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New water plan for Badlands gives western N.D. couple a rest

BELFIELD, N.D. -- Larry and Linda Fritz spent many mornings saddling up, riding across the range in below-zero temperatures with axes in hand so they could chip away ice, allowing their cattle a drink.

Larry Fritz
Larry Fritz, right, along with dog Nip and Natural Resources Conservation Service District Conservationist Russell Jordre, left, discuss the benefits of water upgrades on the Fritz's Third Creek Ranch on Aug. 24, near Belfield. (Photo by Jennifer McBride/Dickinson Press)

BELFIELD, N.D. -- Larry and Linda Fritz spent many mornings saddling up, riding across the range in below-zero temperatures with axes in hand so they could chip away ice, allowing their cattle a drink.

"The place had a very marginal, shallow hand-dug well," Larry said, joking that their two children took baths in the same bathwater. But they found little humor in trying to keep their cattle hydrated.

Part of the daily chores included riding horses to check on 25 or so dams that ranged from ยพ of a mile to 5 miles from home. In winter, it often meant opening the ice. In extremely dry summers -- 1988, for example -- the ranch dried to four dams.

But, after nearly 20 years of working with a neighbor and government agencies to dig a well, open springs, place pipeline and install stock tanks, they were able to put the axes to rest.

It is a challenge in the Badlands to find water and place pipe. Soft sandstone and varying elevations make it difficult to find an ideal place for a pump, ranchers and conservationists say.

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The Fritzs are among the hundreds of ranchers taking part in a U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service cost-share program that help them control when and where water flows.

The NRCS operates 53 North Dakota field offices that work directly with farmers and ranchers, state conservationist Mary Podoll said. In 2011, the office wrote 3,560 grazing plans and most of the work is in the west because that is where most of the grazing land is, she said.

"By giving them more options in where water is located they can manage their grass so much better," she said.

Need for water

The Fritzs wed in 1969 and purchased the tucked-away Third Creek Ranch southwest of Belfield in 1977. They moved in about a year later and have called it home ever since.

While sitting on the porch of their ranch one August afternoon, the Fritzs, with canine Nip at their feet, NRCS district conservationist Russell Jordre and Art Elkins, soil conservation technician, talked about the benefits of water projects in ranching.

"Cows don't conceive as well. Lack of fresh, abundant water can make a 100-pound difference in the calves at their weaning weights," Larry said. There is another hazard, he said. "One January, cattle went to a dam to get water and fell through and six died."

"Livestock are no different than human beings," Elkins said of their draw to fresh water. "If you have the choice of steak or hotdogs, what would you go for?"

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The Fritzs knew change was needed and began plans to make water readily available to not only for the cattle, but the family.

The target was the Fox Hills Aquifer, which lies beneath much of the state, but can be particularly far below ground in the Badlands region.

The NRCS field office in Dickinson, where Jordre and Elkins work, was helping about 90 landowners on water projects in October, Jordre said. He has seen water tapped anywhere from 40 feet to 1,700 feet deep in the Badlands, he said.

The previous owners of the Third Creek Ranch had tried to drill a well, but could never hit water so the Fritz family knew it would be a major undertaking.

A rock busted a drill bit at about 1,200 feet during the first attempt, but about 10 feet over and 1,780 feet later, the Fritz family had the well, which continues to supply their home and livestock.

Changing ranching

Once they had a well, the Fritzs began various ranch-related water projects and finished many in 1996.

Now there are three springs oozing water onto their land, 11 stock tanks and 6.5 miles of pipeline, Larry said.

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The pipeline is at about 6 feet below ground. The tanks, which are not hooked to electricity, are buried and covered.

Even at 20 degrees below, water is available, Larry said.

"If you chop a dam and have 220 head of cattle, they don't have the ability of leisure to drink," he said. "There's a lot of pushing and shoving going on. If you have a tank where the water is open, they know whenever they go to that spot, the water is still available."

When the Fritzs began the search for water, the NRCS provided a 75/25 cost-share program. Without that cost-share, there would not have been upgrades.

"We were young," Larry said. "There's no way we could have done it. The bank wouldn't have lent the money."

Today, most projects are cost-shared at 50 percent with the rancher, said Podoll, the state conservationist. Last year the NRCS funded $3 million worth of projects: eight ponds, 283 pipelines totaling 772,000 feet; three spring developments in Lamoure, Montrail and Williams counties; 453 stock tanks and 205 water wells.

Larry and Linda agree, there is always maintenance and upkeep of the pipeline but the good outweighs the bad.

And having reliable water has added to their property value, Linda said.

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"I don't know anyone who waters off of dams anymore," she added. "If we would not have had live water in the '80s I'm not sure we would've stayed in the business."

More access

Nearby, in Golden Valley County, there are approximately 93 miles of livestock water pipeline. This includes pipeline attached to wells and to the Southwest Pipeline, NRCS Beach Field Office District Conservationist Trisha Feiring said.

"We've gotten into the rougher parts of the Badlands to get grazing distribution where they probably haven't been cattle-grazing," she said. "It improves rangeland health through a better rotational grazing system, diversifies grass and native plant species along with wildlife habitat."

On a sunny afternoon in late October, Claye Loftsgard, a ranch hand at the Tescher Ranch north of Beach, N.D., hopped into his pickup with his dog faithfully in the back. The full-size bounced across the Badlands into territory seen by few.

He stopped and jumped out at a recently installed water tank.

"Water's always an issue out here," he said as he fired up the chainsaw and began building a rail around the stock tank. It'll keep the cattle, scattered across thousands of acres, from getting in or on the new water system.

"These cows got it made out here," Loftsgard said with a smile.

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The cattle stick to the area because of the tanks and it allows for more effective use of the pastures, he said.

Bigger calves

Updates are nonstop to the ranch's water system. Cattle grow right along with the upgrades.

Before upgrades, ranchers had to move cows from pasture to pasture when the wells ran dry.

Owner Troy Tescher said there were seven windmills when he moved there in 1983 and of 15 stock dams, only five held water. A 450-foot-deep well supported the house but it was running dry.

"There was not the proper soil to hold water," he said of the dams. "They would leach out. When the ranch got windmills it was probably a big step, but we're trying to do better all the time."

Beaver Creek flows through the area -- most of the time. However, like all of the other sources of water in the area, it is often unreliable and also occasionally runs dry.

Shortly after moving in Tescher put in the first pipeline with help planning and cost-shares. When the Southwest Pipeline came through in 2009 he hooked into that.

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Ranch hands were installing 21 tanks in the fall and like other area ranches, some of the tanks hook into Southwest Pipeline and others to existing wells, Tescher said.

"A couple things we are achieving are slowing down erosion, cattle aren't walking as far for water, increased wildlife, and the cattle are doing better," he said.

Calf weights have increased and though genetics are a factor, water also is, he said. The weights have increased about 150 pounds from about 400 pounds in 1983. Now a 550-pound calf is not uncommon and a 600-pound calf is not out of the question, he said.

There are challenges to running water to desolate areas including decent water pressure to work with in the extreme elevation changes, he said. Physically trenching the pipelines into the steep slopes and erosion control once the pipeline is in can also be problematic, he said.

Overall, Tescher said he is satisfied with the progress and it appears the cattle are too, as they gather around new stock tanks full of fresh water.

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