WAVERLY, Neb. — Tom Peterson feels lucky that drought hasn't hit his cow/calf operation here harder.
He said he weathered the drought better than some because of his supply of extra hay.
“Some other guys were not as fortunate,” he said, thinking of ranchers in western Nebraska who have culled thousands of cattle from their herds because drought dried up pastureland and made it too expensive to feed the cattle.
Peterson and the others now can apply for a newly restored disaster assistance program that will make payments to farmers and ranchers hurt financially over the past three years by drought, blizzard and other extreme conditions.
U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden visited Peterson's operation Wednesday to promote the program, restored by the 2014 farm bill. The program opened for applications Tuesday and covers eligible losses dating to Oct. 1, 2011.
Harden said producers will use the money to pay off loans and rebuild their herds, which she said in the long run could temper the record-high beef prices consumers are seeing at supermarkets. The consumer price index for food rose 0.4percent in March, with the index for beef jumping 1.9 percent, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this week.
“This will help producers stay on their ranch or farm,” Harden said.
Beef operations have a major impact on Nebraska's economy — an estimated $12.1 billion annually — and the USDA said the state's inventory of cattle and calves showed a 2 percent decline in 2014, to 6.15 million head.
Harden, who said she was raised on a cow/calf operation in Georgia, toured the farm with Tom and Paula Peterson, asked whether their daughters would go into agriculture and scratched a wobbly newborn heifer behind the ears.
Harden called the losses “horrific” but said the USDA does not have an estimate of how much money might flow to Nebraska through the benefit programs. Assistance is based on location, intensity of drought and number of livestock affected, and will be limited to a cumulative $125,000 per person per year.
“We will not know until producers come into our offices,” she said. “We hope to have checks out to producers within weeks, not months.”
She and other USDA officials said that unlike with row crop insurance, there are few insurance products available that would cover these types of losses.
The programs cover loss of grazing forage, as well as loss of livestock due to blizzard and extreme heat, said Doug Klein, a Farm Service Agency program chief in Lincoln. He said producers in every Nebraska county will be eligible for at least some benefit.
“The drought was very widespread,” he said.
Producers have through January 2015 to apply, he said, and can visit FSA offices statewide.
In Rushville, in the northwest part of the state, Sandy Orr said there is high interest in the assistance program from local ranchers. As the executive director of the Sheridan County FSA office, Orr has held one public meeting on the assistance and has three more scheduled.
“We're going to be busy out here,” she said. “It was terribly dry in 2012. A large majority of our county is pastureland.”
On her own operation, her husband had to sell close to 100 head of cattle. She said they are slowly rebuilding the herd