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Thune: Ranchers could get blizzard payments in April

Ranchers could have checks as soon as April from farm bill disaster programs that will pay ranchers for livestock losses from the October blizzard and the 2012 drought, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said Wednesday.

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"We hope the checks start to head out sometime in April. I certainly hope that's the case," Thune told reporters, saying the USDA should be able to streamline and expedite its normal process.

Because the livestock disaster programs in the recently passed 2014 farm bill are similar to those included in the 2008 farm bill, Thune and other Great Plains senators are pressing USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to make those programs operational faster than usual.

Thune said he believes the agency could offer a 30-day comment period before writing the rules for certain livestock programs and then quickly make applications available.

"Once those applications are approved by the county boards, it's generally about two weeks before checks go out," Thune said. "If it's not the case, USDA will have some explaining to do."

Officials believe that more than 40,000 animals perished in the October storm in western South Dakota. The losses left some ranchers with less than half of their cattle herd.

Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., joined Thune and 22 other senators in writing a letter to Vilsack last week, naming two livestock programs in particular -- the Livestock Forage Disaster Program and the Livestock Indemnity Program.

"Due to the magnitude of pasture, forage, and livestock losses and the urgent need for financial assistance these losses have created, we strongly urge you to place implementation of 2014 Farm Bill livestock disaster programs as a top priority," reads the letter.

Johnson said that when he met with a USDA undersecretary and West River ranchers after the October blizzard, the understanding was that USDA staffers were working behind the scenes to bring the livestock disaster programs online very soon after passage of a farm bill.

"I'm hopeful that Secretary Vilsack will be able to move quickly," Johnson said.