'Cows are awesome': Working Grasslands Partnership uses managed cattle grazing to benefit habitat and wildlife on expired CRP lands in North Dakota
WELLS COUNTY, N.D. — Look across this landscape of rolling hills, lush grass and small wetlands, and it’s easy to see why North Dakota’s Missouri Coteau is considered one of the most important waterfowl areas in the Prairie Pothole Region, a swath of land extending from Iowa northwest into prairie Canada is widely known as “North America’s Duck Factory.”
Ducks need grass and water to thrive, after all, and the Missouri Coteau historically has offered a wealth of both.
Besides waterfowl and grassland birds, the grass is a boon for cattle, which graze contentedly on this muggy July afternoon.
If not for a conservation-minded landowner, this slice of the Missouri Coteau south of Harvey might have gone under the plow two years ago when it expired from the Conservation Reserve Program. Getting accepted into the federal program that pays landowners to take marginal cropland out of production and provide grassland and wetland habitat in its place is becoming increasingly difficult as contracts expire and available acreage declines.
That’s where the cattle come into play.
“They would have farmed it,” said Steve Walker, who lives near Anamoose, N.D., and grazes 62 cow-calf pairs and 13 heifers on this 275-acre site as part of an agreement with the landowner. “He probably would have gotten just as much money out of it farming, but there’s a lot more things that can happen with it the way it is now because it’s better for wildlife.”
The way it is now, in this case, is a wildlife- and cattle-friendly landscape established through the Working Grasslands Partnership, a program available through the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust and Ducks Unlimited. Funded by North Dakota’s Outdoor Heritage Fund, which dedicates a small portion of oil tax revenue to outdoors projects, the Working Grasslands Partnership provides cost-share funding for landowners to establish rotational grazing systems on their expired CRP lands.
“Working lands” programs such as the Working Grasslands Partnership are the wave of the future for landowners who want to continue conservation practices on their land after CRP contracts expire or can’t be re-enrolled.
“We want to see it in operation, and that usually means cattle,” said Tanner Gue, a conservation biologist for Ducks Unlimited in Bismarck who worked with Walker to establish the grazing system. “A lot of this country was made to be grazed. The grass evolved under that kind of a system. Cows are good — they equal grass, grass equals wetlands most of the time and wetlands equals ducks.
“So, cows and ducks get along really well.”
From a peak of nearly 3.4 million acres in 2007, North Dakota’s CRP acreage by 2018 declined to 1.3 million acres, and contracts on about 700,000 acres are set to expire between now and 2022, according to statistics from the federal Farm Service Agency, which oversees the program.
Nationally, CRP acreage has fallen from a peak of nearly 36.8 million acres in 2007 to 22.6 million acres by 2018.
Less available CRP acreage leaves landowners with limited options for providing habitat on their land when contracts expire. Congress reauthorized CRP in the 2018 Farm Bill, but demand far exceeds supply, competition is intense and getting re-enrolled often means plowing up the land and replacing old CRP with new plant mixes now required as part of the program.
Even with cost-share dollars, that can be expensive.
“There’s a lot of demand for CRP, and there’s not a lot of dollars to go around,” said Robert Ford, a DU conservation biologist who recently moved to the Devils Lake area to address the growing demand for working lands programs in northeast North Dakota. “What we’re trying to do is reduce some of the economic pressures producers feel to drain small, yet significant wetlands that are within croplands.”
The Cover Crop Livestock and Integration Project — CCLIP for short — is a DU program similar to the Working Grasslands Partnership in its mission to provide livestock water and grazing infrastructure, along with funding to assist with grassland planting, wetland restoration, cover crops and technical assistance.
Also funded by the Outdoor Heritage Fund, CCLIP focuses on cropland acres with the goal of keeping them in production and profitable while reducing the risk of farmers draining small “at-risk” wetlands that are critically important to waterfowl.
“Our programs, they’re great for the ecosystem, they’re great for the producer and they’re great for wildlife — especially ducks,” Ford said. “Essentially, it’s a win-win-win system. At least we feel that way, and many of the producers we talk to feel that way.”
Walker definitely feels that way. By enrolling in the Working Grasslands Partnership, he was able to get 60% cost-share funding to fence the Wells County site into eight separate paddocks — or cells, as he calls them — have a well dug, and run shallow pipes to three water tanks the cattle can access from multiple paddocks. A solar-powered pump moves the water from the well through the pipes and into the tanks.
The project went especially smoothly for Walker because he had experience digging pipelines and building fences.
