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Hettinger County: Conservation investments help young ranchers weather drought

With soils that were failing to sustain crops, Dustin and Holly Ebner decided to shift from crops to cattle by utilizing the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Luann Dart. Dart is from Elgin, N.D.

The Ebners ranch near Mott in Hettinger County in southwestern North Dakota, where Dustin started farming and ranching when he graduated from high school in 2003. Now, he, his brother and his father partner to raise 275 Angus/Hereford cow/calf pairs.


Dustin and Holly first used the EQIP in 2008, when Dustin was interested in converting a 30-acre piece of cropland into hayland.

“The east 20 acres had very productive soils, while the west 10 acres had droughty, fragile soils. They were two totally different soils, so we had to make two different grass/legume recipes for him,” described Darrin Olin, district conservationist with the NRCS office in Mott.

Dustin seeded the land in May 2008, participating in the EQIP to help cover some of the seed cost. Through the EQIP contract, he also installed a short barbed wire cross-fence to change his native grazing unit from one cell to two cells.

“Even though 2008 was one of our driest years ever, Dustin got a great catch on the grass seeding and it still is in hayland production today,” Olin said.

And the land has continued to produce for the Ebners, even though another dry year in 2017.

“Even in this dry year, it was the one field we were able to get a second cutting off of,” Holly shared.

In 2014, the Ebners again approached their local NRCS office about seeding 230 acres of cropland into a grass mixture. The cropland had never been productive, Holly said.

“It got to the point that no matter what we did with that soil, we just couldn’t get a decent crop off of it, no matter what we tried and what inputs we put into it,” she said.

So, switching it to more productive grassland for grazing made sense.

With another EQIP contract in 2016, they seeded the land to a cool season mixture of grasses, with the NRCS office providing the grass recipe to accommodate the Ebners’ grazing needs.

At the same time, the Ebners were exploring getting reliable, fresh water to their cows during the summer grazing season. An abandoned farmstead near the pastures still included a working well and a supply of electricity in the yard, so the NRCS office completed the engineering and pipeline design to place water tanks in the center of the four paddocks which would be part of the new rotational grazing system.

With newly seeded pasture, fencing and fresh water in place, the Ebners implemented a modified twice-over grazing system on their four-pasture unit.

They placed their cattle into the pasture June 10, 2017, and rotated every 10 to 14 days, using each cell twice throughout the summer.

“It was able to stretch us all the way through to when we brought them home,” Holly said. The Ebners relied on the NRCS staff to implement a prescribed grazing plan for the paddocks.

“We didn’t put a lot of grazing pressure on units one and two each time they were in these cells, as we were still focusing on establishment success and used the cows as a management tool. Our office staff were out many times throughout the grazing season to determine grazing pressure and the ability to stay in longer or move out,” Olin said.

“2017 was a very dry year for everyone and in years like this, it’s easier to measure failures than successes. With that said, I do believe their modified rotational twice-over grazing system still provided many benefits to their animals and the grazing plants. Their conservation investment helped them get through the drought without having to sell cattle. The installation of fresh livestock water for all grazing cells was also an essential item, too,” Olin said.

The Ebners have now asked Olin to set up guidelines for them to follow during the 2018 grazing season to preserve the pasture if another drought strikes.

Allowing the native grasses to recover between grazing brought a noticeable improvement to the pastures, Holly said. And having the EQIP assistance allowed them to complete the project.

“There’s no way, without getting some form of cost share that we could have done what we did, at least on that big piece,” Holly said.

With a newly located farmstead in 2012, the Ebners also used conservation technical assistance to plant a shelterbelt on their farmstead. A shelterbelt of five rows of trees, 2,700 feet long, now catches the snow and protects the farmstead from the wind.

In the future, the Ebners also hope to be able to expand their herd by better managing their current pastures.

“We’re hoping in the long run, we can put more head out there without having to rent more pasture,” Holly said.

“We’re obviously interested in trying to find ways to use the program again to try to improve some of the land,” she added.