Hay supplies already low from last year's dry weather were depleted by cows that needed more energy than usual to survive one of the roughest winters in memory.
The Agriculture Department estimates hay stocks on North Dakota ranches this month total only about 700,000 tons — down 44 percent from last year.
Jack Reich, who ranches in the Zap area of western North Dakota, said the hay was gone even before record flooding hit this spring.
"There might be a little bit of hay that got flooded out, but I would say most places, there probably wasn't any hay left when the flooding came," said Reich, president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association.
"Like myself — I'm down to like two bales," he said.
Reich said it is not a crisis situation because many ranchers are starting to turn their cattle out to pasture. But Julie Schaff Ellingson, executive vice president of the cattle group, said pastures in some parts of the state are getting a slow start because of the cool spring.
"Lots of guys are supplementing (with feed), still," she said.
The Agriculture Department at midmonth rated hay and forage supplies in North Dakota at 64 percent short, compared with only 29 percent at the same time last year.
Reich said some ranchers ran out of hay over the long winter.
"I haven't heard of any cows starving to death or anything like that, but people had to go to different types of feed; like myself, I fed a lot of corn," he said.
Some ranchers had to go to South Dakota to find enough hay. "It's sure been a struggle," Reich said.
South Dakota ranchers fared better over the winter. The Agriculture Department this month estimated hay supplies in that state at 1.9 million tons, down only 2 percent from the previous year.
North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said ranchers who had "extraordinary" feed-related expenses or losses because of the harsh winter and spring flooding might be eligible for aid through a new effort called the North Dakota Livestock Feed Transportation Program.
The program has a $750,000 grant from the federal Agriculture Department and $250,000 in state money approved earlier this year by the Legislature.
"If you had unusual losses of feed due to flooding, additional costs for transporting feed or had to pay extra for snow removal in order to reach feed or livestock, you may qualify for compensation," Goehring said.
Ranchers have until June 15 to apply, and the money will be distributed by mid-August. The amount they get will depend on the number who are eligible.
State and federal officials estimate that more than 90,000 cattle in North Dakota have been lost to the harsh winter and spring flooding, including as many as 72,000 calves. Many drowned. Others got sick from the wet, muddy conditions.
"It was a long, long season for folks," Ellingson said.
The federal Agriculture Department took the unusual step of allowing North Dakota ranchers to calve on Conservation Reserve Program land, which normally is off-limits because landowners are paid by the government to keep that land idle to guard against erosion.
The added moisture did bring some benefits. The latest report from the state Agricultural Statistics Service says pastures and ranges in general are doing better than last year at this time.
And Ellingson said she is confident ranchers will be able to get their first cutting of hay around mid-June, despite the late spring, hopefully heading off tight hay supplies next winter.
"The ingredient we need now is some sunshine," she said.