Ranchers Mentoring Network - Ranchers Sharing Ideas with Ranchers

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2009: $175,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
Mary Stevens
Dakota Prairies RC&D

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: general hay and forage crops


  • Animal Production: free-range, grazing management, grazing - rotational
  • Crop Production: cover crops, no-till
  • Education and Training: farmer to farmer, mentoring, workshop, youth education, technical assistance
  • Natural Resources/Environment: riparian buffers
  • Production Systems: holistic management


    The Ranchers Mentoring Network – Ranchers Sharing Ideas with Ranchers Project provided information and education to improve soil health, profitability, sustainability and quality of the environment and natural resource base.

    Mentors were provided by the ND Grazing Lands Coalition (NDGLC). The NDGLC mentors are recognized as leaders for their agricultural practices on their individual ranches. Mentors were available as speakers at workshops, tours on their operations, and for other ranchers to get one-on-one assistance on questions pertaining to their overall operation.

    Over the course of this project nine new mentors were added as qualified Mentors.


    A sizeable percentage of the land in North Dakota exhibits symptoms of poor grazing and cropping management. Negative consequences of poor management ultimately affect most of the important resource concerns in this area. Even the short list would include a variety of concerns, such as: lack of ground cover, limited root penetration and development, poor water infiltration and water quality, increased erosion, poor productivity, loss of plant and wildlife biodiversity, increased invasive species, poor soil health, less profitability, and the list goes on. Many producers do not understand the long-term effects of overgrazing and poor grazing rotation management. They do not realize the need for system biodiversity of plants and animals and how to manage them appropriately to protect and improve the resource base and add production, profitability, and sustainability to their operation. They need to understand how improving soil health through different management strategies can be a positive win-win for their ultimate goal of a sustainable operation that is positive for the environment and for the producer.

    Considering the scope of this concern across a sizeable portion of this state, there is a lack of needed resources to adequately address this problem. Partner agencies that have previously assisted producers with technical and financial assistance to help bring about changes in their systems management are experiencing reductions in funding and personnel support. This shortage of needed assistance is occurring at a time when demands are increasing. Several agencies and organizations are seeing an increase in requests for one-on-one site assistance, assistance with comprehensive range inventories, mentorship training, and facilitation for communication exchange. There is a continued need for more training that will promote soil health improvements, healthy riparian and stream bank vegetation, water conservation, sustainable ranching operations, healthy wildlife habitat, efficient sustainable use of grass resources, and additional practices that all contribute to improvements in soil and water quality, the natural resource base, and long term sustainability.

    During the past several years, a handful of crop and livestock producers in this area have been working in a coordinated effort to design and implement new management practices and strategies that have the potential to deliver significant and positive impacts for a large majority of the agricultural producers in our state. As members of the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition (NDGLC), they are leading the charge, dedicating countless hours of their time and expertise to significantly improve their resource base utilizing management strategies that reduce inputs, yet enhance the health, biodiversity, productivity, profitability, and sustainability of their farming/ranching system. With technical assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and North Dakota State University Extension Service (NDSU), they have worked through many of the challenges and obstacles to confirm that this brand of holistic, innovative management is a real win-win for producers. Their goal is to harvest available sunlight and water to enhance soil health, with the realization that the side benefits are almost beyond measure. They have successfully developed and utilized cover crop cocktails of forages that greatly improve water infiltration, provide more ground cover, can be adjusted to regulate C:N ratio, and greatly enhance soil health. The inclusion of livestock further adds to the system biodiversity and provides additional income from extra pounds of beef or milk. Their cover crop management will not allow excess removal of ground cover, regardless of livestock needs or climatic conditions.

    It is also a reality that the final chapter has not been written regarding the impacts of these marked management changes. These cooperating producers still witness new benefits and are further experimenting with even more innovative ideas on their farms to see if they can further advance the possibilities. This is an ongoing reality for the leaders in this project.

    The huge attendance at a couple recent field events and workshops that have highlighted these new management strategies confirms that other producers are seeking the demonstrated management solutions that these producers are experiencing. As other producers recognize the possibilities, they are requesting assistance from these NDGLC member-producers as they attempt to implement these same new ideas on their own farms and ranches. NDGLC mentors are realizing that one-on-one, on-the-farm mentorship is an extremely important component in the process of moving producers toward the adoption of these practices. They are already seeing successes as they work with a few producers on a limited basis.

    Additional producers are already coming forward with new requests for mentor assistance because they realize they need to implement this technology if they are going to remain sustainable in the future. Input costs have risen dramatically in the past year, and managing to reduce those inputs while improving production at the same time is a huge benefit and important factor for maintaining profitability and sustainability of these producers. The technology being promoted and implemented helps them to increase production without acquiring more land, and the benefits are being realized by livestock and crop producers, and perhaps even more so by those with an integrated crop and livestock system.

    The demand for mentors expertise and time has expanded beyond what they can continue to offer on a volunteer basis. There is now a need for a formal plan for part-time staff and for compensation for their mentor services. NDGLC requested a partnership with RC&D for assistance in this effort to meet that need. RC&D will act as Project Coordinator and will be responsible for administration, coordination, facilitation, and additional responsibilities of the project. RC&D assistance will also be involved in promoting this project to new producers, allowing NDGLC members to concentrate on education, as workshop instructors, and with one-on-one, on-farm mentorship training to producers who currently are, or will be transitioning to these new management practices and strategies.

