SPOKANE, Wash. — Ranchers in Eastern Washington who have lost grazing ground to drought or wildfire will be able to graze CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) land through Dec. 15, says Judith Olson, state director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Spokane.
That’s welcome news and will help meet the short-term needs of hundreds of ranchers throughout Eastern Washington dealing with grazing losses because of wildfires, said Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association in Ellensburg.
CRP land is environmentally-sensitive land the USDA pays farmers not to farm. There are 1,251,073 acres of CRP land in Eastern Washington and FSA is allowing grazing with no reduction in government payments to landowners, Olson said.
Grazing may not be practical on the entire acreage because of distance, lack of fencing and lack of water, she said.
CRP grazing was recently approved for drought victims. Wildfire victims need to get county FSA approval of National Resources Conservation Service grazing plans to use CRP lands, but that can be done quickly, Olson said
Emergency grazing of CRP land had been approved only through the end of the federal fiscal year, Sept. 30. The Cattlemen’s Association and Farm Bureau officials urged an extension to Dec. 15.
“We have been working on this but it was contingent upon weather conditions and approval from the national office,” Olson said.
Field said the extension was the most crucial thing that can be done for producers right now. Hundreds of ranchers in the northcentral, northeastern, southeastern and Mt. Adams area of the state have lost private and government allotment fall and spring grazing grounds to fires, he said. They are using winter ranges and hay early to get by and looking for short-term options for the fall, he said.
CRP can be a big help but doesn’t always work because ranchers have to truck their cattle to the site and often have to haul water, put up temporary electric fences and run back and forth from their homes to tend cattle, he said.
“Each producer has to decide if it can work for them,” Field said. “I’ve rented pasture 200 miles away and it’s very difficult.”
FSA has a cost-sharing program for hauling water to sites, he said.
CRP land is not available for grazing in the spring through Aug. 1 because of bird nesting, he said.
Okanogan County was disproportionately hit by the large Okanogan, Tunk Block and North Star fires, Field said.
Those fires total 518,540 acres out of more than 1 million acres burned in the state, according to fire officials. A lot of that land included grazing allotments.
It’s difficult to assess grazing needs because ranchers won’t fully know how many cows they’ve lost in fires until fall roundups, Field said.
Jon Wyss, president of the Okanogan County Farm Bureau, estimated 1,250 head of cattle are unaccounted for in the county. He said another 2,000 to 3,000 head probably will be sold off as ranchers decide they can’t feed them. All of that is about 43 percent of the 11,000 head in the county, he said.
A total of 980 cattle died in the Carlton fire in the county last year, he said.
Mother cows usually calve for seven years, so this year’s loss multiplied by seven years of production could be a $50 million loss in sales value, Wyss said.
Fewer cattle were sold off after the Carlton fire last year because more grazing land was available, much of what is burned now, he said.
“It’s unfortunate to be selling off herds because you can’t rebuild them overnight,” Field said. “In some situations generations of genetics and breeding are lost. Those cattle knew those ranges. It’s difficult to put other cattle out there on range they were not raised on.”
Herd reductions are bad for the Northwest beef industry, he said.
Wyss, who chairs a local fire recovery group, said 95 homes, 94 cabins, 20 shops and garages and 89 outbuildings burned in this year’s Okanogan fire. That doesn’t include Tunk Block and North Star and compares with 312 homes, plus outbuildings burned last year in the Carlton fire.
Wyss estimated 1,000 miles of fencing burned this year in the county that will cost an average of $8,000 per mile to replace.