In response to the drought, USDA has agreed to allow Missouri landowners to utilize up to 50 percent of the grass areas within their Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) easements for haying. WRP is a program administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that purchases easements from landowners in exchange for their commitment to maintain areas as wetlands.
"Normally, cutting hay is prohibited within WRP easement areas, but during this critical time, Missouri livestock producers need access to all of the forage resources at their disposal," NRCS State Conservationist J.R. Flores said.
Harold Deckerd, NRCS assistant state conservationist for water resources, said Missouri has 994 wetlands easements covering 140,000 acres. Deckerd said that haying is temporarily authorized for portions of easements that were planned to be kept herbaceous. However, haying is not permitted in the portions of the easements which normally make up the permanent pools of water intended to benefit migratory birds.
"Because of the drought, most of the permanent pools are now dry, but we still need to protect those areas so that they will be useful to migratory birds as soon as there is enough rainfall to put water into the pools," Deckerd said. "Haying those areas could damage the natural wetland plants that will return as soon as they get some water."
However, wet meadows containing prairie cordgrass and stands of reeds canary grass could be targeted for hay because of their monoculture and noxious weed classifications, Deckerd said.
Deckerd emphasized that grazing is not permitted in the areas covered by WRP easements because of the damage that livestock access can cause to wetlands. He said those areas would be difficult to graze anyway because they typically are not fenced and they lack water sources for livestock.
Flores said cutting hay on WRP easements (on up to 50 percent of herbaceous areas) will be allowed until August 31, but all bales must be removed from those areas by September 15. He said that people interested in cutting hay in WRP easements must first contact their local NRCS offices and obtain Compatible Use Authorizations.