The grass started out a pale green in spring 2012 on the Ridder Ranch in the Nebraska Sandhills.

Then it turned yellow.

And then, brown.

“We’d never seen anything like that," Mary Ridder said. "And no one, no matter their age, around here had seen anything like it. It was awful. It was sick.”

Mary and her husband, John, sold off about a quarter of their herd of Hereford cattle and had to buy feed for the rest, just as hay prices hit record highs and ranchers in drought-ravaged states like Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma competed to buy it.

Yet at the peak of the drought, Congress couldn't agree on legislation to help ranchers faced with tough decisions. It wasn’t until passage of the 2014 Farm Bill that disaster assistance was appropriated retroactively to cover eligible losses back to October 2011.

And now, many Nebraska ranchers are finding they will have to wait even longer for assistance as local U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency offices work through a deluge of applications for livestock forage disaster and indemnity programs.

Mary Ridder said she called her local FSA office in late April or early May and the soonest she could get an appointment was August.

After years of waiting on Congress, she said, a few more months doesn’t surprise her.

“This is just a perfect example of how you have two (political) parties who are so concerned about doing what is good for their party they can’t do what is good for our country . Late signup is nothing compared to what was done then.”

During a recent interview, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack praised FSA efforts to deal with the backlog.

“We’re attempting to do in one year what ought to have been spread out over three or four years," he said. "I will say that our team has done a remarkable job under the circumstances where we have already paid out over a half a billion dollars in disaster payments in just the first couple months of this effort.”

Sandhills Cattle Association President Neil Jorgenson said his local FSA office in Broken Bow is making a push to clear its backlog. He called Thursday and got an appointment July 24 to apply for disaster assistance.

Nebraska FSA Director Dan Steinkruger said the bottleneck has been aggravated by the loss of about 100 positions, about 20 percent of the state’s FSA staff, in the past five years due to budget cuts. 

Also, the areas hardest hit by the drought in Nebraska generally have the smallest FSA offices.

Kristen Hassebrook, director of legal and regulatory affairs for Nebraska Cattlemen, praised FSA efforts since the disaster relief programs were announced in April.

“For people who called during the first days and set up their appointment, checks started going out within weeks to people,” she said. “I’ve been very impressed and very happy with the speed through which they have been churning through the multitude of applications.”

The USDA on Wednesday said assistance has been made available to producers who suffered losses due to recent tornadoes and severe storms.

The Livestock Indemnity Program provides help for livestock deaths due to weather, and the Emergency Livestock Assistance Program offers help for emergency feed and destroyed feed stocks.

Help is also available for removing and replacing damaged and destroyed fences through the Emergency Conservation Program.

Steinkruger said disaster assistance appointments will be made a priority.

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