Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced today that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's measures to open conservation land to emergency haying and grazing during the 2012 drought freed up a record 2.8 million acres and provided as much as $200 million in forage for producers facing critical feed shortages. Vilsack made the announcement during the national drought forum in Washington, D.C. co-sponsored by numerous federal agencies, governors' associations and academic partners."The Obama Administration remains committed to doing everything it can to help farmers, ranchers, businesses, and local and county governments meet drought-related challenges," said Vilsack. "Now we know that the actions taken by USDA and other federal agencies at the height of the drought provided much-needed flexibility during a difficult time. We also know that drought recovery is a long-term proposition, and we will continue to partner with producers to see it through."At the height of the 2012 drought, the Secretary announced expanded use of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres for haying and grazing including a two-month extension for emergency grazing on CRP acres without incurring an additional CRP rental payment reduction. By providing this flexibility, USDA freed up forage and feed to benefit all livestock producers during a critical period, on top of additional USDA actions, including lowering the interest rate for emergency loans and working with crop insurance companies to provide flexibility to farmers.USDA's Farm Service Agency reported to the Secretary today that roughly 2.8 million acres under 57,000 CRP contracts utilized the emergency haying and grazing option, compared to just over 1 million acres in 2011. In 2005, producers utilized roughly 1.7 million CRP acres for emergency haying and grazing, the previous record. USDA estimates of the gross value of forage provided in 2012 run from $140 million to $200 million.The Secretary also announced today a new pilot program administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Kansas and Colorado to remove sediments from ponds to help provide more water for livestock or for irrigation. Part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the pilot provides an additional conservation option for producers who face drought-related issues on their agricultural operations.Also, for the current fiscal year, NRCS has made available over $16 million through the EQIP program to farmers and ranchers for water conservation, practices, and wildlife habitat that have been affected by the drought. Those funds are in addition to the over $27 million provided to farmers ranchers in 22 states for drought mitigation during fiscal year 2012.Additionally, Secretary Vilsack noted that over the period of the recently expired Farm Bill, conservation systems installed with support from NRCS programs reduced water withdrawn from the Ogallala Aquifer by at least 860,000 acre feet. This is more than enough water to cover the area of Washington D.C. nearly 20 feet deep and is equivalent to the domestic water use of approximately 9.6 million individuals for a year (based on USGS estimated use of 80 gallons per person per day). The quantity represents about 1.1 percent of the total ground water irrigation withdrawals from the aquifer over the same period. At the agricultural sales level from the 2007 Census of Agriculture, an extension of aquifer life of 1.1 percent would transfer into sales "today" of about $82 million. These reduced water withdrawals have also resulted in a related energy savings of the equivalent of at least 18 million gallons of diesel fuel.The NRCS Ogallala Aquifer Initiative supported over one-quarter of these reduced withdrawals, approximately 238,000 acre feet, and achieved these reductions in the most sensitive areas of States in the Ogallala region. Funding through the initiative is targeted to areas where there has been a significant (over 25 foot) decline in the level of the aquifer or where there is a significant vulnerability for contamination of the aquifer through ground water recharge.While USDA's efforts during the drought have delivered assistance to those who need it most, Vilsack noted that the Department is hampered in its efforts by lack of a Farm Bill and he urged Congress to take action so that programs that could assist affected producers could be used to help them. Vilsack also announced that, in the wake of a series of regional drought conferences with farmers, ranchers, business owners and other stakeholders, a memorandum of understanding is being entered into with the Department of Commerce, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to improve sharing of data and expertise, monitoring networks, and drought forecasting efforts. The MOU is a direct outcome of the regional conferences, Vilsack said. In recent months, USDA has partnered with local governments, colleges, state and federal partners to conduct a series of regional drought workshops. Hundreds of producers met with government officials to discuss needs, and programs available to them. Vilsack kicked off the first meeting in Nebraska, and additional meetings were held in Colorado, Arkansas, and Ohio.In addition, nearly 2,000 producers have taken advantage of funding from NRCS. So far, these drought recovery efforts have impacted over a million acres of farmland.