Vilsack, other cabinet officials, Extension personnel from several states, local and state agency and farm groups sought to identify solutions to address the current drought, which speakers called the worst since the 1930s. Much of the discussion focused on the severe impacts of the drought.
Two-thirds of the counties in the continental United States have been designated as disaster areas due to the drought, Vilsack said. In Nebraska, 98% of the counties are in the top two categories of drought severity, as shown on the U.S. Drought Monitor map, according to Greg Ibach, director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.
Dryland crop producers felt the impact in reduced yield or, in some cases, none at all, but crop insurance served as a safety net for those producers. While irrigated crops in Nebraska fared much better, energy costs for pumping water soared.
Three additional drought workshops are planned—in Colorado, Arkansas and Ohio. The purpose, he said, is to identify resources from all levels of government that can provide assistance to farmers and rural communities.
Most speakers agreed that livestock producers are suffering the harshest impacts as a result of dramatically reduced rangeland/pasture grass production and higher feed costs.
Dairy producers face the serious consequences of not only higher feed costs, but the loss of Milk Income Loss Contract payments with the failure to sign into law a new farm bill. Pork producers are experiencing financial losses and will continue to do so in 2013, said Shane Ellis, Iowa State University ag economist. He said one impact will be continued loss of smaller and mid-size swine operations and continued concentration in the industry. Referring to beef producers, Ellis said that the beef herd isn't able to expand because the nation's cowherd inventory is the lowest in decades.
In a panel discussion, UNL animal scientists said beef producers are using cheaper feed sources, including increased use of cornstalks, not only for grazing but also for use in feedlot rations. One option for beef producers with limited amounts of forage is drylotting cows, although feed costs will be high.
Making federal programs and regulations more flexible can ease some of the drought's impacts, Vilsack said. He cited haying and grazing of Conservation Reserve Program acres.
Dale Rodman, Kansas secretary of agriculture, told Vilsack of depleted farm ponds in that state and the need for financial assistance to remove silt from them.
Adjusting federal programs such as crop insurance to plant more cover crops for additional grazing could help beef producers, Vilsack said.
Speakers cited the need to recognize and document secondary impacts of the drought, including lower river flows that restrict barge movement, lower Rocky Mountain runoff and harm to wildlife, tourism/recreation, and local businesses. Thomas Guevara, with the U.S. Department of Commerce, said many communities are worrying about reduced domestic water supplies
No one at the workshop specifically predicted a multi-year drought, but that fear was voiced often. Doug Kluck of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the October-to-December precipitation outlook is not good, and beyond that, "be prepared for the worst. Without soaking rains, this won't get better quickly."
Kluck added, "We've seen 5 to 10 years of below normal precipitation in a row."
Vilsack said the Obama Administration has directed all Cabinet offices that have programs affecting rural affairs to combine forces on drought relief. That is taking place under a White House Rural Council which was established a year ago.