Farmers donating hay to Northern Plains ranchers amid drought

Farmers around the country are donating tons of hay for ranchers whose livestock are suffering from the drought in the Northern Plains, but the officials and groups lining up the aid aren't finding it easy getting the feed to the region.

North Dakota's Agriculture Department has issued a plea for truckers to help haul donated hay hundreds of miles from other states for a hay lottery program, while an effort in the eastern U.S. started by a tractor pulling team is seeking thousands of dollars to pay for fuel.

About a dozen semitrailer loads of hay have been donated through the effort spearheaded by Tom Bedgar, a Pennsylvania man who farms, hauls grain and runs the competitive tractor Patriot Pulling Team. Some of the hay has been hauled to North Dakota — at a cost of $1,000 per load in fuel and tolls — but there is plenty more to send, according to Bedgar.

"We have a lot of hay out here; we had a good crop," he said. "If anybody can help us out with donations now, we'll get fuel in the trucks. We've got the hay, and we're trying to get started moving here."

Donations of money, hay, lodging or meals are being handled by the Stutsman County Farm Bureau in North Dakota, where Bedgar's niece is a board member.

"Nobody knew what the drought really was about out there until she called, and told us how bad it was," Bedgar said.

About 82 percent of North Dakota, 76 percent of South Dakota and 70 percent of Montana are in some stage of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. About 44 percent of North Dakota, 25 percent of Montana and 6 percent of South Dakota are in extreme or exceptional drought, the two worst categories. Many ranchers have been forced to sell off cattle because they have no hay crop or can't afford to buy hay with demand pushing prices to as high as double the normal cost.

North Dakota's Agriculture Department, North Dakota State University and the Michigan-based nonprofit Ag Community Relief earlier this month announced a program to accept hay donations at a site near the Fargo campus. Applications from ranchers in all three states are being accepted through the end of the month, and the hay will be distributed through a lottery drawing next month.

More than 40 semitrailer loads of hay have been donated, and the Agriculture Department is looking for truckers to donate their time and equipment to haul it to the Fargo site.

"The majority (of donated hay) is in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois," North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said. "Then we get out to Indiana and Ohio, which is quite a jaunt. We also have some very generous people in Tennessee, Arkansas and Maryland, even Texas, but we're talking 13, 14 or 15 hundred miles."

There is heavy interest in the hay lottery. The department has received about 900 applications from ranchers in the three states, spokeswoman Michelle Mielke said.

A semi-load of hay contains about 30 bales. A typical rancher during a typical winter needs six to eight bales per cow, Goehring said.

State officials have approved $1.5 million in aid to help North Dakota ranchers with hay-hauling costs, but the money will not go toward getting hay lottery donations in other states to the region.

"For that, we're counting on the generous and gracious efforts of others," Goehring said.