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Working lands conservation program hits the ground in Grand Forks County

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Kathryn Yurkonis, a UND associate professor of biology, talks about research projects underway at several study sites in Grand Forks County, including land enrolled in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald) 2 / 6
UND student Ayla Morehouse takes a soil temperature reading while Tanner Woutat looks on at a research site near the Turtle River northwest of Grand Forks. The biology students, who will be seniors this fall, are studying the impact of conservation practices on land enrolled in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald) 3 / 6
Ben Draxton is establishing rotational grazing practices on this 368-acre tract of land in Oakville Township as part of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. (Photo courtesy of Ben Draxton)4 / 6
Dale Benson, who farms near the Turtle River northwest of Grand Forks, is one of two Grand Forks County producers participating in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald) 5 / 6
UND biology students Tanner Woutat (left) of Bismarck and Ayla Morehouse, who lives near Omaha, Neb., are studying the benefits of various conservation practices on several Grand Forks County sites this summer. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald) 6 / 6

Dale Benson admits he was anxious when the strips of ryegrass he planted as a cover crop in one of his soybean fields was slow to sprout during the cool weather that lingered early this spring.

"Winter rye was seeded prior to the soybeans, and then I would say probably 10 days after that, we planted soybeans right into it," said Benson, who farms nearly 5,000 acres near the Turtle River in Grand Forks County with his son, Ryan. "It was a little different spring. It was so cold at first, it was, 'When is the ryegrass going to come?'

"And they both basically came at once, and we had the rain, the warm weather and just a really good crop of rye."

Benson is one of two Grand Forks County producers enrolled in a federal working lands initiative known as the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. The Grand Forks Prairie Project—an area of about 10 miles from east to west and 30 miles from north to south—was one of 88 sites across the country selected for $225 million in RCPP funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service to participate in the program.

The Grand Forks County NRCS received $375,000 over the life of the five-year program. Coupled with matching funds from UND, Audubon Dakota and the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, more than $700,000 in cost-share and technical assistance is available to Grand Forks County producers for conservation practices such as riparian buffers, rotational grazing, cover crops and establishing no-till or other tillage techniques that leave more organic material on the land.

Program participants

Benson is applying no-till and cover crop practices on a 35-acre parcel in his operation as part of the program, which launched this spring and continues through 2022. Ben Draxton, a second producer, is implementing a series of rotational grazing practices on 368 acres of his ranching operation in Oakville Township.

UND students Ayla Morehouse and Tanner Woutat are studying the lands, along with those of other landowners who are voluntarily implementing conservation practices, to inventory the natural resource benefits, said Kathryn Yurkonis, a UND associate professor of biology who is UND's lead RCPP contact.

Producers selected for RCPP must agree to allow the students on their land.

"That's the fun part of it," Yurkonis said. "We've got the farmers talking and we've got the students interacting, and I can tell you right now, they're not getting any of this in the classroom."

Woutat and Morehouse say they're enjoying the hands-on experience, which includes everything from sampling the soil to maintaining contacts with the farmers and other partners.

"In the classroom, you don't get pushed," Woutat said. "And when you're out here, you're thrown into it; you've got to get done."

While still in its infancy, the program in the county is off to a promising start, said Lorilie Atkinson, a soil conservationist for the Grand Forks County NRCS. A field tour is on tap for later this summer for the various partners to get a firsthand look at the impact, be it good or bad, of the various conservation practices on RCPP lands, Atkinson said.

"We're really excited with our first year of it," she said. "This is the first year we're trying it, but I'm glad we'll be able to see two different land uses."

New territory

Benson said his venture into cover crops and no-till practices has gone well.

"We're starting to leave more and more residue on the ground," Benson said. "It seems like we always get less and less tillage all the time, less inputs.

"It's just very impressive," he added. "You'd never be able to do 100 percent of the farm that way, but I definitely think we'll be doing more and more of it."

Atkinson said cover crops provide multiple benefits and can both conserve water and absorb excess water depending on the conditions. Benson's soybean field includes a mix of test strips with the ryegrass cover crop and strips without the cover.

