My brother Drew and I grew up on a farm and ranch in southwest North Dakota. Upon graduation from high school, we knew that we wanted to be involved with the agricultural industry. Over time, it became clear that we wanted to be actively involved with production agriculture.
For over ten years, Drew worked in the oil industry where he became a proficient mechanical engineer. By working in an outside industry, he found and created opportunities to become involved with ranching on a full-time basis. He now manages a cow-calf operation and 970, 110, 240 and 160 acres of native, improved pasture, winter forage/hayland, and CRP, respectively. Unfortunately, much of his land was abused. Farming practices and severe over grazing left the soil to erode by wind and water. He has worked with NRCS USFWS, ND State Water Commission and others to transition from a 3-cell pasture rotation relying on dugouts for water to a 20-cell rotation with miles of pipeline, multiple wells (solar and conventional), dams for wildlife, cover crops for bees and soil health and over a mile of trees. He continues to work closely with these groups to address resource concerns and make long-term improvements in an effort to revitalize the land and improve wildlife habitat.
I have spent the last few years working off the farm to advance my knowledge of production agriculture and am now in the process of transitioning back to the farm and ranch. Every single position of employment that I have held and the experience of graduate school have taught me how to interpret and integrate research from the areas of cropping systems, farm economic management, animal systems and natural resource management.
This project was designed to address the resource concerns of land that had been historically farmed with no inputs and depleted to a point of no longer being productive. To rejuvenate the land and demonstrate how sustainable agriculture can be adapted to fit each operation, project coordinators used bale grazing. This management strategy allowed us to demonstrate a practice that was ecologically sound, profitable and socially responsible.
To measure benefits and impacts from the project, we focused our efforts on soil health. Samples were collected before, during and after project completion to monitor soil nutrients, biological activity and physical structure. Though soil health is the main focus, we also observed other areas of impact because the land works as a system. During July through October of each growing season, bee counts were collected every 2 weeks. This enabled us to monitor the percent bloom of plants within the pollinator planting and also track the number of bees that were appearing throughout the growing season. Body condition of livestock was monitored with each rotation through the bale grazing site. This assessment helped us to make sure that nutritional requirements were being met and maintained. During the spring, calving ease was monitored to help us understand if physical activity during the gestation period was effecting the animals.
The measurement of various parameters helped us gauge our efforts towards developing a more sustainable system. Though this was an important step, the demonstration component of this project helped create momentum within the agricultural industry. Documenting the project through social media, developing a driving/walking tour of the study area and participating in local events helped share information. Because it was presented in various formats, people from all walks of life were able to observe the conservation practice in whichever way suited them most. The demonstration aspect helped producers consider how management practices can be adopted to help them achieve their own ecological, economical and social goals.
1.Improve soil health and fertility, eliminate use of commercial fertilizer
2.Increase nutrient cycling and reduce nutrient runoff
3.Improve herbage production and forage quality
4.Improve herd health by extending grazing season
5.Reduce feed and labor costs
6. Monitor effects on pollinator habitat
7. Share findings through self-guided tours, field days, extension publications and testimonials to improve understanding of sustainable agriculture
This project was designed to address resource concerns of land that was historically farmed with no inputs and depleted to a point of no longer being productive. To rejuvenate the land and demonstrate how sustainable agriculture can be adapted to fit each operation, project coordinators used bale grazing.
Prior to implementing the project, soil samples were collected to provide us with an analysis of conditions. The next step was to meet with a planning committee to help organize and guide our efforts.
During the spring of 2018, a cover crop mixture that included 15+ species was planted on the bale grazing site. The diversity of the cover crop planting helped to create a habitat for pollinators and a symbiotic relationship among plant species that promoted soil health. The cover crops were grazed in the fall and then the site was prepared for bale grazing.
Mid-summer 2018, hay was harvested on other hayland acres. Installation of permanent fence around the trees and field prep was conducted during the summer and fall.
Permanent fence around the trees was designed to protect the the plants from livestock and wildlife and will allow for flexibility with grazing cells.
In late fall, hay was hauled to the grazing area and bales were distributed across the landscape with special emphasis on places where additional organic matter was needed. Temporary fencing was installed and cattle began to move through the system in late fall or early winter. As shown in the pictures below, net wrap was not removed from the bales prior to grazing. Cattle worked their way through the net wrap to eat the hay and the material bundled itself up and was kicked to the side. Net wrap was picked up and removed from the landscape to keep from causing problems. Each time we went out to check on the cows, or assess one of our many parameters, we simply filled up the back of the pickup with net wrap and removed it from the site.
Various parameters were measured throughout the duration of the study to assess the impact of bale grazing. These parameters included but were not limited to: analysis of soil, bee counts and livestock performance.
Robin Salverson with South Dakota State University Extension came to the bale grazing site in mid-December to observe the bale grazing system. Robin took pictures and made notes that will be used in a presentation that she will be sharing with producers, landowners, local stakeholders and more.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Various activities were conducted to share information about the project, “Bale Grazing to Build Soil Health.” During the first year of the project, one of the things that we prepared was a self-guided, mailbox tour which was available throughout the late fall and early winter grazing months of 2018 and 2019. Flyers were prepared and posted on bulletin boards in local businesses. We also reached out to local NRCS and SCD offices to share the information with producers. The flyer detailed the project, provided directions to the demonstration site and listed contact information for project coordinators. Once producers arrived at the project location, a handout was provided that detailed information about bale grazing, benefits of bale grazing, project design, timeline and reporting. Producers were able to guide themselves through a tour of the bale grazing site or they could contact us for a more thorough tour. 30-40 producers have participated in the self-guided tour and several more have simply kept an eye on the project from the highway. In the future, we plan to invite the Grant County SCD board to tour the site. We feel that this would be appropriate because they not only wrote us a letter of support for our Farmer Rancher SARE Grant Application, but also have a special interest in bale grazing and provide grant opportunities to local producers.
Erin has had the opportunity to write an article about, “Winter Feeding Strategies for Beef Cattle,” in which she highlighted the practice of bale grazing. This article was circulated in a newsletter that went out to 500 producers. She plans to put together more articles like this to share through newsletters, newspapers and other resources. Robin Salverson with SDSU Extension has inquired about co-authoring articles and extension publications that detail similar types of practices.
Information about the SARE program and specific details about the bale grazing project will be shared at the Grant County Ag Day in New Leipzig, North Dakota. The Ag Day will provide us with an opportunity to promote the mailbox tour and talk with producers about the SARE program and how it could be beneficial to them. Coordination with Karl Hoppe, a North Dakota State SARE Co-coordinator will help to make this possible.
Throughout the project, videos, photographs and other information has been collected. Some information about bale grazing has been shared through Facebook, but it is hopeful that we will be able to continue to share information through Facebook and YouTube. Plans to coordinate with a tech-savvy neighbor will be helpful in achieving this goal.
Several people that travel up and down North Dakota Highway 49 have commented on the bale grazing study that Drew and I have been conducting. Folks have asked us several questions about what we are doing with the bales and they wonder how it works. Drew and I have noticed that a handful of those same people, over a period of time, have begun to implement bale grazing on their own operation. Each time they see us, they ask us more questions about the logistics of bale grazing. We tell them that much of why we do what we do is driven by the resource and our personal goals, and we encourage others to consider their priorities. “Bale Grazing to Build Soil Health” has created a unique momentum for others to adapt their own strategies for success.