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Our Views

Our Views Columns

Date: 2/21/2013

Title: Weathering Through the Storms

By Leon LaSalle, President, LaSalle Ranch Inc., Havre, Mont.

Farmers and ranchers deal with a lot of uncertainty. Helping feed the nation and the world is not easy. It’s a 24/7/365 job, one which requires cattle producers like myself to weather through drought, wildfires, blizzards and tornadoes, along with other issues such as declining herd numbers and overreaching government regulations.

Even though being a cattle producer is challenging job, it is one that has been in my family for many years. My maternal grandfather and his sons were among the first residents of Rocky Boys Indian Reservation, located in central Montana, to become cattle ranchers. Today, as in the past, we manage our ranching operation with future generations in mind. We have implemented several conservation practices specifically designed to preserve and protect our natural resources and to help the land help us withstand nature’s challenges that present themselves in the form of disastrous weather events. Despite implementing these conservation measures there are times when my family’s ranch has been struck so hard by weather related disasters that we have had to search for additional economic assistance, and the Federal Livestock Disaster Programs have provided that assistance. My family has participated in various disaster programs since the mid-1980s and now more than ever, it is important that disaster assistance programs be available to farmers and ranchers. With previous disaster assistance programs, Congress was required to pass legislation in order for these programs to proceed. That changed in the 2008 Farm Bill. For the first time livestock disaster was included as part of the farm bill, and this inclusion was a positive and welcome change for livestock producers. 

The years when we utilized disaster assistance programs to help offset the painful financial consequences of a drought, fire, blizzard or flood have been tough years; and without the disaster programs, our family-owned operation may not have been able to continue. Our family used the Emergency Livestock Assistance Program (ELAP) to help offset the financial effects of a crippling drought in 2008. We qualified for a payment to purchase replacement hay necessary to cover what we normally would have produced, but due to the drought conditions, we had little to no hay production to feed our livestock. We also have a Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP) application pending. LIP is intended to provide financial assistance to help ranchers partially recover the value of calves that have perished. In my case that loss occurred during a terrible blizzard the winter of 2010-2011. These programs provide the only financial relief a livestock producer has available when he finds himself faced with the loss of livestock or the forage necessary to feed them. 

While crop producers have access to crop insurance, there is no insurance available for catastrophic livestock losses such as those experienced by Montana ranchers during the devastating wild fires in south eastern Montana during the summer of 2012.  I have helped neighbors prepare applications for LIP and on one particularly sad occasion I participated as a third party witness when several  cattle fell through the ice and drowned while they were trying to shelter themselves from the stinging cold, raging wind and blowing snow delivered by a harsh Montana blizzard.

These programs are a welcome relief for producers, but they also come with a fair amount of frustration. Disaster assistance programs should be continuous. If these relief programs had stability it would be of benefit to both the livestock producer and FSA, the agency which administers them. If disaster assistance was consistently available, and if livestock producers were required to submit the necessary records annually, much of the historical data FSA requires for disaster programs would be readily available. Instead, many of the problems farmers and ranchers encounter when they sign up for these programs stems from FSA’s administrative requirements and the lack of livestock producers gathering the type of data FSA requires. If producers had data already delivered to FSA about their operations, utilizing disaster assistance programs would be easier and more efficient for both parties.

Mother Nature throws a variety of natural events in the path of farmers and ranchers, yet our resolve remains unbroken. Our weather is uncertain; sometimes severe and we find our markets are even vulnerable to the effects of drought. Drought has reduced the number of cattle and processing facilities have closed as a result. If the weather and markets are not the issue then many farmers and ranchers are challenged by ever increasing predator losses. It is important that livestock producers obtain consistency in federal disaster assistance programs. The programs which have helped my family-run operation and others across the country need to be made permanent. A streamlined process encouraging participation rather than discouraging participation would also serve as a welcome change to these programs.

I encourage you to learn more about ranching in Montana by reading the new book released by the Montana Stockgrowers Association, Big Sky Boots:  Working Seasons of a Montana Cowboy. The book is the first of the five-part Montana Family Ranching Series, a photographic story-telling project. In Big Sky Boots readers can journey through the ranching year and learn about the people who take care of the land, livestock and their families. This book series also contains interactive QR codes which, when scanned with a smartphone, make the stories in the book come to life. I’m extremely proud to be one of many Montana ranchers working every day to deliver safe, healthy, wholesome beef to your families and to other families around the world.