(Newsroom America) -- Nearly half of all U.S. counties have been designated disaster areas due to ongoing or worsening drought conditions, the Department of Agriculture said Thursday, as weather forecasters say not much relief is in sight for the foreseeable future.
The department added 218 counties to its list yesterday, bringing the total to 1,584 in 32 states, as the agency's head announced new measures to assist cash-strapped farmers and ranchers dealing with the dry, hot conditions.
Counties in Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wyoming were added to the list. The USDA uses the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor to decide which counties need to be added to its disaster list.
The designation makes farmers and ranchers eligible for federal assistance.
To help ease pressure on farmers, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack opened up 3.8 million acres of federal conservation land for ranchers to grow hay and for their cattle to graze.
"The assistance announced today will help U.S. livestock producers dealing with climbing feed prices, critical shortages of hay and deteriorating pasturelands," Vilsack said.
He also said crop insurers had agreed to provide farmers facing cash-flow problems a 30-day, penalty-free grace period on premiums in 2012.
The current drought conditions are the worst in decades, forecasters have said, leading nearly half of the nation's corn crop to be rated at poor or very poor, with 37 percent of the U.S. soybean crop designated the same.
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