BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — An emergency state program helped nearly 500 drought-stricken North Dakota ranchers with the expense of hauling in hay to maintain their herds through winter.

The state Emergency Commission in late August approved $1.5 million for the Agriculture Department's Emergency Hay Transportation Assistance Program. Figures released this week show 491 successful applicants will be reimbursed on average about one-third of their hay-hauling costs.

Ranchers who applied moved more than 289,000 bales a combined distance of 1.3 million miles (2.1 million kilometers), providing winter feed for more than 126,000 livestock, according to Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring.

Hay is essential for cattle to survive the often-brutal North Dakota winter. An average adult cow eats about 3 tons of hay over the winter feeding season.

Hay production in North Dakota this year was hampered by the worst drought in decades, with much of the central and western regions mired in severe, extreme and even exceptional drought during the growing season. An interactive Drought Hotline map set up by the state to help connect ranchers and people with hay to sell lists nearly half of the state's 53 counties as having producers in need of hay.

Production estimates released by the federal government in October showed alfalfa hay production in North Dakota was down 30 percent from last year, and production of all other hay was down 43 percent.

Drought conditions have eased thanks to some late-season moisture, and that has helped ranchers. For many including North Dakota Stockmen's Association Executive Vice President Julie Ellingson, who ranches near Mandan, "that made the difference between a hay crop and no crop," she said.

With the moisture, the state resources and private relief programs, "hopefully it will fortify people's positions and get them in a better spot" as winter arrives, Ellingson said.

Other groups that have helped with hay aid include Farm Rescue, North Dakota State University, Ag Community Relief, the North Dakota Corn Growers Association and a competitive tractor-pulling team based in Pennsylvania called the Patriot Pulling Team.

The Stockmen's Association and its foundation established the Hope for the Heartland Drought Relief Fund , which is still accepting donations and applications.


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