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Ranch Makes Gains with Conservation, Holistic Management and Regenerative Ag

Conservation, holistic management and regenerative ag practices are behind some of the big improvements that Sand Ranch, of Ellendale, N.D., has made over the past 50 years.

Brad Sand (left) with his son, Cody, who operates his own ranch, survey a stand of grass. They share conservation, rotational grazing and other management strategies to improve their land. (Photo: Sand County Foundation)

Sand Ranch, owned and operated by Brad Sand, received the Leopold Conservation Award in 2021.

The most visible symbol of those improvements is a 12 one-mile long rows of elm, ash, crab apple, choke cherry and other trees on the windswept prairie North Dakota. The trees rise up 50-feet to protect the ranch headquarters and nearby pastures. Sand planted the extensive shelterbelt in 1974 when he bought the ranch. It was the first of Sand’s many conservation projects.

Less visible -- but perhaps more significant -- are improvements you’ll find beneath your boots. The soil is richer, holds more water, contains more biological life and produces more forage than perhaps any time in the past 48 years, Sand says.

He credits high-density/low-frequency rotational grazing, cover crop mixtures, grazing cattle on crop and hay land, and other practices for the dramatic improvement.

When Sand bought the ranch, it had five pastures covering approximately 320 acres. He rotated about 140 cow-calf pairs through each pasture during the growing season. But the cattle tended to overgraze their favorite grasses and ignored the rest.

“There was a lot of waste and the grass didn’t get much rest,” he says.

With the help of the Natural Resources Conservation Services, Sand started developing livestock water sources and dividing pastures. He now has 22 paddocks on about 400 acres. Each is about 18 acres in size. He moves cattle every 3-7 days, trying to mimic how some range scientists believe large, densely packed bison herds roamed over the prairie. It’s thought the animals would flash graze an area – eating, trampling and fertilizing the grass with their urine and manure -- and then move on, not returning for as much as a year.

Intense grazing followed by a long rest period stimulates grass root growth, boosts nutrient cycling in the soil and produces diversified grassland species.

“I can see our pastures getting back to what the native prairie was like,” he says.

Sand used to farm several hundred acres. He grew corn and wheat. But he converted his cropland to grass and full season cover crops. The full season cover crop mixes provide winter grazing.

Sand has cut back on his hay land, too. With winter grazing he doesn’t need as much hay anymore and he figured he could produce more forage if he grazed it rather than baling it and hauling the bales elsewhere to be fed. When cows graze, they fertilize the grasses with their urine and manure.

“Instead of constantly removing carbon, now I’m putting something back,” he says.

Visit the Sand Ranch between January and May and you won’t see any baby calves. Sand calves in June when the cold, wet weather and the risk of blizzards have passed. It’s no coincidence that deer give birth to their fawns at about the same time. Calving in sync with nature is a key tenant of holistic management.

Sand keeps the calves with their mothers through the winter. Instead of feeding the cows and calves hay all winter, Brad turns them out on cover crops to graze as long as the weather allows and the cover crops hold out. Some years, he has been able to graze almost until spring. He feeds some supplements in late winter if they are still grazing.

June calving works well with winter grazing. The mother cows teach the calves how to nose through the snow to find forage. “The heifers I hold back as replacements will take right off grazing on their own the next winter because they learned from their mothers,” Sandsays.

The improvements on the land have made a difference back at the ranch office.

Sand doesn’t need to buy as many inputs as he used to. He doesn’t need much fuel since he isn’t farming or baling as much hay. He hasn’t had to give any calves antibiotics since switching to June calving. He doesn’t have to use pour-on insecticides to keep flies off the cows and calves because he moves them to fresh grass so frequently that flies don’t hatch in the manure while the animals are still in the pasture.

There’s less risk involved in the operation. Calves aren’t born when they can easily die in bad weather. Since the soils hold more water, the grass lasts longer in years when it is dry. Because the grasses have deeper and more extensive root systems, they come back more quickly after drought.

The work is easier, too. Sand, who is 72, doesn’t have to fight the snow and mud during calving. He doesn’t have to spend all summer and fall in the tractor and truck baling and hauling hay. It’s much easier to check grass conditions and move cattle.

“It's still a tough business because of the price of cattle,” Sand says, but the ranch runs very efficiently.

He credits many people and organizations for the practices that have improved the ranch. He learned from his son, Cody, who operates his own ranch nearby, and from other farmers and ranchers he met through the North Dakota Grazing Land Coalition – an organization that works to improve the health and regeneration of the state’s grazing lands.

NRCS made it possible to make some of the changes. The district conservationist worked with Sand to develop an overall conservation plan for the ranch, devise a grazing plan and to develop the livestock water system. NRCS helped him get Environmental Quality Incentive Program cost-sharing grants to build fences, install water pipelines and stock tanks, purchase other equipment needed for rotational grazing and buy cover crop seed.

North Dakota Game and Fish partnered with Sand on a grazing plan for nearby public Wildlife Management Areas. He was able to increase his feed production while enhancing wildlife habitat and public recreational opportunities.

Ducks Unlimited helped Sand improve his grazing system and restore native grasses on marginally productive soils.

“Brad Sand is a great guy to work with,” says Andrew Wertz, NRCS district conservationist at the Ellendale, N.D., field office. “He’s eager to learn and is open to trying new things. And he is more than willing to share his experience with others.”

Sand is a North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition board member and is one of the organization’s 30 mentors. Mentors answer landowners’ and grassland managers’ questions about how to improve grasslands.. According to his mentor profile, Brad has expertise in:

  • Goal setting/decision making
  • Monitoring and record keeping
  • Fencing
  • Cropland aftermath grazing
  • Grazing management/Rotations
  • Livestock movement
  • Water development/placement
  • Livestock as a management tool
  • Grazing lands for wildlife
  • Cover crops

There will be a tour of Sand Ranch Aug. 9. It is hosted by the North Dakota Grazing Land Coalition. Click here for more details about the tour.

The Sand County Foundation and the North Dakota Grazing Land Coalition provided information for this article.

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For a Microsoft Word doc file of the article, click here.   

Media contact:

Lon Tonneson
for the Natural Resources Conservation Service - North Dakota