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Converting CRP to Cell Grazing Benefits Farm in Rolette County

Over the 25 years Merle Boucher had some of his Rolette and Bottineau County land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), he noticed that areas of pocket gopher and badger mounds were making the ground quite rough. He also saw that areas of matted grass were choking out desirable forage.

Loretta Sorensen writes from Yankton, S.D.


Concerns about these and some other aspects of keeping the land in CRP led him to allow his contract to expire and begin converting the land to pasture for his cattle.

 “It’s proving to be a challenge to resolve the mounds created by gophers and badgers,” Boucher says. “I’m using a disc to get rid of the mounds, spraying for noxious weeds that have invaded over the years and working to re-establish some desirable grasses.”

Boucher’s land lies about 15 miles south of the Canadian border, at the feet of the range of hills known as Turtle Mountains. Oak tree forests, coulees and ravines are all found in the area.

 “Some of this land, which is gumbo, is steep and hilly, highly erodible,” he says. “My father farmed it for many years, which caused a lot of wind and rain erosion on hilltops. CRP was a way to re-establish grass on the land when I took it out of crop production. And even with the issues that developed over the past 25 years, keeping it in CRP did improve the quality from what it was after it was farmed.”

Because Boucher’s soil retains water long after a rain, vegetation is necessary to keep it from becoming saline, an issue he saw in the past.

 “It’s taken between 20 and 25 years to get some areas on these parcels just to grow grass,” Boucher says. “The Bottineau County land sits on a huge gravel deposit just two or three feet beneath the surface. We’ve had offers to sell it, but we didn’t want a gravel pit on our property.”

Fencing is one of Boucher’s priorities in preparing the ground for grazing. He’s also planning to drill a well on the Bottineau parcel.

 “For both the fencing and the well we’re eligible for funding through the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP),” Boucher says. “We’ll still have plenty of out-of-pocket costs to complete the transition to grazing, but I expect grazing to be better for the land.”

On both parcels of land, Boucher will set up rotational grazing, using quarter-section cells on his Rolette County property. Exiting centralized water tanks will give cattle the water they need.

“We typically graze large cells for about 10 days and then move to the next one,” he says. “We’ll have three new cells on the Rolette County property. Once we’ve worked through them, over about a month’s time, we’ll move cattle a different area and won’t graze there again for a year.”

The Bottineau property has more native grass, alfalfa and clover which will provide quality forage.

“On that property, we’ll graze the forage down, move the cattle, and then see if we have enough rain to bring the forage back,” Boucher says. “If we do, I would graze that a second time, depending on forage growth.”

Boucher expects that grazing activity will cause native grasses to rebound on both parcels of land. If some forage goes to seed before he grazes, he sees that as a positive development.

“When we do put cattle on grass that’s gone to seed, they tend to trample a lot of the seed down into the soil, which does a better job of seeding than I can,” he says.

Rolette County NRCS District Conservationist Brian Gysbers, says his office is pleased with Boucher’s projects.

“He has implemented a system which is economically beneficial to him and his community while protecting and enhancing this environmentally sensitive land,” Gysbers says.

Gysbers also points to the wildlife habitat and carbon sequestration benefits of Boucher’s CRP transition. He expects Boucher will see production increases in the years ahead due to his rotational multi-cell grazing system. Boucher’s use of short, high intensity grazing periods, followed by extended rest periods, has been shown to not just allow desirable forage to become established in his pastures. It also gives plants time to develop and maintain a healthy root system.

 “The cattle should help reduce the volume of less desirable forage species, which crept in over 25 years of CRP,” Gysbers says. “Healthy plant root systems will determine how quickly spring plant growth expands. Healthy roots also affect productivity during the growing season.”

Crop management has changed greatly over the past 25 years. “Now it’s time to start seeing forage production in the same light,” Boucher says. “The days of fencing a tract of land, putting cattle on it in spring and picking them up in fall are gone. We can’t expect a good return on that kind of management. We have to do things differently now to realize a profit.”