Larry Salton says his first hay crop normally accounts for half of his entire hay supply.
The summer of 2012 has been anything but normal.
While the Clay County farmer's first cutting usually yields four round bales per acre, it generated just slightly more than half that amount.
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"The third cutting was a disaster," Salton said. "We had 40 acres and got 10 round bales. It don't grow if it don't rain."
So when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced on Aug. 1 that it would allow farmers to use Conservation Reserve Program land for haying and grazing, Salton decided to take advantage of it.
Pairing his 20 CRP acres with neighboring plots, he was able to hay about an additional 55 acres, with an average yield of more than two round bales per acre.
"It was a lot more work than it normally is," Salton said. "It's not the best hay, but if they're hungry, they'll eat it."
Les Zobrist oversees emergency haying and grazing in Clay County as the executive director of the local USDA Farm Service Agency office. He estimates about 100 farmers have taken advantage of the program, including five or six who are using the land for grazing.
"There are a few that come in and say their intent is to do half of their field. They come back in and say they did part of the field, but they didn't feel it was worth it, so they didn't do as much as they intended," Zobrist said. "Others did half of their field and said it wasn't too bad and their neighbor offered them CRP. They looked at it and it was worth it, so they did it also."
Clay County contains about 6,500 CRP acres. That amount includes about 4,000 acres of general CRP land, which is usually highly erodible or very light soil. Of that land, up to 50 percent can be hayed and 100 percent can be grazed if the proper formula is followed. The remaining 2,500 acres are considered "continuous" and consist of filter strips along streams, wetland restoration areas, field borders, windbreaks and rare habitat.
"They did open up some of the continuous acres now, some of the wetland restoration areas," Zobrist said. "Filter strips are not open up yet, but that's one we hear they are working on."
Zobrist clarified that there are more restrictions on haying in wetland restoration areas, adding that the quality can be better due to a variety of grasses and clovers in those areas.
Haying and grazing CRP land costs the contract holder 10 percent of their USDA payment. Payments are between $85 and $135 an acre for general CRP and between $135 and $200 for continuous CRP.
According to Zobrist, this summer is not the first time CRP land in Clay County and the surrounding area has been opened for haying and grazing.
"They've done it several times up here," he said. "It's done whenever there is a disaster like a drought or a flood."
Farmers who have not used CRP land for haying or grazing should contact the local FSA office.
"They have to sign up ahead of time," Zobrist said. "We want to make sure they're not haying something that's not eligible."
Following the haying or grazing, the land must be inspected to insure it was not stripped and that the farmer remains in compliance with their conservation plan of operation. Haying must be complete by Aug. 31 and livestock must be removed from CRP land by Sept. 30. Penalties may be levied for violations.
"Basically, producers are always supposed to check with the FSA before they do anything like haying, grazing or tilling, to make sure they stay in compliance," Zobrist said. "They need to keep good records. There more than likely will be more benefits later for both crops and livestock."
While Salton acknowledges emergency haying and grazing may not help all farmers to the same extent, he believes it has been beneficial overall.
"We're glad they turned it loose."