Confusion and frustration ruled in many rural areas of the country last week after a federal judge in Washington state issued a temporary restraining order relating to USDA’s release of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands for haying and grazing. Judge John Coughenour, U.S. District Court-Seattle, issued the order in response to a lawsuit filed by the National Wildlife Federation and six affiliate chapters. The suit claimed USDA failed to conduct an environmental impact assessment before opening up the acreage.

Announced in late May, USDA’s Critical Feed Use program was designed to open up as many as 24 million CRP acres nation-wide to emergency haying and grazing after the primary nesting season had ended for grass-nesting birds. USDA said the measure was necessary to help livestock producers cope with escalating feed and forage costs.

The most immediate impact of the restraining order came in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, where the primary nesting season ended July 2 and some producers had already begun grazing and haying on CRP land. Coughenour’s ruling ordered USDA to notify those producers that they should remove cattle and halt haying operations immediately. The order also instructed USDA and the Farm Service Agency to stop processing or approving any additional CRP contract modifications allowing haying or grazing.

Eldon White, executive vice president of Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers, says the judge’s ruling raised “significant concerns” among his group’s membership. He points out many livestock producers had already made significant investments in fencing, watering systems and other improvements for CRP pastures based on USDA’s May announcement. “Others entered into agreements with farmers and other landowners to rent CRP land for grazing,” he says. “To say now that the land is not going to be available for use would be a cause of major financial hardship for many of these producers.”

“It’s a wreck,” says Caren Cowan, executive director with the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association. “In many areas of the state, people are dealing with a serious drought. Without this grazing, they're going to be faced with liquidating all or part of their herds.”

Cowan also notes that, under the Critical Feed Use program, grazing in New Mexico was to be allowed from July 2 to Nov. 10. “The longer cattle are kept off the CRP ground while this is being settled, the less valuable that grazing will be," she says. "It makes absolutely no sense from any perspective other than someone just trying to harm the cattle industry.”

Even in states where the primary nesting season doesn’t end for several weeks, the judge’s ruling is likely to be a cause of frustration for livestock producers. “It would be tough to be a farmer out there right now, hearing about all these potential rule changes,” says Steve Barnhart, extension forage agronomist at Iowa State University. “How can you plan for anything when you don’t know what the rules are?”

Adding to the confusion, the Seattle ruling only applies to the Critical Feed Use program announced in May. USDA officials say it does not apply to Ag Secretary Ed Schafer’s recent announcement allowing immediate grazing of CRP acres in flooded Midwestern counties in exchange for a 25% reduction in CRP rental payments.

Some clarity on the issues related to the Critical Feed Use program ruling could come later this week. Coughenour has scheduled a hearing for Thursday, July 17, to determine whether to issue a preliminary injunction.