WASHINGTON – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced several initiatives aimed at helping farmers and ranchers affected by drought.

"Beginning today, USDA will open opportunities for haying and grazing on lands enrolled in conservation programs while providing additional financial and technical assistance to help landowners through this drought," Vilsack said. "And we will deliver greater peace of mind to farmers dealing with this worsening drought by encouraging crop insurance companies to work with farmers through this challenging period."

Vilsack said he would use his existing authority to help create and encourage flexibility within four USDA programs:

• Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Additional acres under CRP can be used for haying or grazing under emergency conditions. Lands not yet classified as "under severe drought" but that are "abnormally dry" can be used for haying and grazing. Haying and grazing will only be allowed following the local primary nesting season, which has already passed in most areas. Especially sensitive lands such as wetlands, stream buffers and rare habitats will not be eligible.

• Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Farmers and ranchers will be able to modify current EQIP contracts to allow for prescribed grazing, livestock watering facilities, water conservation and other conservation activities to address drought conditions.

• Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). USDA is authorizing haying and grazing of WRP easement areas in drought-affected areas where haying and grazing is consistent with conservation of wildlife habitat and wetlands.

• Federal Crop Insurance Program. Crop insurance companies are being asked to voluntarily forego charging interest on unpaid crop insurance premiums for an extra 30 days, to Nov. 1 for spring crops. Policy holders who are unable to pay their premiums in a timely manner accrue an interest penalty of 1.25 percent per month until payment is made.

USDA so far has designated 1,297 counties across 29 states as disaster areas, making all qualified farmers and ranchers in the areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans.