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9 tips for a healthy ranch

Three families of environmental stewardship award program winners offer their tips and experiences for a healthy ranch.

Jerry Doan and his family own and operate Black Leg Ranch southeast of Bismarck, North Dakota. The operation was the 2017 Environmental Stewardship Award national winner. While this might not be a specific environmental tip, Doan thinks there’s a side benefit to good environmental stewardship on a ranch: It sends a positive message to nonfarmers.

Black Leg Ranch welcomes agritourists and hunters throughout the year. “When they see what we are doing to enhance the environment, they are impressed,” he says. “They don’t get that message very often. 

“Another good tip is to let people know we care about the environment and that we’re doing good things on our farms and ranches.”

John and Kathryn Dawes raise Angus seed stock cattle. Their operation was a regional winner.

Grant and Dawn Breikreutz own and operate their Redwood Falls farm raising Red Angus cattle. Their operation was a regional winner.

READ MORE: 10 things you can learn at the NCBA Cattle Industry Convention

1. Improve soil health.

When I was in college, we didn’t hear much about the soil under pastures and cropland,” says Jerry Doan. “It turns out, there’s a lot more going on there than we knew. On our ranch, we are rebuilding our soils to more of their natural state after many years of tillage and season-long grazing. It’s in baby steps, but we’re making progress.”

He believes planned rotational grazing is the secret. “We like a short, intensive grazing season in a pasture, followed by a long recovery period,” he says. 

Before settlement, he says bison grazed an area of the prairie heavily and stirred the soil with their hooves. Then they didn’t return to that area for a year or two. To duplicate that with cattle, Black Leg Ranch has installed 65 miles of high-tensile fence to create 90 pastures. 

“We’ve seen a great increase in plant diversity, including the return of native species like big bluestem on our upper slopes. It’s leading to better overall soil health,” Doan says.

2. Add cover crops.

Black Leg Ranch grows cover crops on just about every acre of farmland. Cover crop mixes may have up to 20 plant species. 

“This does several things,” Doan explains. “It gives us grazing all winter, especially if we’re lucky to get an open winter. It puts the manure out there where we want it, rather than in a lot where we would have to haul it back to fields. 

“It saves us a lot of money in feed costs when the animals graze compared with harvested feed. The evidence says it can save up to $200 per cow. Cover crops also contribute to better overall soil health,” he says.

3. Propagate wildlife.

The Doans are supporting the nesting and grazing habitat for birds and game animals, allowing the family to nurture a good business in agritourism and fee hunting. That’s good for the environment, but it also adds to the quality of life in rural areas, Doan thinks. 

“It helps our profits and the enjoyment of the land,” he says. “We’ve got three kids back on the ranch working with us because they like living here.”

4. Protect waterways.

Riparian zones, says John Dawes, are areas seeded to native plants, and they protect waterways from harmful runoff. Fencing keeps cattle out of this buffer area and the stream.

“In our area, we plant such things as jewelweed, boneset, butterfly weed, and yellow water iris,” he says. “The goal is to have a good stand of plants that take up a lot of water, chemicals, fertilizers, and manure nutrients before they get to the water.” 

These areas also provide wildlife habitat, he adds.

5. Install adequate barnyard containment.

Runoff pollution can happen when cattle are confined in a barnyard lot and there’s no system of containment. 

“I encourage people to construct a hard-surface containment system with a curb to prevent runoff,” Dawes says. “Think about the concrete lots you see on dairy farms to keep the animals out of dirt and mud. Contain the manure. Then, at an appropriate time, distribute it out to your crop fields.”

6. Adopt sustainable energy.

Dawes has a windmill for generating electricity at Huntingdon Farm. He also uses small (2×4-foot) voltaic energy panels (solar panels) to pump water and operate a water heater. 

“One of our voltaic energy units powers the well water pump that distributes out to four pastures,” he says. Besides being energy-efficient, this keeps the cows out of the streams for drinking water. 

“Farms are good sites for renewable energy systems,” Dawes says. “We have many buildings that are good places for solar panels. We have lots of open field spaces, too.”

7. Spread out your water sources.

The Breitkreutzes have installed over 30,000 feet of water pipes to get water tanks out to paddocks and far corners of their 128 acres of pastures. Remote water lets them more intensively manage and utilize the entire farm. 

“It spreads the cattle out,” says Grant Breitkreutz. “That improves the quality of the grass and the overall soil health. With the increased forage production, we can give pastures more rest between grazings. 

“It also lets us leave more grass on the pastures going into the winter. That’s good wildlife shelter and food,” he says.

Full utilization of pastures has let Stoney Creek Farm nearly double the cattle-carrying capacity of the farm. 

“Our grazing season used to be about three and a half months, but we’ve stretched that out to between seven and nine months,” Breitkreutz says.

8. Consider your cover crop options.

“A few years ago, we went to cover crops on everything,” Breitkreutz says. “We’re now 100% no-till and cover crops. That’s good for the entire farm by diversifying the plant species that grow on our corn, soybean, and wheat acres. 

“If our pastures aren’t greening up very fast in the spring, we can put the cows onto a field with a cover crop growing until the pastures are ready,” he says.

9. Reduce outside inputs.

Stoney Creek Farm has reduced inputs, particularly commercial fertilizer, needed for the grain crops. 

“Cover crops capture nutrients left in the soil,” Breitkreutz explains. “The cows eat those plants, then turn it into manure, and that is a good nutrient source for the grain crop.”

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