Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts plans to call the first formal meeting of the farm bill conference committee shortly after the Labor Day recess and hopes to make headway by then in settling differences with House negotiators. 

Roberts, R-Kan., told Agri-Pulse on Wednesday that he would be talking by phone on Thursday with the other leaders of the conference committee, the Senate Agriculture Committee’s ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan; House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas; and the House panel’s top Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota. 

Roberts said he would be pushing for committee staff to begin making recommendations to the conferees for resolving issues. He said he hopes to have some recommendations by the time of the conference committee meeting, tentatively planned for Sept. 5. 

“A lot of it is up to staff, with direction from members to get this done,” he said, speaking as the Senate returned to action after a break of nearly two weeks.

The House is not in session until September. "If all four of us were together we could close out fairly quickly," Roberts said, referring to the conference committee's four principals. 

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Also Wednesday, more than 120 groups representing segments of animal agriculture sent a letter to Roberts and the other Senate conferees urging them to support mandatory funding for a National Animal Disease Preparedness and Response Program, which would include a vaccine bank. 

"It is critical that the new Farm Bill provide permanent, full funding to address these risks to animal health while likewise bolstering the long-term ability of U.S. animal agriculture to be competitive in the global marketplace and provide consumers around the world safe, wholesome, affordable food produced in a sustainable manner," the letter says.

The House voted 392-20 in July to approve a Democratic motion to instruct the House conferees to support mandatory funding for the program, which also would include USDA’s animal health laboratory network. The programs would get $450 million in mandatory funding over five years in the House-passed farm bill. The Senate version only authorizes funding for the programs, leaving it up to congressional appropriators to decide the annual amounts. 

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