Aimed at relieving continuing pressure on drought-stricken livestock operations, the USDA plans to disperse block grants totaling $50 million. Arkansas is one of 20 states eligible for the grants. On Oct. 19, the state received $2 million for livestock producers in 39 counties.

Since then, “producer applications have come in quickly,” said Richard Bell, head of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture. “I believe we have over 1,000 now. We’re unsure how many to expect.” So far the applications are heavily tilted towards operations in the western side of the state.

“There are a few that don’t quite match up the forage acres with the number of cattle reported. We’ll have to go back to them and check on any discrepancies. By and large, though, the sign-up is going fairly well.

“The recipients can spend the funds on anything they want. But in deciding how the payments are dispersed, there are some hurdles (see PROGRAM CRITERIA). You must verify a forage loss and you must be in one of the 39 disaster-declared counties in the state.”

Disaster-eligible counties have been selected by USDA using data from the drought monitor operated by the National Drought Mitigation Center. Only counties at “D3” or “D4” drought levels between March 7 and Aug. 31 are eligible for disaster funds (see http://www.drought.unl.edu/dm/ for more information).

Each state had the option of including dairymen in the eligible pool. Bell decided to include them. “There are good reasons for that,” said Phil Wyrick, director of Arkansas Livestock and Poultry. “Most dairies in other states are confined. In Arkansas, though, there’s a lot of grazing in the dairy industry. So including them makes sense.”

States are being tasked with distributing the disaster funds. This goes against precedence, with the USDA formerly preferring check disbursement by federal agencies.

“I’m editorializing,” says Wyrick, “but my experience has been that any help from the federal government to livestock producers is late in arriving. It seems you’ll have a disaster declared and maybe 18 months or two years later, the check arrives. The funds just don’t get to the producers fast enough. The cattle industry needs these funds as quickly as possible.

“According to the USDA, absolutely none of this money can be spent for administrative purposes. It’s extremely important for farmers to know: every bit of these funds will be distributed, not absorbed into agencies.”

Among those distributing applications are county Extension offices and county Farm Bureau offices. The deadline for producer sign-up is at the close of business on Nov. 15.

“Our plan is, after all applications are in, to compute what we think is fair per animal unit,” said Bell. “Then, we’ll hopefully begin to mail the checks.”

How quickly all that is done will depend largely on how complete and properly filled out the applications are. Some 15 to 20 percent of those received so far have left out needed information.

“They failed to sign it, or they didn’t properly handle the federal W-9 form (necessary to get a check out of the state computer system). Some of those we’re sending back through the mail and some we’re contacting by phone. My view is that we must manage this program under the assumption we’ll be audited. We must spend this money correctly.”

Payments will be made for forage loss, not necessarily the number of animals.

“We want to make sure the animal units reported (jibes) with the number of forage acres reported. Someone claiming 40 head of cattle on 10 acres is a red flag. In Arkansas, each cow typically requires two or three acres.

“We’re using the ‘standard animal units’ to compute the payments. A 1.0 designation is a beef cow and 1.5 is a dairy cow. That’s because dairy cows are larger and eat more per day than do beef cows.”

The funds are desperately needed said Wyrick, a cattle farmer for 25 years. “We may keep records a bit differently, but there’s one thing every cattleman keeps close tabs on. We all look out at a meadow or hayfield and say, ‘I made 150 4X5 round bales in that meadow last year. I’m making 50 now.’

“And that scenario happened to me. Last year, at this time I cut 145 bales. This year, same time, I made 33 bales. That makes an impression and should help explain how severe this drought has been.”

Wyrick said any disaster funds he receives will go for feed. “I’m not going to buy fence posts. That money will be spent to supplement my cattle’s feed with things like soybean meal or more hay. That’s a necessity when faced with lower-grade, and less, hay.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com