As most Americans know, our nation is experiencing an unprecedented drought.

While the crops and livestock of America’s farmers and ranchers are suffering, the U.S. will continue to have the safest, most affordable, most reliable food supply that the world has ever known because of our agriculture safety net. Were it not for this safety net, many family farms and agribusinesses would be unable to survive this historic drought.

During our annual agriculture tour of Arkansas last week, I saw the devastating impact of the drought on Natural State agriculture producers. During a visit to the Livestock Auction in Conway, Arkansas, I talked with ranchers who have been forced to liquidate their herds due to the high cost of feed, or lack thereof. 

The lasting effects will have a tremendous influence on the bottom line of these ranchers and on the cost Americans will pay for food at the grocery store.

Federal disaster programs that protect our nation’s livestock producers expired at the end of 2011, leaving them vulnerable to lack of hay and forage, high feed cost resulting from the expected impact of the drought on grain yields, and lack of water to sustain their herds and flocks. At the same time, most row croppers currently benefit from subsidized crop insurance, direct payments, or counter-cyclical programs that protect them from hard times. 

While I was unable to support the Senate passed Farm Bill due to regional inequities in the commodity programs, I was pleased the bill included an extension of livestock disaster programs. I was also pleased that the version of the Farm Bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee included a similar extension of livestock disaster programs, but that bill has yet to come to the House floor under regular order. (Related Link: President Obama: Congress Needs to Pass Farm Bill.) 

While a five-year Farm Bill provides the best approach to helping our farmers and ranchers, there are still differences that must be worked out between Republicans and Democrats in the House regarding how to reform the Food Stamp program and achieve deficit reduction.

In the meantime, the House passed an extension of the livestock disaster provisions prior to leaving for August recess so that our livestock producers would know help is on the way. Unfortunately, instead of bringing this non-controversial bill up for a vote in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid opted to use this opportunity to try and force the House to act on a five-year extension of the Farm Bill.

There is no question that our farmers and ranchers need the certainty of a five-year extension of the Farm Bill, but Republicans and Democrats in Congress should work past the gridlock by doing what they can for the American people, rather than laying this non-partisan relief on the altar of what they want right now. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas is working right now to gather the support to get a five-year extension through the House, and Senate Chairman Debbie Stabenow demonstrated tremendous leadership in shepherding her legislation through the Senate. I am confident that their leadership will yield a five-year extension that is equitable for all crops and regions prior to the end of this Congress, but until that time Washington should do what it can to help our farmers and ranchers immediately.

On July 24, 2012, several of my Senate Agriculture Committee colleagues and I sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack urging him to use everything in his existing authority to alleviate the impact of the drought, particularly on our livestock producers. 

I was pleased that President Obama and Secretary Vilsack recently provided nearly $16 million in assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) and reprogrammed $14 million in unobligated funds to the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP), which will assist in moving water to livestock in need, providing emergency forage for livestock, and rehabilitating lands severely impacted by the drought. 

These actions will help, but more can be done.

Furthermore, the Administration will make commodity purchases through several nutrition programs, to help alleviate a glut in the market due to the culling of herds and flocks and to provide nutrition assistance as more Americans continue to look for help from food banks and elsewhere in the midst of the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression.

These actions will help, but more can be done. With up to forty percent of our nation’s corn going to ethanol production, the Administrator of the EPA should temporarily suspend the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) for corn ethanol in light of the uncertainty regarding livestock feed prices and future corn stocks. This could prevent the price spikes we are seeing now, that will inevitably reverberate throughout the commodities markets and eventually at the grocery store checkout line. 

We are a resilient nation and our farmers and ranchers work as hard as anyone in this country, so I know they will fight their way back. Inevitably, Congress will resolve its differences on a five- year extension of the Farm Bill, but in the meantime we must do what we can to provide a little relief for our livestock producers.