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State officials hear concerns from local ranchers

Sue Sitter/PCT Gov. Doug Burgum, right, presents drought statistics to a group of area ranchers and farmers at Rugby’s Coffee Cottage as State Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, center, and Maj. Gen. Alan Dohrmann of the North Dakota National Guard look on.

Ranchers and farmers struggling with exceptional drought conditions filled a banquet room at Rugby’s Coffee Cottage June 17, sharing their stories with Gov. Doug Burgum and North Dakota water and ag officials.

The standing-room-only crowd spilled out into the hallway and parking lot of the restaurant as they listened to information on state programs that might help solve at least some of their problems. Most in the crowd said they owned livestock, while a few said they farmed in the area.

Although most attendees said they lived fewer than 20 miles from Rugby, some in the crowd had traveled from Stanley or Cavalier County for the town hall.

Burgum opened the listening session by sharing a report from federal drought monitors. “We’ve gone from 99 percent and some change of drought in North Dakota being in drought and now we’re officially at 100 percent in drought,” Burgum said. “Two-thirds of the state is in D3 (extreme drought) or D4 (exceptional drought). That’s 64.5 percent in extreme or exceptional drought. The 18 percent that’s in exceptional drought, which of course encompasses a big chunk of the darkest part of the state which many of you are hailing from.”

Most of Pierce County and all of neighboring McHenry County lie in an area represented on a map by a dark brown crescent shape swooping to the Towner County line in the northeast to Dunn and Mountrail counties in the southwest. The area depicts drought conditions on a scale of D0 (abnormally dry) to D4 (exceptional drought).

Burgum described problems already cropping up from the extremely dry conditions in the state.

“We’ve had over 1,400 fires in North Dakota so far,” Burgum said. “Over 100,000 acres have burned. We had our first wildfire in January. Fire season doesn’t even officially start until this time of year and we were fighting fires near Hettinger and Scranton on the South Dakota border in January.”

Burgum added, “That’s 156 square miles. That’s 4 ¢ townships that have burned and we’re in the middle of June. By comparison, last year in the entire year, we only burned 12,000 acres through the whole 12-month period.”

The drought’s impact on ranching took up most of the discussion at the meeting.

“Whether you’re at the sale barn in Rugby, or down in Napoleon, where last week they were expecting 2,500 head – 3,500 showed up – I know this is a challenging time because a lot of you had to cull your herds in ’17 and you got the genetics you liked, and now we’re in a spot where we can’t even get through the summer,” Burgum told the crowd. “We know that drought can be really devastating.”

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring told the group, “Since February, I’ve continued to get calls about the drought.”

Goehring described changes in federal and state programs since 2006 to help farmers and ranchers navigate disasters such as drought.

“You no longer have to look at a disaster declaration to trigger programs that you can access within the USDA,” Goehring said. “So, if you’re in D3 or D4, it triggers and automatically makes programs available with the Emergency Conservation Program, the Emergency Livestock Assistance Program and the Livestock Indemnity Program, which is always available if you have issues,” he said, adding, “I know the USDA is available to answer any questions.”

“But,” Goehring added, “there are programs like the Livestock Forage Program and then there were funds that were actually available for the state of North Dakota shared between our department and the NDSU Extension to deal with stress management, credit counseling and mediation services. We know people aren’t necessarily thinking about that at this moment, but we know everybody’s under stress and they have some opportunities to access this.”

Goehring joined Major Gen. Alan Dorhmann of the North Dakota National Guard, Cody Shulz of the North Dakota Emergency Services office and John Paczkowski, interim engineer for the North Dakota Water Commission to listen to concerns voiced by ranchers and others in the crowd.

Dohrmann and Shulz also described how North Dakota had prepared for the state’s unprecedented wildfire season.

Miranda Meehan, who serves as disaster coordinator for the NDSU Extension Office also outlined services available from the extension such as water testing, crucial when evaporation changes the quality of water for cattle.

Burgum’s staff were joined by local state representatives Dick Anderson of District 6 and Jon Nelson of District 14, which includes Pierce County. State Senator Jerry Klein, Pierce County Extension Agent Brenden Klebe and Pierce County USDA representative Gary Kraft also attended.

“Livestock producers first and foremost are the ones that would be more devastated by any drought,” Goehring told the crowd. “Because as farmers, we have crop insurance and although it’s not the greatest tool to mitigate our risk, at least it’s a tool that we have. Livestock producers need water and feed and we’re challenged this year because the drought is far-reaching and it goes beyond our borders.”

Goehring said he remembered when “we were feeding cattle for $1.25 to $1.60 a day. Now, we’re talking about $2.67 and upwards of and over $3.70. At that, I know you’re having to deal with, how many of these cows am I actually retaining?”

Goehring noted “at least some tax laws” had changed to help ranchers deal with the impact of capital gains should they decide to sell off some of their herds, provided the ranchers bought back their livestock within four years.

“But, that’s not so easy when you’re looking at exiting the business anyway,” Goehring added.

Most questions from the audience centered on accessing land subject to the USDA’s Risk Management Agency, known as RMA or Conservation Reserve Program, known in agribusiness as CRP.

Erika Kenner, Leeds, who represented the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, asked about working with the RMA to help ranchers access failed crops written off for insurance purposes to feed livestock. Kenner also asked about the government cost-sharing water transportation to ranches.

Goehring said a program through the USDA might possibly help with water transportation; however, he needed more information about how the transporting services would be used.

Shane Anderson, a member of the board of directors for the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association from Towner, asked about extending hours of service for truckers hauling hay or feed to answer the critical need ranchers have for their herds.

Burgum told Anderson it would be possible to issue an executive order to suspend trucking hour regulations. Federal law would allow such a suspension for a period of 30 days.

Goehring told the group the state offers a hay hotline to connect farmers who have hay with ranchers needing feed for their stock. “I have way more requests than I do people to actually help,” Goehring said, noting hay production has suffered due to the drought.

“At least we have trucking services on there so if we want to move hay or move livestock, we have that available. We have less than 40 people who are offering either feed, pasture or feeding services. Generally, that’s into the hundreds,” Goehring said adding, “Maybe people are sorting out their situation and seeing where they go from here.”

Jim Diepolder of southeast Bottineau County asked Burgum to call President Biden to ask for an executive order to release land held by the CRP, because “Now, in the next 30 days, we need the feed now for those ranchers. They don’t have pasture now and they have nothing to feed now. So, at least they’ll have a Band Aid until the weather could change.”

Diepolder asked how the government would fund hauling hay. “There’s no grain, there’s no rain and there’s no money. That’s the biggest problem. We need a disaster disbursement program where these guys can wean and sell down some of their herds and get a cost share to buy them back down the road,” he said.

Pierce County Commissioner Dave Migler told of a tangle with red tape from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when he sought to access water from a well on the land he farms. Burgum suggested Migler could speak with Paczkowski about any possible help from the state water commission, but cautioned the Fish and Wildlife Service was a separate entity.

Patczkowski presented information on the North Dakota Drought Disaster Livestock Water Supply Project Assistance Program. Under the state-run program, North Dakota “would cost share at 50 percent up to $4,500 per project and three projects maximum per producer for putting in a reliable water source,” Patczkowski said.

“That reliable water source would be new wells, pipe extensions, pasture taps, hooking up to rural water, those types of things,” he explained.

Towner County Commissioner Stanley Heck, who serves as the president of the North Dakota Association of Counties said, “The largest landowner” in the county “is U.S. Fish and Wildlife, North Dakota Game and Fish and (the federal wetlands reserve program).”

“We’re in a drought but not as severe as you,” Heck said. “I’ve been driving Highway 2 to Berthold and we’re in a lot better shape than Highway 2.”

Heck also suggested finding a way for ranchers to access federal lands, noting cattle liked eating small cattail shoots.

McHenry County residents in the crowd noted that pasture and slough land held by Fish and Wildlife have been burned off recently and suggested allowing cattle to graze overgrowth would make better sense in North Dakota’s extremely dry conditions.

“We can’t be fighting fires around the whole state and have U.S. Fish and Wildlife burning sloughs,” Burgum said. “At least let livestock producers utilize and enhance the entire environment.”

Burgum said his staff was gathering information to put in a letter to ask the federal government to cease burning during the drought.

Ranchers also asked about accessing funds for producers supplying food with the USDA Food Assistance Program for coronavirus relief. Others suggested establishing a state-owned meat processing plant, modeled after the North Dakota Mill and Elevator.

Burgum and Goehring told the group U.S. Senators Kevin Cramer and John Hoeven and Representative Kelly Armstrong were working to address the situation. Burgum added Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was aware of the statewide drought.

Wheat grower Phil Volk of eastern Pierce County said, “North Dakota grain growers have some lobbying in Washington, D.C. (to explain) some of the challenges we’re having (with the drought) and the stockmen are there, too, and I think everybody is working as a team and we’ll get it done.”

After the meeting, Burgum described his impression of the drought-stricken Pierce County area.

“I think one thing that is easy to understand is you’re reminded every day of the incredible people of North Dakota. Their perseverance, their problem solving, their determination to do what’s right for their families, for their communities, for their livestock, for the soil that may have been in their families for generations – it’s always inspiring,” he said.

“I think the big takeaway is that we’ve got a lot of one-size-fits-all federal programs that do not work when you’re in an historic drought like we are now,” Burgum added. “So, we’ve got to keep advocating to make sure the support structures are in place for agriculture from the federal government, that they actually work at the time when people need them the most.”

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