USDA Secretary Mike Johanns, while visiting the hard-hit drought area of South Dakota, announced a $780-million national drought aid package this week. It includes a $50-million Livestock Assistance Grant Program.

States will receive block grants for distribution to livestock producers in counties designated as D3 or D4 on the Drought Monitor (www.drought.unl.edu/dm/monitor.html) anytime between March 7 and Aug. 31. A list of eligibility criteria and eligible counties can be found at www.usda.gov.

Nearly $700 million of the package will be the result of moving up counter-cyclical payments, with another $30 million in unused conservation funds. Johanns said, "Today's actions emphasize USDA's commitment to use every resource available to help farmers and ranchers who are impacted by drought."

But USDA's announcement fell short to many Congressional members and others from drought-affected areas. Rep. Stephanie Herseth (D-SD) said, "I'm very disappointed. This package doesn't adequately reflect the severity of the drought." Herseth went on to say the package "ignores South Dakota corn, soybean and wheat producers and will do very little to assist hard-hit cattle producers."

Meanwhile, Sen. John Thune (R-SD) said, "Any amount of relief is a step in the right direction, but more is needed. I'm hopeful the House and Administration will work together and meet the $3.9-billion drought-relief package already passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee."

The National Farmers Union says it will "continue to work with members of Congress who are working to pass meaningful disaster assistance when they return in September. We don't support USDA's approach of taking money away from other farm programs to provide assistance."

Expect another effort to pass disaster assistance when Congress returns next week. Earlier this year during consideration of the FY year 2007 ag appropriations bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $3.9 billion in disaster aid.
-- P. Scott Shearer, Washington, D.C., correspondent