“Our livestock producers are happy but our hay growers are upset.” That sums up the general reaction of both groups to USDA’s decision to make 24 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land eligible for haying and grazing later this summer. Steve Hessman, hay market reporter for the Kansas ag department and USDA Market News, says that’s what he’s been hearing since last Tuesday’s announcement.

Some growers have already lost business, he adds. “One had some ground alfalfa hay verbally committed to a drought area where they were going to feed it to cows. But they cancelled the order because they’re going to fence (CRP land).” Another grower contract to provide alfalfa was cancelled by a cattleman who decided to swath and bale CRP grass to use with distillers grains, Hessman says.

“But it’s a lifesaver to the livestock guys out here in parts of western Kansas, eastern New Mexico and eastern Colorado where it’s really dry,” he says of the USDA decision.

“We’re sympathetic to the livestock producer’s situation,” says Ron Tombaugh, National Hay Association (NHA) president. “We as much as anybody need to keep the livestock producer viable. But there are a couple of things we don’t like (about making CRP land available).”

“First of all, it’s competing directly with the hay producer. And if it were only limited to producers to use for their own livestock consumption, that’s fine. But if everybody can harvest it and sell it out of the cash market, then we take issue with that,” says Tombaugh, who is also a commercial hay grower from Streator, IL.

Producers not only will get free feed, Tombaugh adds, but also the CRP payment for not harvesting it. “They’re getting paid for the crop twice. The government hasn’t done that before.” In fact, this is the first time CRP acreage has been released for harvesting on a nationwide basis. USDA estimates that up to 18 million tons of forage worth $1.2 billion could become available.

Hay producers have already paid for fertilizer, preservatives, twine and other inputs, says Tombaugh. “And now the bottom-end of the market is going to fall off. Granted it’s not going to be quality hay. But it’s going to make the poorer hay cheaper.” NHA is drafting a letter of complaint to USDA Ag Secretary Ed Schafer, he says.

In Schafer’s announcement, he stated that participants will be allowed to hay or graze CRP acres after the primary nesting season for nesting birds ends but before Nov. 11. Each participant must reserve at least one-fourth of his CRP acres for wildlife habitat, and must have an approved conservation plan in place. The most environmentally sensitive CRP land, such as wetlands and filter strips, aren’t eligible.

Signup began Monday at local Farm Service Agency offices. Participants will each be charged a $75 administration fee for modifying existing CRP contracts, but their program rental payments won’t be reduced. The primary nesting season ends in late July or early August. A map showing nesting season dates and durations by state, and additional details on CRP haying and grazing, are at www.fsa.usda.gov/conservation.

“Hay is not a program crop,” Tombaugh says, “and thus does not receive any farm payments or subsidies. We are the basis for most conservation programs and wildlife habitat, and have the most environmentally friendly crop that covers over 55% of the contiguous U.S. We are not happy about having an additional 24 million acres put back into the market to compete against us!”

USDA reporter Hessman adds that one commercial alfalfa grower whose fields are surrounded by CRP land isn’t going to fight the decision. He’s going to custom bale as many CRP acres as he can.