Two federal programs intended to help ranchers and other livestock producers recover from drought, blizzards and other natural disasters in the past few years have doled out more than $2.78 billion.

The payments come at a time when cattle are bringing record prices and corn used for feed is the cheapest it's been in years.

But only a couple of years ago, federal help seemed far off as parched forage land forced ranchers to buy feed at inflated prices, and a freak October blizzard killed an estimated 43,000 cattle and other livestock in North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska. Livestock assistance programs had expired in October 2011, and Congress argued over the farm bill as disasters hammered producers’ bottom lines.

Lawmakers finally came to a consensus in 2014 and retroactively funded coverage for losses under the livestock indemnity and Livestock Forage Disaster programs.

Applications for assistance flooded in this spring and summer, with close to 28,000 filed in Nebraska alone and more than 400,000 filed nationally. About 261,000 of those applications from across the country have been approved, according to information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency.

The vast majority of the applications and funding are under the Forage Disaster program, with 258,000 approved payments amounting to $2.73 billion, of which about $336 million was paid to Nebraska producers, according to USDA officials. The program reimburses for forage loss due to drought or fire up to 60 percent of monthly feed costs.

Officials have approved around 3,000 applications, amounting to about $50 million, under the indemnity program that covers livestock killed because of adverse weather and attacks by wild animals reintroduced by the government. The indemnity program reimburses 75 percent of the fair market value of the animals the day before death.

Applications initially overwhelmed some Farm Service Agency offices. Ranchers in western Nebraska reported wait times of two months to get appointments. The USDA hired hundreds of temporary workers and moved staff around to help process applications and push through the logjam.

Sandhills Cattle Association President Neil Jorgenson said many ranchers took out loans and sold off cattle in large numbers to make it through the lean years, dropping the U.S. cattle herd to its lowest level in 63 years and causing cattle and beef prices to soar.

Shoppers paid $4 a pound on average for ground beef in August, up 55 cents from a year earlier, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Producers who sold off their cattle because of lack of forage and high feed prices in 2012 and 2013 can’t take advantage of the programs if they don’t have any more to sell, said Creighton University Economist Ernie Goss.

Nebraska Farm Service Agency Director Dan Steinkruger said applications for assistance should be on the downswing. Producers have until Jan. 31 to sign up, but officials made a big push to get as many signed up as possible before Oct. 1, the end of the fiscal year, after which government sequestration would mean a 7.3 percent decrease in payments.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7304 or nbergin@journalstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ljsbergin.

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