BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota's Agriculture Department is expecting hundreds of applications over the next three weeks from drought-stricken ranchers seeking money to help pay the cost of hauling in hay to maintain their herds through the winter.

With hay in short supply, the department also is expanding the aid program to include straw used for feed.

The state Emergency Commission in late August approved $1.5 million in aid to help with hay-hauling costs, in response to the worst drought in decades over the summer. Alfalfa hay production in North Dakota is down 30 percent from last year, and production of all other hay is down 43 percent, according to the federal Agriculture Department.

The state Agriculture Department has received about 60 applications since the hay-hauling aid program began accepting them Sept. 5, but Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring is expecting as many as 700 by the Nov. 3 deadline, based on the number of ranchers who signed up for a separate hay donation lottery program last summer.

"People are still moving hay and getting their affairs in order for the end of the year," Goehring said. "In many respects, it's still early in the game."

Hay is essential to ranchers' efforts to get their herds through the often brutal North Dakota winter. An average adult cow eats about 3 tons of hay over the winter feeding season. The program will reimburse eligible ranchers for a portion of their hay transportation expenses between June 1 and this Friday. The amount that each will get will depend on how many ranchers are approved.

State officials late last week decided to also make eligible the transportation of straw used for feed. Straw can be mixed with hay or with feed supplements to stretch out feed supplies.

Straw is typically used for animal bedding, but it "is commonly used as a feed ingredient in rations during droughts," said Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association.

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