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Drought-stricken Wyoming ranchers look to ND pastures

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BISMARCK (AP) -- Drought-stricken cattle ranchers in Wyoming are looking to surrounding states for grazing land, and their best bet might be North Dakota, where farmers this year have been luckier than their neighbors.

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While large areas of Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota are in drought, or at least abnormally dry, that's not the case in North Dakota. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports about two-thirds of North Dakota's pasture and range land is in good-to-excellent shape. In comparison, less than half of South Dakota's pasture and rangeland is doing that well.

That's one reason Wyoming Department of Agriculture Director Jason Fearneyhough contacted North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring this week to inquire about the possibility of Wyoming cattle being moved to that state.

"With the conditions the way they have been in Wyoming, we have a lot of producers looking for other options for their operations," Fearneyhough said in a statement. "To help alleviate the issues that Wyoming producers are facing, we hope producers in surrounding states have some grass available for rent."

Wyoming officials have requested a federal disaster declaration for all but one county, said Muff Parker, executive secretary of Wyoming's Department of Agriculture. Almost all of the state is abnormally dry, and more than half is officially in some form of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

"Last year we had plenty of grass, everything was wet, we were doing great," Parker said. "This year we didn't get a lot of moisture. We were well below our snow levels and didn't get any spring rains. Our grass isn't in good shape."

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said the drought is worst in southeast Wyoming, where some ranchers have started selling some cattle.

Last year, ranchers in Texas and other parts of the southwest sold off massive numbers of animals after a severe drought destroyed pasture and range land and a hay shortage caused prices to skyrocket. So far, Wyoming is the only state to inquire about renting land for cattle to graze in North Dakota.

"Our producers are, in the Midwest, probably better-positioned than anybody else to help out," Goehring said. "There's a lot of drought taking place from the Rockies clear over to Ohio. Traveling around the Midwest, I feel blessed. I'm so happy that North Dakota is in the position we are in.

"People have stepped up to help us out in the past; maybe we can do the same," he said.

North Dakota ranchers moved cattle to other states during droughts in the late 1980s and in 2006, Goehring said. More recently, they've had to contend with flooding, although most were able to find enough dry land to graze their animals within the state, he said.

It's not clear how much North Dakota land will be available to Wyoming ranchers. Medina rancher Jason Schmidt, who serves as president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, the state's largest cattle group, said many ranchers are starting to rebuild herds as conditions improve and beef prices rise, so they are using more land.

He also said that while North Dakota ranchers are in generally good shape with hay reserves and are always willing to help out other ranchers in need, there is concern that drought could hit the state by summer's end.

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