“The well driller drilled the well — that’s the only thing I didn’t do,” said Walker, a Warroad, Minn., native who grew up in a family that raised cows and worked on a ranch in Montana before moving to North Dakota.
Every 16 to 17 days or so, Walker moves his cattle to a different cell, ensuring the grass isn’t overgrazed while in turn providing habitat for ducks, grassland birds and other wildlife. Purple coneflowers, wood lilies and other native plants grow among the cool-season non-native species such as alfalfa and Kentucky bluegrass that took root when the land was enrolled in CRP.
Warm-season natives such as big bluestem and little bluestem also are returning to the landscape.
“They’re in the seed bank — we’re just using cattle to get them to come back,” said Gue, the Bismarck DU biologist. “Over the years, Steve (Walker) will see that — he’ll see a more diverse grasslands species mix out on that landscape.”
That diversity provides a drought management plan that wouldn’t happen without the cows, Gue said.
“Cows are awesome,” he said. “They’re great for the landscape. They’re the best tool in my experience for bringing grass back. Warm, dry year, he’s got warm-season species for forage. Cool, wet year, he’s got cool-season species for forage.”
From a father’s perspective, Walker said the Working Grasslands Partnership allowed his 18-year-old son, Ridge, to invest in buying cattle, ensuring a family tradition and way of life will continue.
“Instead of going to college last year, he borrowed money and bought cows,” Walker said. “In five years, he’ll have 175 cows paid for, and these kids going on to college will probably owe that much after five years.
“If it wasn’t for this grass, Ridge wouldn’t have cows.”
The Outdoor Heritage Council, which oversees OHF spending, recently awarded $1.225 million for a fourth phase of Working Grasslands Partnership projects, Gue said. The council approved grant requests for the first phase of the partnership beginning in 2016 and grants for phases two and three in subsequent funding cycles.
Phase 1 covered western, south-central and a small piece of southeast North Dakota; Phase 2 expanded the program farther into southeast North Dakota; Phase 3 extended from Renville County in the northwest to Richland County in the southeast; and Phase 4 will be available statewide.
The Natural Resources Trust handles the business side of the partnership, and DU helps deliver the projects on the ground, Gue said. Nearly all of the funds from the first three phases have been allocated, he said; funds are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
To date, 90 landowners have signed agreements on 84,685 acres of grazing lands in the first three phases of the Working Grasslands Partnership, said Terry Allbee, business manager and biologist for the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust in Bismarck.
“The demand for this program is so high because CRP acres are simply not available. There’s cattlemen out there that want to run their cows, and it’s hard to find grass, and so it’s a popular program,” Gue said.
While not required, landowners also have the option of enrolling the land in the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s popular Private Lands Open to Sportsmen (PLOTS) walk-in hunting access program. Game and Fish also offers a handful of other programs through its Private Lands Initiative.
The conservation options available to landowners today never will match the scale of CRP at its peak, but the Working Grasslands Partnership, CCLIP and numerous smaller state and federal programs all help to keep wildlife habitat on the landscape.
“I’d say 95% of our work is completed on private lands, farms and ranches, trying to help operators and owners figure out what program, whether it’s a DU program or not, works best for their operation, but also benefit wildlife and soils and water quality,” Gue said. “I think that is a trend or direction we’re moving, trying to make these working lands programs more attractive and work together for both sides.”
Partners for Fish and Wildlife program also aids grazing efforts
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also provides cost-share funds through its Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program for landowners interested in grazing expired CRP acres.
Cost-share rates are 80 cents per foot for four-strand barbed wire fencing and 50 cents per foot for three-strand electric, said Mike Graue, private lands biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Devils Lake. Rates vary for other fence configurations depending on the fencing type, Graue said.
The program also will cost share 50% up to $5,000 for developing watering systems such as wells or dugouts, he said.
Like DU’s programs, Partners for Fish and Wildlife funding is available on a first-come, first-served basis, Graue said, adding there’s been a noticeable uptick in demand as CRP acreage declines. Since last fall, Graue said he has helped provide cost-share funding on nine properties where landowners couldn’t re-enroll acreage into CRP and didn’t want to put the land back into crop production.
Two of those agreements were in Grand Forks County, and the remaining seven were in Benson, Towner, Wells and Nelson counties, Graue said; agreements remain in effect for 10 years.
The program also offers technical assistance in designing rotational grazing plans, he said.
“Well-managed grass and ample water supplies are beneficial for livestock production and wildlife species,” Graue said.