Donated hay being divided among Northern Plains ranchers

Blake Nicholson
Associated Press
Bales of hay that have been donated for a lottery drawing to help drought-stricken farmers and ranchers are stacked at a site near the North Dakota State University campus in Fargo, N.D.

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — State agriculture officials in the Northern Plains on Friday, Sept. 1, were starting the process of distributing tons of hay donated from around the country to help drought-plagued ranchers in the region.

It might be the last best chance for some ranchers in the Dakotas and Montana to obtain hay for the winter, with the nation's focus turning to helping hurricane-ravaged Texas. Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller on Thursday put out a call for donations to a state agriculture relief fund, saying producers have been "devastated by this historic storm."

On the flip side, the Northern Plains have been hit by the driest weather in decades.

"It's ironic that, on this end of the country, producers are in a crisis because of not enough water and, on the other end of the country, they are in a crisis because of too much water," said Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, the state's largest rancher group. "While very different, both are catastrophic scenarios."

North Dakota's Agriculture Department, North Dakota State University and the Michigan-based nonprofit Ag Community Relief on Aug. 1 announced a program to accept hay donations at a site near the Fargo campus for ranchers in the state where prime cattle country is mired in extreme drought. A week later, officials expanded the program to include South Dakota and Montana, which are experiencing similar dry conditions this summer.

Midnight Thursday was the deadline for applications, and nearly 1,400 ranchers in the three states applied, according to Agriculture Department spokeswoman Michelle Mielke. Dozens of semi-loads of hay were donated from around the U.S., with truckers from around the country donating time and equipment to haul it to North Dakota.

Related: Getting drought relief hay delivered, no easy task.

"The way people have responded to this has been a bit uplifting," North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said. "The fact that somebody recognizes (ranchers') loss, their need, their issue, has helped them immensely."

The hay is being distributed through a lottery drawing.

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor map shows 66 percent of North Dakota in some stage of drought, with 22 percent of the state in extreme or exceptional drought, the two worst categories. South Dakota and Montana are experiencing similar conditions. Ranchers have been forced to sell off cattle, buy hay at prices double the normal cost if it's even available, and drill new water wells.

"The state's livestock producers have and will continue to be sourcing feed resources from outside their home areas in order to maintain their herds," Ellingson said.

Much of the donations that have been delivered to the hay lottery site are from close states such as Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, Goehring said. More hay has been donated, but it's in far-away states such as Maryland and Tennessee, and getting it to North Dakota might be difficult given what has happened in Texas, he said.

"We've sourced another 20-30 semi-loads of hay out there, but we need somebody to haul it," he said. "And now we have a major issue in Texas and we have ranchers in need down there. I talked to one (charitable) organization, and they're going to be turning their attention to Texas. We'll have to try to find local truckers, or some companies that maybe would be looking at doing a backhaul and would be willing to stop and pick some hay up and bring it back."