Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer has announced that USDA has authorized certain acreage enrolled under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to be available for hay and forage after the primary nesting season ends for grass-nesting birds.

"This action will provide much needed feed and forage while maintaining the conservation benefits from the nation's premier conservation program," said Schafer. "Eligible farmers and ranchers will be able to plan for harvest of forage after the end of the primary nesting season this summer."

Prices for most field crops have advanced to record or near record levels in recent months, reflecting strong demand, tight supplies and competition for acres. The increased demand for commodities and resulting higher prices has impacted the livestock industry in particular.

More than 24 million acres of land enrolled in CRP will be eligible for this critical feed use program. USDA estimates this program will make available up to 18 million tons of forage worth $1.2 billion.

"In authorizing this critical use of CRP acres for forage, USDA is also taking strong measures to preserve CRP's environmental benefits," said Schafer.

Eligible land may not be hayed or grazed until after the end of the primary nesting season. Also, some of the eligible land or forage of the land must be reserved for wildlife and any land that is used under this authority must have a conservation plan. In many instances, the removal of some of the grass cover will increase the diversity of the stand and provide long-term benefits for wildlife.

Further, the most environmentally-sensitive land enrolled in CRP will not be eligible. The land will be subject to a site inspection to ensure compliance with the conservation plan. No rental payment reduction will be assessed on contracts being utilized for this critical use. However, a $75 fee will be charged to process the required contract modification.

Signup for interested CRP participants will begin June 2, 2008, at local Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices. This modification for critical feed use is only for 2008. All forage use must be completed no later than Nov. 10, 2008.

Under CRP, farmers and ranchers enroll eligible land in 10- to 15-year contracts with USDA's Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC). FSA administers CRP on behalf of CCC. Participants plant appropriate cover such as grasses and trees in crop fields and along streams. These plantings help prevent soil and nutrients from running into regional waterways and affecting water quality. The long-term vegetative cover also improves wildlife habitat and soil quality.

Additional details including fact sheets, maps and statistics are available at http://www.fsa.usda.gov/conservation.