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Sixteen drought-stricken Utah counties are among more than 1,000 in 26 states that have been declared natural-disaster areas, the biggest such declaration ever by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The action makes farmers and ranchers in 1,016 counties about a third of those in the entire country on land covering half the nation eligible for low-interest loans to help them weather the drought, wildfires and other disasters, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday.
Utah's remaining 13 counties are considered to be so close to the natural disaster areas that they also are impacted, and eligible for emergency loans.
About $39 million is available under the program nationwide. But Mike McCandless, economic development director for Emery County, said drought and wildfires have brought so much devastation to ranchers that his county alone could use up a sizeable chunk of the money.
Wildfires recently scorched 50,000 acres in Emery and Carbon counties, burning up summer grazing pastures. On top of that, drought in the San Rafael Swell of south-central Utah forced ranchers to remove their cattle from the desert range in early June rather than September or October during normal years. Now, ranchers are feeding hundreds of head of cattle hay that's typically reserved for December.
"Some ranchers probably are looking at bankruptcy because of the drought and the fire," he said. "We're also looking at mass liquidation of the herds."
The area covered by the disaster declaration includes most of the U.S. Southwest, the Southeast and portions of the Corn Belt, mainly Illinois and Indiana. Iowa, the biggest U.S. producer of the grain, is not included.
Under the declaration, the federal government is streamlining the process for farmers to apply for government disaster help and lowering the interest rate on emergency loans to 2.25 percent from 3.75 percent to combat the widest drought in years. The government also is reducing penalties for grazing livestock on land set aside for conservation.
In Utah, 180,000 acres are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to keep acres idle. So far CRP lands will be opened in Box Elder, Millard and San Juan counties, said Arthur Douglas, state executive director of the Farm Service Agency for Utah.
"The land doesn't have good forage because of the drought, but we've determined how much livestock the acreage can handle," said Douglas, who also is a rancher in Box Elder County. "Ranchers may have to supplement the forage with protein, but it's better than having to liquidate their herds."
The initiatives may not be enough to help Lazy H Ranch in Tooele County.
John Olson says his family harvested only 200 bales of hay compared with 1,200 last year on one field alone in the first cutting this season. Drought, dry winds and freezing temperatures stunted the first alfalfa crop, meaning second and third cuttings also probably will be slim.
"If we can't grow our own hay, we won't be able to afford buy it," Olson said. "We'll have to send our calves to slaughter early when they're small, and then we'll have to send out their mothers."
Baled alfalfa hay in May cost $205 per ton, up $30 per ton from the month before and $38 per ton higher than May of last year. June prices are expected to be even higher.
Blaine Nebeker, who raises wheat in San Juan County, said the drought has cut his yields by half, "and that cuts our income in half, while at the same time expenses don't go down. We're trying to hang on so we can try again next year."
Tooele rancher Leland Hogan said his hay and barley crops are down by half. And he's had to remove cattle from private mountain ranges 30 days early, requiring livestock to be fed hay months early.
Hogan, who is president of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation, said the drought in the Midwest by extension is having an impact on Utah's livestock industry, the state's largest agriculture operation. The majority of Utah ranchers send their cattle to corn-producing states to fatten them up before slaughter. Higher corn prices will cut into profits or put already cash strapped ranchers into debt.
The USDA said Wednesday that scarce rainfall and record-breaking temperatures have substantially lowered corn production by 1.8 billion bushels from last month. The season average farm price for corn is projected at $5.40 to $6.40 per bushel, up sharply from $4.20 to $5.00 per bushel in June.
Corn is the most widely produced feed grain in the United States, with most of the crop providing the main ingredient in livestock feed.
Tribune reporter Vince Horiuchi contributed to this story.
Utah disaster areas eligible for relief
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration • The period from January through June was "the warmest first half of any year on record for the contiguous United States."
The U.S. Drought Monitor • More than half the U.S. experienced drought conditions the largest percentage in the 12-year history of the service; 47 percent of the West is experiencing extreme drought, compared with 16 percent last year.