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Projects Help Ranch Cope with Devils Lake Flooding in Benson County

Water woes have plagued Justin Maddock’s family ranch near Devils Lake for several generations.

Loretta Sorensen writes from Yankton, S.D.

Since 1993, Devils Lake water levels have risen high enough to expand the lake’s original 45,000 acre reach to more than 160,000 acres. This includes about 2,500 acres of pasture belonging to the Maddock family ranch. It’s also claimed the lives of many of their cattle.

“All that flooding over the last 25 years really eroded the banks of the Sheyenne River, which is one of only two outlets for Devils Lake,” Justin says. “I’ve lost cattle every year because they slide down the banks, get stuck in the mud and can’t get out. I’ve lost calves the same way.”

His water issues are just one of the reasons Justin is installing extensive fencing on his pastures bordering the Sheyenne River. In addition to keeping his cattle out of the river, he’ll be able to make better use of the forage in that area by confining cattle to paddocks so they graze each area more intensely.

In the hilly areas along the river, Maddock plans to set up three or four initial paddocks, which he will likely split again as his grazing plans advance.

“I don’t run a specific head count on each acre,” he says. “I make my decisions about stocking rates by closely observing the grass and the cattle. I see my operation as using cattle to harvest grass, so I’m very conscious of what my grass looks like.”

Justin has worked with Matthew Seufert, Benson County’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) District Conservationist, to develop his water line and fencing plans. In 2016 Maddock obtained funding from the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and installed pipeline to bring water to his new paddocks.

flooding, land


The hilly, rocky ranch land proved a challenge for both projects.

“A lot of thought went into how to get water from point A to point B,” Seufert says. “We also had to figure out how to cross the Sheyenne River with water lines.”

A new NRCS pipeline design tool helped map the pipeline route.

“Justin installed over 21,000 feet of pipeline and eight tanks, with financial assistance from EQIP.” Seufert says.

Justin notes that the pipeline was the most expensive part of his plan.

“We’re having a hard time finding water, but I’m working to develop a well rather than connecting to our rural water system,” he says. “I run about 400 head of cows and from June through August each cow will drink between 15 and 25 gallons of water a day. That gets very expensive very fast.”

Seufert believes Justin will see significant gains in his cattle through the addition of water and smaller paddocks.

“Adding fresh water to a grazing system is always a homerun in my book,” Seufert says. “Smaller paddocks mean cattle graze more uniformly and disturb grass enough to regenerate native grasses. His added season-long cover crop also helps him extend his grazing season while improving soil health through a diverse mix of plants.”

For his paddocks, Justin’s perimeter fence is four-strand barbed wire. Within that he’s setting up electric fence to allow for flexible paddock sizes.

 “Over the next three years I’ll have installed about 56,000 feet of fence line, which is between 8 and 9 miles,” he says.

Seufert’s office is also helping Justin with an annual forage inventory to help him determine what type of grasses and forbes are growing in his pastures.

“I maintain a diary, recording how many days each herd is on each pasture,” he says. “We’ve been in a drought cycle here for the last few years, which has probably diminished the benefits of my once-over grazing practices. As a young rancher, I haven’t been through a drought before. I’ve cut my stocking rates as necessary to make sure I have enough grass.”

Justin typically takes 60% and 70% of the forage in each pasture. He doesn’t graze it again until the next growing season.

“With the drought, I’ve been moving cattle through the pastures a little faster,” he says. “I’m also working to leave a little more grass after grazing because the vegetation helps hold moisture.”

Justin sees some downfalls in his once-over grazing plan, primarily the loss of nutrition toward the end of the grazing season. For that reason, he’s contemplating moving to a twice-over system or a strategy that makes better use of his forage resources.

“I’m seeing more diversity,” he says. “My father started once-over grazing back in the 1990’s. Then our pastures were around 80% brome. Now there’s still 40% or 50% brome but there’s also more native grass.”

Since Devils Lake swept over so much of the Maddocks’original family ranch, his father and uncle have pieced together enough pasture land to maintain the ranch. The distance between some of the land parcels put an extra strain on ranching operations. However, Justin believes his focus on conservation will help sustain the operation well into the future.

“The work done to manage Devils Lake has done a lot of good over the past 25 years and saved our county seat, Minnewaukan,” Maddock says. “But people living downriver, like us, still deal with problems caused by the lake’s high-water levels.”

Seufert credits North Dakota’s North Central Soil Conservation District with cooperating with NRCS to complete Justin’s projects.

“Through NRCS, we can involve specialists for all aspects of a project,” Seufert says. “Our area engineers spent many hours on designing Justin’s system, our grazing specialist from our area office assisted with Justin’s grazing plan and our field office and engineering staff were on site through the whole process to ensure it was done correctly. Justin will realize many benefits from this system.