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Heavy snow cover tough on ranchers

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP)--Rancher John Novodvorsky spent Jan. 9 in his tractor trying to clear paths in his north central North Dakota farm yard, already choked with snow before the latest winter blast.

"There's snow everywhere," he said in a cell phone interview. "I haven't even gotten to the barn yet. It's a challenge.

"We try not to pile it; we drive on it to pack it down," he said. "We're driving on anywhere from 1 to 2 feet of snow around the yard--but we're still having to pile some, too."

Jack Reich spent Jan. 9 getting his hired man unstuck, then coming to the aid of his brother, who got stuck while out feeding cattle in west central North Dakota.

"My four-wheel drive just went out. I'm hoping to get back to the yard," Reich said with a dry chuckle from the cab of his pickup truck. About 15 minutes later, he reported making it back to the main road, adding, "I think I'll be all right."

Heavy snowfall in the state this winter--record amounts in some spots--is putting a strain on ranchers in many areas as they struggle to keep their animals fed. The U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier in the week said hay and forage supplies were rated 69 percent adequate, but that some ranchers had to use feed supplies earlier than normal because of the heavy snow cover.

Before the latest storm, the average snow depth statewide was a little more than 17 inches, the most in a dozen years. It north central North Dakota, the average depth was more than 2 feet.

"Once you get 20 inches of snow on the ground, that's a lot, no matter what," said Reich, who ranches in the Zap area and is the president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association.

In heavy snow, feeding cattle takes more time, effort and more diesel fuel. Wildlife in search of food invade hay yards. Ranchers in need of hay have to go farther to find it, which means costlier feed and the possibility of having to truck feed longer distances on bad roads.

Novodvorsky, one of the few who has extra hay for sale, said a load he sent to a rancher in southwestern North Dakota ended up in the ditch late Jan. 8. The driver was not hurt.

"We've been selling some hay, but I have to cut back and sell only about half of what I wanted to because it's taking so much to feed my own cows," said Novodvorsky, who ranches near the town of Douglas.

Reich said many ranchers are selling cattle, though not on a large scale. "Everybody's kind of trying to make their herds match their feed resources," he said.

Not all is gloom and doom, said Julie Schaff Ellingson, executive vice president of the cattle group. Ranchers are looking forward to a spring and summer with plentiful moisture and a lot of green grass--the opposite of last year's drought conditions in the western part of the state.

"There are a lot of guys smiling," she said.

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