LITTLE ROCK (AGFC) – Mike Sullivan, Arkansas state conservationist for the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, announced financial assistance is available through a special initiative for Arkansas agricultural producers impacted by the exceptional drought the state is experiencing.
Through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, NRCS is addressing emergency issues associated with livestock production and recovery efforts aimed at restoration of pasture and forest lands within the state's exceptional and extreme drought areas. The Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program is being funded to mitigate the effects of the drought on wildlife within the forests and pastures.
The additional WHIP funding will be available for wildlife habitat restoration resulting from the drought, according to David Long, private lands supervisor for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. "Native warm season grasses will be a major emphasis for the special funding. Native grasses provide habitat including nesting, brood and escape cover for quail and turkey, rabbit habitat and bedding and fawning areas for deer," Long explained.
Native warm season grasses are not just for wildlife under the WHIP funding. Livestock can benefit as well, Long noted. "These grasses are long lived, drought tolerate with roots that grow 8 to 10 feet and deeper staying in the soil moisture, and are high quality forage for livestock," he said. Summer gains can range from 1.5 to 2.6 pounds per day, when the economics of input costs are figured in, they are very effective in providing quality forage when compared to Bermuda grass and fescue which usually goes dormant by early to mid-summer, Long explained.
"Under a rotational grazing plan, also cost-shared under WHIP when natives are planted, these pastures can provide critical nesting habitat for quail, rabbits, wild turkey, grasshopper sparrows and dickcissels – habitat missing on many farms," Long explained. "Fall seeded cover crops can be cost-shared this fall on native grass contracts that will protect the soil but also provide additional food sources for wildlife until the natives are planted in the spring. Native warm season grasses can be drought insurance since they continue to grow during these drought periods," he added.
Long was quick to point out that instead of meeting one or two natural resource concerns with WHIP and EQIP funding by re-planting natives on dead grass pastures, ranchers can add wildlife benefits from this year's disaster funding. "Replanting natives in these dead pastures can result in a force multiplier to achieve the best resource conservation on farms across drought areas. Benefits to our soil, water and fish and wildlife resources are realized that will pay dividends for many, many years to come and has a huge cost benefit ratio since most of these pastures should not experience mortality when we have future droughts. With most forecasters predicting continued years of drought, ranchers can drought-proof their warm season pastures by planting natives," Long explained.
According to a University of Tennessee Agricultural Research study, using January 2011 prices and production recommendations for fertilizer and herbicides, they determined annual production costs per acre were $239.42 for Big Bluestem or Indiangrass and $452.78 for Bermuda grass. Annual production costs for native pastures are almost half that of introduced Bermuda grass pastures.
Native grasses can be produced with far less fertilizer inputs. Current recommended nitrogen rates for Big Bluestem or Indiangrass are 60 pounds per acre for hay or pasture. The report stated nitrogen costs for Bermuda grass pastures are 2-4 times greater than the Big Bluestem or Indiangrass pastures – a huge saving of input cost when using natives.
In one study, bred 1,000 to 1,200 – pound Holstein heifers gained nearly 1.9 pounds per day during 2010, one of the hottest summers on record in Tennessee on a Big Bluestem or Indiangrass pasture. In a two-year old stand of the same native mix, excellent summer forage was provided with gains of more than 2.2 pounds per day on 600-800 pound steers. Four tons per acre of forage is common on these natives when managed soundly. Publications are available that cite these and other studies on the benefits of native grass pastures can be found at: http://nativegrasses.utk.edu/publications/default.htm
What about those natives filling the summer forage gap we so often have here in Arkansas? "While native forages require a little extra effort and cost to establish and manage, these low-input perennial grasses provide a number of benefits including high yields, high quality forage and exceptional drought tolerance and are long lasting, all qualities that ranchers should love given our record of severe droughts the last several years and loss of pastures," Long says. "The timing is perfect to drought-proof pastures with natives. Plus, establishing natives could help return many wildlife species to the farm landscapes," he added.
In addition to cost-share for perennial natives and fall-seeded cover crops under the WHIP, other cost-share practices will include but not limited to riparian forest buffers, firebreaks, wildlife watering facilities, fencing, access control, prescribed burning, and spring development.
"Arkansas is one of the hardest hit states and our livestock herds are in dire need of water and forage. This funding will help producers keep their cattle healthy, restore pastures, stop erosion and soil loss and protect forest land," says Arkansas NRCS state conservationist Mike Sullivan.
"With this funding, we hope to provide some immediate relief and a catalyst for a quicker recovery," Sullivan said. "However, due to current regulations the money cannot be used to purchase hay."
While landowners statewide can apply for financial assistance, priority is given to those who have been in the exceptional drought area, defined by the National Drought Mitigation Center, the longest. A map of the areas in Arkansas is located at: http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu
Through EQIP, farmers can apply for numerous practices designed to provide immediate drought relief. Practices include watering systems, planting of annual forages and permanent reseeding, and prescribed grazing. Several practices are also available to help with recovery from the drought. They are permanent reseeding, buffers, tree and shrub planting, and various water systems such as pipelines and ponds.
"One key area of relief is to plant annual forages to allow grazing this fall and winter and follow up with a permanent grass seeding next spring," Sullivan said. "The additional funding of this practice may allow producers to avoid liquidating their herds. For other practices, it will mean a quicker recovery once rains begin in the fall. The pastures will recover more rapidly if grazing is discontinued. Re-establishment of grasses will prevent further erosion and decreased fertility in the soil. Sedimentation will be reduced and negative impacts to water bodies will be decreased.
According to the July 31 U.S. Drought Monitor, 81 percent of Arkansas is in an extreme drought and 44 percent is in an exceptional drought. In these areas up to 75 percent of the grass in pastures is considered severely impacted and may not recover. Livestock watering ponds are dry or so stagnant they are dangerous for the health of the herd. Eighty-three percent of pastures in the state are rated as poor or very poor by the National Agricultural Statistic Service.
Applications are being taken at the NRCS office at county USDA service centers through Aug. 14.