During times when ranchers face difficult circumstances, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) works to be flexible in their programs and offerings to be of the highest service, according to FSA Director Zach Ducheneaux.
Being nimble enough to meet producers where they are is critical during a time when a number of market forces are creating depressed prices in the marketplace, according to Ducheneaux.
“A lot of the deck is stacked against ranchers right now, both with weather conditions like drought and the market situation created by having only a few major packing companies in the U.S.,” Ducheneaux said at a recent cattlemen’s conference in South Dakota. “In many ways, your passion for agriculture is causing you to be exploited. We have clearly identified that there is too much power consolidated in the big meat packers and two of those companies are owned by foreign interests. This is negatively impacting producers.”
While the market concentration is not something a government agency like FSA can address, Ducheneaux noted that supporting ranchers while the larger issues are worked out is critical.
“This is essentially a national security issue,” he said. “If we don’t have the protein to feed people, we can’t take our place on the world stage. Morally and ethically, we can see that producers are doing their level best to provide an affordable and safe food supply, and our role at FSA is to provide some support,” he said.
Support for ranchers often means not just providing programs, but adapting the programs to meet their needs.
Ducheneaux said a recent example was a program that was developed for ranchers in drought regions to help them handle the costs of having outside feed hauled to their animals. However, FSA received feedback that a bigger help would be financial assistance to move livestock to better feed sources. In response, FSA modified their assistance program.
“During a drought tour in North Dakota, we developed the idea to use some of the Emergency Livestock Assistance Program (ELAP) money to help distribute forage, but we learned that moving the livestock to the feed would be more helpful,” he related. “So we modified the program to help producers with the above normal hauling costs of moving their animals. We exercised flexibility instead of just saying, ‘Well, by gosh, that’s how we do it.”
Other program modifications for livestock have also been made in the last year, Ducheneaux noted.
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FSA has also made changes to the Livestock Indemnity Program over the last year that increased the loss payment for newborn calves that were born during the spring blizzards in 2022. The payment adjustment was a nod to the high winter feed costs from 2021.
“We took a look at the payment for the lower calf weight category and knew that a better rate of compensation was needed to recognize the investment on the cattle,” he said.
Keeping flexible to help with the changing needs of the livestock community is a priority for FSA and reflects the directive from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Ducheneaux noted.
“Sec. Vilsack is always asking us to find ways to better serve the agriculture community and so we listen closely to the feedback we receive,” he said.
One of the ways that FSA stays connected to its regional livestock producers is through county-based committees.
“We want to encourage people to serve on these committees because they really bring local knowledge to the implementation of policy. This feedback lets us know how to best do policy deployment and keep ranchers in business,” he said.
For those ranchers who may be wary of government assistance, Ducheneaux noted that one of the reasons many operations are still in business today is because their predecessors used the tools available.
“Some people have asked me if using government assistance is a slippery slope. The answer is maybe. But was it a slippery slope for the farmers during the Dust Bowl? They did it and that’s why you are still here,” he said.
Using the assistance and mitigation tools available through FSA also offsets market conditions ranchers can’t change on their own.
“When we are shipping 40 metric tons of hay to China and Japan during a drought and that drives up hay costs, how can you stop that from happening? There are bigger forces at play in the marketplace and while those big issues are being worked out, our job is to make sure you are still here,” he noted.