Tote up the taxes you've paid the past 10 years and then add what you think you've paid to comply with federal, state and local regulations. Add more to cover regulations that are already in the pipeline and will hit in the next few years. Now, ask how often you get money back from Washington, D.C.

In fact, the federal government does provide help for agriculture, ranging from farm subsidies to disease control programs. But some ranchers have found it is possible to get money back from Washington to help with big-ticket projects that improve their operations' efficiency while solving environmental problems. The trick is to find which agencies have the money and then find out how to apply for a piece of it.

Help From Section 319

One example is Section 319 of the Federal Clean Water Act. It funnels federal assistance to ranchers with potential water quality issues. It's being used increasingly in Wyoming, where the funds are distributed through the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts (WACD).

The funds are used to clean up potential environmental problems before they fall in the cross hairs of federal regulations, says Bobbie Frank, the WACD executive director. But often ranchers are able to kill two birds with one stone. The solution to an environmental problem may help resolve other ranch problems at the same time.

Frank cites one project, which helped pay costs related to a new calving facility at Miles Land and Livestock, a central Wyoming cow/calf and feedlot operation. The old calving facility sat on the banks of the North Platte River, a blue-ribbon fishing stream. The newly completed facility is far away on high ground, eliminating the potential for manure runoff into the stream.

But the new facility solved other problems as well. A state-of-the art facility is now located in a drier location, which is healthier for newborn calves.

The new facility also has made life easier for the operation's owners and ranch hands. The old facility was a five-mile drive from the rancher's home. The owners and ranch hands took turns living in a trailer by the river during the late winter months. Inside the trailer, the temperature ran about 50°F.

The new calving facility eliminates those problems. It's now an easy walk from the owner's ranch house.

The new facility cost about $94,000, but federal funds covered $38,000 of that and paid for numerous facets of the operation. These included the cost of razing the old calf barn, and reseeding and reclaiming the site. The funds also paid for drainage, a windbreak and a waste retention site.

“We couldn't have afforded it otherwise,” says Jim Price, who owns the operation with his wife, Peggy. “The government paid enough of the cost that we could make it work.”

Price calls it a “a win-win deal.” The government got what it wanted, which was to get them off the river, and the Prices have a new calving facility closer to their house.

The old facility was at least 80 years old, Price says. In the new facility, they worked to incorporate the best efficiency features of the old facility with the best of more recent innovations. The result is, he says, “a much more efficient facility that's really helped our operation.”

The new calving barn is also healthier for newborn animals. The new facility sits on well-drained soil, and the site is configured so that water drains away from the building. Price expects calf survival rates to rise.

Pay Now Or Later

The Prices knew that regulatory concerns eventually would force them to relocate their calving facility. They learned of the Section 319 funds and decided to apply.

“In the livestock business, you pay so much in taxes, and you face so many regulations, this is one way that we get a little back,” Price says.

The calving facility is the second instance the Prices used such a program. Federal funding also helped pay for a switch from flood irrigation to center-pivot on the corn and alfalfa crops they grow for their 3,500-head feedlot.

Flood irrigation brought unwanted selenium deposits to the surface, something the Prices and the government wanted to eliminate. Center pivot solved that problem and saved water, freeing part of their irrigation allotment for use elsewhere on the operation.

Price believes projects that help the environment are more likely to get federal funding. “That was the key to both the grants we've gotten,” he says.

So far, the WACD has helped Wyoming ranches obtain 11 grants, ranging up to $75,000. Had these ranches borrowed the money, they would have saddled their operations with another layer of debt.

Section 319 is one of a number of sources of federal help for small operators. Another is the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, which can be used for irrigation efficiency projects, water development, clean water projects, range management and other environmental developments. This is another program that among other things can be used to resolve water quality issues involving small confined animal feeding operations.

Such government grants may prove critical as the regulatory environment becomes stricter. New federal water quality regulations on confined animal feeding operations are expected in January. In most cases, they will take effect three years later.

The new rules could expand existing water quality regulations to small feeders and ranches. Tougher controls on manure disposal also are likely.

With a slew of new regulations in the works, grant administrator Frank says many producers will need government help to pay part of compliance costs, if they are to survive.

“Our estimate is that the average cattleman will face costs of $100,000 to $150,000 for future regulations. I don't know too many who could bear that right up front,” she says.

Doug McInnis is a Casper, WY, journalist specializing in business management topics.

Translating Regulations

One of the worst aspects of the regulatory deluge is figuring out what the rules mean. Often they're cloaked in language only a bureaucrat could love. Fortunately, there are places to get help.

Conservation district offices are one of the best sources. Others include congressional offices, state cattlemen's associations and state ag departments.

The bottom line is that reading the regulations takes time. And even if you find the time, the regulations may still require outside expertise to translate them.

“If you're a livestock producer and you're out there trying to make a living, the last thing you want to have to do is try to figure out all these regulations,” says Bobbie Frank, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts. “I have spent the better part of five years reading regulations at the state and federal level. I get paid to do that, and it's still difficult.”

The Cost Of Regulation

If you grind your teeth over the cost of federal regulations, get set to grind them down a little more. Estimates put the cost of all federal regulation at $800 billion/year, about $8,000/household.

That tab will likely go up. More than 100 federal agencies create more than 4,500 new regulations annually. No one knows how much of the regulatory bill is paid by agriculture, but in the mid-1990s the American Farm Bureau Federation made an educated estimate and came up with $20 billion.

The regulations hit nearly every aspect of agriculture, including biotechnology, child labor laws, packing industry oversight, water pollution, railroad freight hauling rates and wetlands.

Some regulations drive beef producers nuts. Some help them stay in business — such as efforts to keep foot-and-mouth disease from striking the U.S. And sometimes, producers want more rather than fewer regulations. Tighter regulation of the packing industry is one example.

How Funds Were Used

Eleven projects have been completed in Wyoming using Section 319 funds. Here are four examples:

  • In Wheatland, operators partially relocated corrals, which were too close to a two-acre pond. And, a dike was built to divert runoff away from the water.

  • In Tensleep, a feeding operation was moved away from Tensleep Creek. The new site is in a drier location than the old one and thus healthier for livestock.

  • In Auburn, a manure bunker was enlarged, and two liquid waste holding ponds were built. The project eliminated concerns that the old bunker might pollute groundwater supplies and made manure handling more efficient.

  • In Meeteetse, corrals were relocated away from a river. The new corrals eliminated concerns about runoff and improved cattle handling.