    There will be very little learning curve or project transition curve for this project. RC&D has a strong history of project coordination, facilitation, oversight, and fiscal responsibility with projects funded through other federal grants. The Executive Director is a Council employee with a lengthy history of fiscal and project administration. The RC&D Coordinator is an NRCS employee with many years of field experience, and is available to provide considerable technical assistance from this position and from the agency.

    It should also be noted that Dakota Prairies RC&D is prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability.

    Literature Review
    • An extensive review of previously-funded SARE projects (listed in Appendix 2) reveals several projects that have some similarities to this proposal. Similarities include the following:

      On farm research utilizing different cover crops to determine benefits to pest management and soil quality. (a and b)

      Training participants in holistic management fundamentals with each participant then working one-on-one with two producers to help them develop whole farm plans, including grazing and financial plans. (c)

      Utilizing alternative cool-season crops to extend the grazing season, with a focus on utilizing two alternative cool-season crops to extend grazing and also help build soil fertility through the addition of a legume. (b)

      Development of a farmer-based research support program to encourage farmer-university cooperation in developing innovative farming practices. Experienced farmers act as mentors (in a workshop setting) to share their knowledge with other farmers. This program included several on-farm research projects. (d)

      Utilizing experienced farmers to mentor new or transition farmers on sustainable agricultural practices. This included the recruitment of 18 mentors. (e)

      This proposal includes similar objectives, but encompasses many of these single objectives into one extensive project. Also, this project includes some significant differences from each of the above projects, including the following:

      Implementation will be in a different cropping and climatic environment. There will be greater diversity of cover crops utilized in this project. They are more adapted to our semi-arid, shorter growing season.

      Improving soil health through biodiversity and proper land and livestock management will be the major educational and mentor focus of this project. There will be strong emphasis on this outcome as a foundation for a successful, sustainable, and profitable agricultural operation.

      In the educational, demonstration, and on-farm mentoring activities of this project, livestock and a variety of additional cover crops will be included as major components for adding diversity and increased profitability.

      Mentors will be producers who have already successfully adopted the management strategies and concepts they will teach to others in both the group (workshops, camps, field tours) setting as well as the one-on-one and on-the-producer’s-farm mentorship training.

      This project will help producers implement the transition to new and proven cropping and grazing management practices that provide the positive benefits previously listed. Much of the initial research has been done and is proven.

      Field-size on-farm demonstration plantings will be an ongoing component of this project, to further determine effectiveness in the various land types and growing conditions that vary across the state. They will also serve as tour stops for educational purposes.

      Professional improvement opportunities will be promoted and assistance provided for a limited number of producers to attend select events.

      The North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition (NDGLC) will be the primary partner for implementation of this project. They currently have experienced and qualified mentors who can immediately begin to train others when the project is started.

      This project includes many similar objectives of some previous and/or ongoing SARE projects. However, none of those projects were conducted in this area, and none combine so many of these single components into one project as this one. This project will move producers to the next level of sustainable agriculture, providing a solid foundation, utilizing a whole-farm approach to build in biodiversity, and improve soil health, production, profitability, wildlife habitat, longevity, and sustainability.

    Project objectives:

    a) Eight regional management workshops, seminars, or field/pasture tours each year, held at different locations around the state. This will give producers, agency field personnel, and ag-business personnel an opportunity to receive both classroom and hands-on training from specialists and producer-mentors. 50-400 participants typically attend these events, depending on location, producer interest level, and timing. Field tours and similar hands-on events are usually held in mid to late summer, while workshops and seminars are typically held in late fall and winter.

    b) Sponsorships for 3-5 individuals (per year) to receive professional improvement training at regional three to five-day workshop/seminars. These are producers who wish to receive more intensive education on specific topics they have chosen, to help them with further implementation or as a train-the-trainer component to equip them to become mentors.

    c) Ranchers or lenders range camps will be designed as three to five-day camps on or near a select field/pasture location to provide more intensive hands-on education. There will be 3 ranchers’ camps and two lenders’ camps over the three-year period. Camps will be designed to allow for considerable one-on-one assistance from the trainers, so maximum attendance numbers will not be large and will be determined by availability of training capacity.

    d) Mentorship training will be provided by trained mentors who are members of the NDGLC. They will provide up to 825 hours of their time to work one-on-one with individual producers who are working to implement the management strategies and technologies of this project. Mentors will provide up to 16 hours per producer, so it is anticipated that they will mentor at least 50 individuals or families per year.

    e) News articles, activity promotional pages, and news release information will be provided for inclusion in select newsletters and publications that reach the target audience of producers, ag landowners, and agency and ag-business-related stakeholders. These will be developed and distributed as needed during the tenure of this project. This information will reach approximately 10,000 individuals and families of the target audience across the state, annually.

    f) Brochures that explain the program and provide contact information will be developed and distributed to the target audience on an ongoing basis. Distribution will include handouts at workshops and other project events, individual mailings, email, etc., utilizing existing and updated mailing lists from NDGLC, RC&D, NRCS, and NDSU Extension, and various other stakeholder agencies. This will require at least 10,000 brochures during the term of the project.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.