North Dakota is hoping to use a loan program through its state-owned bank to help ranchers rebuild breeding stock and to help pay for feed to stabilize herd levels that have been decimated by the state's worst drought in decades.

Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring estimates that drought this summer has forced North Dakota cattle ranchers to sell off about 100,000 animals as pastures dried up and pushed hay prices to as much as double the normal cost.

Goehring, who also is a farmer and has raised cattle, called the situation "daunting" and could have a negative impact on the state of more than $300 million.

Goehring, Gov. Doug Burgum and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem make up the Industrial Commission, which oversees the Bank of North Dakota, the nation's only state-owned bank. The commission will meet Wednesday to approve guidelines for a drought disaster low-interest loan program through the bank, which would underwrite the loans from other North Dakota financial institutions.

Final details of the program have not been disclosed, but officials said the program will only open to North Dakota ranchers.

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor map shows 66 percent of North Dakota in some stage of drought. Twenty-one percent of the state is in extreme or exceptional drought.

Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, said the state has some 10,000 cattle producers.

Some of the areas hit hardest by drought are "some of the most significant cattle producing regions," said Ellingson, who also is a rancher.

The U.S. Agriculture Department said North Dakota's cattle herd stood at 1.8 million animals in January, the latest figures available.

North Dakota's Agriculture Department earlier this month also began accepting applications from drought-stricken ranchers for $1.5 million in aid to help with hay-hauling costs.

The state Emergency Commission, led by Burgum, late last month approved the money, which will go to qualifying ranchers in counties with severe, extreme or exceptional drought.

Burgum also made a request last month for a presidential major disaster declaration for drought. That request is still pending.

Ellingson called the proposed loan program through the state-owned bank "another tool" to "help offset feed costs and help livestock producers address liquidating portions of their herds because of drought."

Ellingson said the beef industry is one of the state's most important "economic drivers."

"Stabilizing that industry not only benefits that industry but the state of North Dakota as a whole," she said.

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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