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BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The state Agriculture Department said this week that it helped distribute more hay to drought-stricken ranchers, amid cautious optimism that this year won’t be as bone-dry as last.

The Agriculture Department said it had helped coordinate the distribution to ranchers of 100 recently donated bales of hay and 30 bales of oat straw. It was done through a hay lottery program implemented last summer by the state, North Dakota State University and the Michigan-based nonprofit Ag Community Relief.

The new donation by a community service group in Antler brought the total doled out through the program to nearly 700 bales. There was heavy demand for the feed, with nearly 1,400 ranchers in the Dakotas and Montana applying.

The Agriculture Department last year also provided $1.5 million in aid to help ranchers with the cost of hauling hay from long distances to help get their herds through the winter. That program helped nearly 500 ranchers.

The aid has helped over the winter, said Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association. She said that while late-season moisture in some areas last fall helped boost hay production, ranchers in other areas are still searching for hay. Some also will wait longer than usual to turn their herds out to pasture, to give the land more recovery time.

“That will mean they will use more feed resources in the meantime, feeding hay longer into the spring than usual,” she said.

The Stockmen’s Association and its foundation last year established a drought relief fund. The group recently announced that 22 ranchers divvied up about $50,000 in donated money.

Both the rancher group and the Agriculture Department are taking a wait-and-see approach on whether to ramp up the relief programs should drought persist into the upcoming growing season.

Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said he has had conversations with climatologists and forecasters, and “a bit of my fears might be eased, because they’re not showing a repeat of last year.”

Much of the northern Plains was mired in severe, extreme and even exceptional drought last summer. The latest U.S. Drought Monitor map shows about half of North Dakota and about one-third of South Dakota still in moderate-to-severe drought, but conditions have improved since last week thanks to recent snow and rain. More was falling in the two states on Friday.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in its spring outlook predicts a wetter-than-average next three months for the Northern Plains, and improvement in drought conditions in the region.


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