We attended the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition‘s (NDGLC) Summer Tour on Brad Sand’s Ranch by Ellendale, ND. A cadre of 80 passionate ranchers, farmers, university, and local agency representatives made the trek to learn and share experiences in regenerative agriculture. Jerry Doan, Chairman of the Coalition started us off by reiterating the purpose of the group which is to promote good grass management by sharing new research and ideas.
The current drought was understandably the “hottest” topic of the day. Our tour guide, Tanner Gue, a biologist with Ducks Unlimited, performed a soil temperature and moisture test at each location during the tour. A stark contrast was apparent between the native prairie fields at 72˚F and the land more recently used for conventional crops at 90˚F (the same as the ambient temperature). Although conditions have been extremely dry with barely a drop of rain in the past 2 months, the native prairie still contained more moisture at 10% and the recent conventionally managed land was at 8%. Soil temperature is one of the simplest ways to determine if soils can support microbial and plant life. At 70˚F, 100 percent of soil moisture is available for plant growth, but at 100˚F, only 15 percent is available for growth. The remaining 85 percent is lost to evaporation and transpiration.
On land Brad had just begun seeding cover crops into, much of the soil surface was still exposed. The drought hasn’t provided adequate moisture for the cover crops to leaf out. Last year rainfall was plentiful and the sudangrass in this area was 5 feet tall, providing shade for the soil. In years of drought, leftover residue from previous cover crops becomes a critical component for armoring the soil and protecting it from the sun’s heat.
The Sand Ranch has land in various stages of regeneration. Some of the land has been in native prairie grasses for years, and some is currently being converted with help from Ducks Unlimited. For decades it had been intensively cultivated with cash crops like corn, soybeans, and alfalfa hay. Cover crops were planted over the past 4 years to replenish the soil’s nutrients, protect it from the elements, and to create soil aggregates. Darrel Oswald with the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District extracted a spade full of soil at each site to assess its structure and organic matter content. In areas where regenerative practices had been implemented for 4 years or more, the spade sunk easily into the ground. The soil here was held together in a clump by the live root systems and other aggregates like mycorrhizal fungi. It had a dark chocolaty color as was, as Darrel commented, “the color of carbon”. Alternatively, in the field where Brad had just begun converting from conventional practices, the soil was hard and compacted. Considerable effort was needed to sink the spade into the ground. What came up was a greyish, silty dirt that had little to no structure. It didn’t require a biology degree to observe these differences.
Brad’s granddaughter, Desa, and her boyfriend Logan gave us a demonstration for assessing how often to move livestock as part of a Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG) program. They picked this up during a course offered by Ranching for Profit. The method is less of a science and more of a practice in observing your herd’s consumption in relation to the conditions of the pasture and your goals. For instance, if you want to graze down a weed infestation, you’d implement what’s called “mob grazing” and keep the livestock constrained to a small area until the vegetation has been chewed down to the ground before moving them on to the next paddock. If you want to optimize for healthy pastures, you want to leave at least 65% of the forage before moving the herd. You can quickly assess how often to move the herd by observing how much vegetation is left after a day. Then you can adjust the number of livestock, size of the paddock, and frequency of moves accordingly.
Brad spoke about his transition from calving in the frigid temps of February and March to June 1st or later. He emphasized that ranchers often make their lives more difficult than is necessary. The complications, labor, and losses of birthing calves in late winter are just not worth the extra weight the calves might be able to put on over the summer. You save more calves and work a hell of a lot less when you calve in June.
Dr. Kevin Sedivec of the Central Grasslands Research Extension Center was our plant identification and growth expert during the tour. Many of North Dakota’s pastures are overrun by Kentucky bluegrass which leaves a thick layer of thatch or residue which stifles the growth of other plant species. However, the bluegrass is still valuable forage for ranchers and their livestock, so we must learn how to manage it and replace it over time. See a recording Dr. Sedivec’s advice here.
One of the methods Dr. Sedivec advocates for is controlled burning. This was a controversial discussion during the tour for a few reasons. First, most of the state is under a burning ban because of the recent drought. Aside from the extreme danger of burning right now, stiff penalties and possible death threats would likely come to anyone caught intentionally starting fires. Second, ranchers often simply can’t afford to light up the valuable forage their livestock need. Finally, although wildfires have always been a natural part of prairie ecosystems, its difficult for proponents of regenerative agriculture to make any excuse for releasing additional carbon into the atmosphere. These folks have worked for years to sequester that carbon in their soils and truly care about the effects of climate change.
The most exciting part of our tour was when we started flipping over cow patties! Dr. Ryan Schmid from Ecdysis Foundation found a juicy pile of cow excrement for us to dig into to search for dung beetles. The U.S. cattle herd deposits 5 billion pounds of manure annually. That’s enough material to cover the state of Massachusetts each year! Breaking this manure down into soil is a hefty job, and dung beetles have established themselves as the ultimate fecal managers. There are three types of dung beetle: dwellers, tunnellers, and rollers. Each play an important role and having all three in a pasture is optimal. Many livestock producers destroy dung beetle populations by treating cattle with wormers. This impacts the ability of nature to break-down the manure and create healthy soils. View Dr. Schmid’s talk by following this link.
North Dakota has lost 70% of its native prairie to production agriculture. Groups like the NDGLC provide resources to stewards working to preserve and enhance what remains. These grasslands support millions of insects, birds, small mammals, livestock, and ultimately us humans. They are an invaluable asset to our ecosystems and the world at large.