A farmer from southeast Nebraska is home now after testifying before a U-S Senate Ag Committee last week about the impacts of the drought and wildfires on agriculture.
Ben Steffen, of Humboldt, also talked about risk management strategies that have helped farmers survive. Steffen operates a 135-cow dairy and grows crops on 1,900 acres in Richardson County. He says the drought has hit crop yields and the livestock industry very hard.
“The price of dairy-quality hay has gone up by 50% and lower-quality hay that’s suitable for beef cattle has probably more than doubled,” Steffen says. “It’s scarce. It’s simply hard to find. The feed costs are one of the biggest factors in the livestock area that are really difficult.”
Ranchers in western Nebraska were hit particularly hard by wildfires. Nearly 400,000 acres – equal to half the state of Rhode Island – burned in 2012.
“That meant we lost fences, we lost feed, and we had herds that were liquidated,” Steffen says. “Nationwide, our cow herd now is down to a point where we are at a 61-year low. That’s the kind of damage consumers will feel for years to come.”
The federal government released Conservation Reserve Program acres last year for emergency haying and grazing. That’s something Steffen appreciated, but he says efforts should be made to allow those acres to be released earlier if drought conditions persist. In terms of risk management, Steffen told the committee the Federal Crop Insurance Program covered a portion of the losses he sustained last year and should be maintained.
“That stability protects not only the underlying ability of farmers to continue, but it impacts up and down Main Street,” Steffen says. “Those businesses that are in our small communities, all rely on the crop industry as well as the livestock industry.”
Until last year, Steffen said his farming operation had paid more in crop insurance premiums than was received in indemnity payments over the previous 11 years. He urged the committee to consider changes to allow individual policies to be customized to more closely fit individual farms.
Steffen also encouraged the committee to continue funding research that’s done at the nation’s Land Grant Universities. He says research from those institutions has changed the way they feed and care for dairy cows, allowing them to produce more milk and have healthier animals.
He says the research also helps them find and utilize better management techniques in crop production.
As to the outlook for the coming year, Steffen says a NOAA climatologist testified that there would likely be no big shift in the weather trends from last year.
Steffen closed his testimony by telling senators securing the nation’s food supply for the future is not just responsible public policy, but a moral imperative considering the growing world population.
By Matthew Leaf, KTNC, Falls City