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Grand Forks County field tour touts early success of working lands conservation program

Participants on a field tour of two Grand Forks County sites enrolled in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program hear about the results of cover crop and no-till practices implemented this spring on the land of producers Dale Benson and his son, Ryan. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)1 / 3
Ben Draxton, a Grand Forks County cattle producer, explains an energy-free watering system he installed on his property during Tuesday's tour of two sites enrolled in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)2 / 3
Dave Lambeth (left) of the Grand Forks County Prairie Partners group talks about the significance of Grand Forks County's prairie lands Tuesday morning for participants on a tour of two sites enrolled in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. About 20 people from partnering state and federal agencies participated in the tour. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)3 / 3

A federal working lands program that taps into the power of partnerships to benefit soil and water conservation is taking root in Grand Forks County, and partners got a first-hand look Tuesday at the practices being established on two sites.

About 20 people, mostly from partnering agencies and organizations, attended a field tour of two very different operations enrolled in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which is administered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"This is a great opportunity for (producers) to get some financial assistance and technical assistance to try something different on their farm," Paul Bjorg, a soil conservation technician for Grand Forks County NRCS, said during Tuesday's tour. "We're kind of setting the baseline this year, looking at a lot of different things and taking a lot of different measurements to see how we can improve soil health."

Partnering with NRCS in the program are UND, Audubon Dakota, the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pheasants Forever, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, Grand Forks County Soil Conservation District and Grand Forks County Prairie Partners.

About the program

RCPP offers qualifying producers financial and technical assistance for a suite of conservation practices, including riparian buffers, rotational grazing, cover crops and no-till techniques.

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.

Grand Forks County NRCS received $375,000 over the life of the five-year program. Through matching funds from program partners, more than $700,000 in financial and technical assistance is available for Grand Forks County producers enrolled in the program.

Landowners selected for the program are required to allow UND undergraduate students to study and monitor the various conservation practices.

Tuesday's tour started in a soybean field near the Turtle River, where Dale Benson and his son, Ryan, this year planted ryegrass as a cover crop and are establishing no-till practices that leave more organic material on the land.

Trying something different was a motivation for enrolling in RCPP, Ryan Benson said; restoring the soil after a wet year in 2016 has been an uphill battle.

"All those rains just made the ground very poor, and nothing else seems to work to get it back," he said.

Ben Draxton, meanwhile, is implementing a rotational grazing plan on 368 acres of land that will turn one big pasture into 10 separate paddocks of about 35 acres each. With RCPP funding, he also installed nearly 10,000 feet of waterline, tapping into the county's rural water system to improve the efficiency of watering his cattle.

"There is no way I ever could have afforded this" without program funding, Draxton said.

Multiple benefits

Creating smaller pastures instead of one big pasture will benefit prairie plants and grassland birds in a part of the county that supports some of North America's last remaining tallgrass prairie.

At the same time, improved grazing practices ultimately will result in healthier cattle.

"I think it's really important to have technical assistance. I'm actually looking forward to that part—to having assistance on setting up a grazing plan," Draxton said. "My grazing plan is, 'Oh, I think I should move them now.'"

Concluding Tuesday's tour, Dave Lambeth of Grand Forks County Prairie Partners focused on the significance of lands in the Grand Forks Prairie Project area to bird species such as western meadowlarks, marbled godwits and upland sandpipers.

Working with local producers to promote grassland conservation has been a focus of the grassroots group since it started in 2001, Lambeth said, and RCPP marks a successful chapter in that story. Some 75 to 100 bird species nest in the area, he said, a significance that can't be overlooked.

As if in agreement, a meadowlark called. Somewhere out there on the prairie.

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

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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