MADISON, Wis. -

Federal officials have declared 23 counties in southern Wisconsin as natural disaster areas, making farms in those areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans.

The counties have been baked by recent heat waves in which temperatures sizzled into the 100-degree range and left severe drought conditions that took a major toll on crop production.

The disaster designation was announced Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Wisconsin counties designated as primary natural disaster areas are: Adams, Columbia, Crawford, Dane, Dodge, Fond du Lac, Grant, Green, Green Lake, Iowa, Jefferson, Kenosha, Lafayette, Marquette, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Richland, Rock, Sauk and Walworth.

"There's no be-all, end-all to help everyone through this, but there are a lot of different little things that individual farmers can take advantage of," said Casey Langan of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau. "These declarations that are issued just kind of set the stage for a number of tools to be pulled out of the toolbox and used."

Also on Wednesday, Gov. Scott Walker said the state will begin accepting applications for the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority's Drought Relief Guarantee Program. The program would provide a 90 percent guarantee on agricultural loans up to $15,000 for three years.

To be eligible for that loan, farmers must be expected to lose at least 40 percent of their crop this year, and they can use the money for anything from feed for livestock to irrigation.

For more information and eligibility requirements about WHEDA's Drought Relief Guarantee Program, people can visit www.wheda.com.

Earlier this month, Walker opened up some state-owned lands for hay and grazing. He also sped up the process for farmers to temporarily irrigate using stream or lake water.

For comprehensive information and resources relating to the 2012 drought and heat wave, go to www.ready.wi.gov