The federal government is allowing millions of acres of land now left idle to be used for haying and grazing, after birds have finished nesting on grasslands this summer.
Federal Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said Tuesday that high crop prices and tight food supplies have increased the demand for farm land. The livestock industry has been the hardest hit, with soaring feed costs and fewer acres for grazing, he said.
"A lot of people are moving hay acres into commodity crops," said Schafer, a former North Dakota governor. "We're doing this in an effort to help with feed costs with those who run livestock operations."
The Conservation Reserve Program, which started in 1985, pays landowners to idle environmentally sensitive land for conservation. Farmers are paid to plant cover such as grass on the land.
The government's move Tuesday has its critics. Kevin Kading, private lands coordinator for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said disturbing CRP land will have an impact on wildlife, which has flourished under the program and has been a boon for hunters.
"There are many reasons we don't want to see this going away — this is just one more thing compromising the program," he said.
Landowners received about $1.9 billion from the CRP last year. It pays a nationwide average of about $50 per acre annually.
In mid-April, there were 34.6 million acres enrolled in the CRP, down about 2 million from a year ago, the USDA said. The program currently is authorized at 39.2 million acres, or about 10 percent of U.S. crop land.
Schafer said more than 24 million acres of land enrolled in CRP will be eligible for haying and grazing under the move announced Tuesday. It will make available about 18 million tons of forage worth $1.2 billion, he said.
"It's a positive step, and we applaud the secretary of agriculture for recognizing the need," said Bill Roenigk, chairman of Alliance for Agriculture Growth and Competitiveness, a group representing beef, poultry, pork, grain and feed industries.
The group has been unsuccessfully lobbying the Agriculture Department since 2005 to allow landowners to pull out of CRP contracts without penalty.
"It offers greater options for haying and grazing, but it should go beyond that, and allow people to come of out CRP early if they want to, to plant crops," Roenigk said of Schafer's announcement.
Schafer said he still plans to make a decision in August or September on whether to allow "penalty-free release of land" for the 2009 crop year.
The most vulnerable CRP land is not eligible for the haying and grazing program, which is in effect this year only, Schafer said. Grazing on the land this year must be completed by Nov. 10, and only one cutting of hay is allowed on it.
The USDA has allowed emergency haying on CRP land in North Dakota and other states due to drought in other years. CRP payments were reduced if the land is opened to haying and grazing during drought years, though ranchers typically pay farmers the percentage of lost income for allowing use of the land.
North Dakota has about 3 million acres enrolled in the CRP, after losing about 400,000 acres from contracts that were not renewed last year. It was the biggest exodus of acres of any state from the program.