"It's pretty important to have that untreated check there," Atkinson said. "We're trying to give some technical assistance, and that's where the financial assistance comes in, as well.

"We're taking a little bit of the risk away, and we're all learning together."

That learning will evolve as the producers and conservation partners become better acquainted with what works and what doesn't, Yurkonis said.

"It's not only the natural resources, but it's the whole ecosystem, whether it be pollinators or birds or deer," Yurkonis said. "We're trying to integrate the things that we need to do economically to be here, like grazing and agriculture, with what we're doing for conservation and finding that common ground—literally."

Other benefits

Draxton said his interest in rotational grazing led him to apply for RCPP funding. A work in progress, Draxton's grazing system will feature a series of paddocks on his 368 program acres. Instead of one big pasture, the site will have 12 pastures, he said.

RCCP funds provide cost-share money for cross-fencing and tapping into an existing rural water line, Draxton says, which will allow him to install about 10,000 feet of 1½-inch pipe to provide water to the paddocks.

"There will be water tanks in three different locations so each paddock has access to water, and that's kind of a key," Draxton said. "In rotational grazing, you pretty much have to have water access. Otherwise, you can't do it."

The ability to move his 100 cow-calf pairs will reduce overgrazing and improve the pasture quality, Draxton said, adding rotational grazing also should help restore native grasses to the prairie lands.

"The grass right now is not in very good shape," he said. "Hopefully, over time through rotational grazing, we can let the good plants grow up and then eat it down, move them, let that rest for a long time and let the other plants grow up."

The partnership aspect of the program also helps control costs, Draxton said. As an example, he said, Audubon Dakota and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are offsetting the cost of replacing 18,000 feet of perimeter fencing that didn't qualify for RCCP funding.

"I'm really excited," Draxton said. "Hopefully, (rotational grazing) will improve my pastures and the soil quality and help my animals."

UND, NRCS and the other partners have been easy to work with, he said.

"I've really enjoyed working with them," Draxton said. "They've been really encouraging and positive and excited about it. It's been fun."

Atkinson said NRCS continues to accept applications from Grand Forks County producers interested in enrolling in the program. NRCS staff will go through the applications and put them through a ranking process sometime this fall, she said, most likely in October or November.

Preference is given to lands within the Grand Forks Prairie Project area, but the program is open to all producers in the county.

"Right now, July and August is a great time for interested producers to give us a call," Atkinson said. "If they have areas they think they might want to try cover crops, or maybe some grassland they think would make a good grazing area, we would love to come out and take a look at their resources and start that process."

For more information, contact the Grand Forks NRCS office at (701) 772-2321.

About the program

Here's a closer look at the Regional Conservation Partnership Program in the Grand Forks Prairie Project area of Grand Forks County:

• Duration: 2018 to 2022.

• Partners: Natural Resources Conservation Service, UND, Audubon Dakota, North Dakota Natural Resources Trust. NRCS assists producers with practice planning, UND faculty and students work with producers to conduct the monitoring, all participate in outcome assessment.

• Covered farming practices: Conservation cover, forage harvest management, forage and biomass planting, cover crop, grazing management, cross fence, pipeline, watering facility, water pump, well, no-tillage residue management, reduced tillage residue management.

• Total project budget: $751,762 (includes UND faculty time match).

• Budget for producer payments: $230,595.

• 2018 producers: Dale Benson: Cover crop (soybeans into rye) and no-till residue management. Ben Draxton: Grazing management, cross fence, pipeline, watering facility, water pump, well and working with Audubon Dakota and USFWS for fencing

• 2018 students: Ayla Morehouse and Tanner Woutat. Students are involved in soil, plant and invertebrate (crop pest and pollinator) monitoring from planning to processing stages. Students are responsible for maintaining contacts with NRCS personnel, UND personnel and area producers. Weekly meetings cover project logistics and help students develop on-the-job skills. Examples include weed identification, professional letter writing, professional communication skills and learning about agriculture and grazing production systems with area producers.

-- Herald staff report

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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