Farmers allowed to mow hay, but drought hurts crop

Protected lands' grass losing nutritional value

August 11, 1999|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Farmers in several Maryland counties have begun to get permission to mow hay on federal conservation land, but it might be too late: The cover grasses in fields have dried up to the point of losing nutritional value.

Several Maryland counties are asking for a waiver for emergency haying and grazing of fields enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. The program pays landowners to maintain a grass cover on eroding or environmentally sensitive land.

Carroll County's Farm Service Agency, a local arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was the first to ask its headquarters for the waiver, seeking relief from the effects of the region's worst drought in 70 years.

The approval was granted Friday. By yesterday, Susan Hardinger in the Carroll farm service office had contacted all 70 landowners whose fields were eligible.

"They all said if this had happened three weeks ago, they would have had hay," Hardinger said. "But everything is so dead now that the food value is not there."

The pastures that usually provide the main source of feed for sheep, cattle and other livestock during the summer and early fall have dried up, and farmers are resorting to using the hay they typically would save for November through February.

"Over 65 percent of our hay crop is gone," Hardinger said.

Throughout Central Maryland, hay crop losses range from 40 percent to 70 percent, based on Farm Service Agency data collected July 30, with more undocumented damage in the 11 days since, according to officials.

Hardinger said that if federal officials agree to extend the deadline for mowing the hay and the region gets rain, farmers could get a cutting of hay next month.

Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Frederick counties have applied for a waiver, said Bebe Shortall in the state farm service office.

Shortall said their requests have not been forwarded to officials in Washington but that she expects them to be approved.

The waiver was granted to Carroll landowners with restrictions. Only half of the fields would be mowed, and only for one cutting. They would have to be mowed by Aug. 31 and the hay dried and baled by Oct. 1, and the farmer would have to give up 35 percent of the rent the federal government pays to keep the land out of production. A typical rent is $80 an acre.

"Somewhere in the country, every year, there is a severe drought," Shortall said. "You have all these people -- conservationists, environmentalists -- who are stakeholders, and have an interest in the conservation program. You have to compromise, and you have to satisfy many groups of people."

The Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to keep environmentally sensitive land out of production. Farmers plant a cover of mixed grasses and clover that provide shelter and food for wildlife.

Those plants are also suitable for hay. It is common in a drought for farmers to request to make hay from those fields, Shortall said, and common for the USDA to be conservative in granting permission.

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