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Slope County: Passing on a prairie legacy

Donald Nordby is nostalgic about the days when lush prairie grass on his family’s Seven Hat Ranch near Amidon was punctuated with wildflowers. He hopes to leave a similar prairie legacy to his children.

Luann Dart writes from Elgin, N.D.

Donald Nordby is nostalgic about the days when lush prairie grass on his family’s Seven Hat Ranch near Amidon was punctuated with wildflowers. He hopes to leave a similar prairie legacy to his children.

prairie grass, trees

Donald and his wife, Sarah, received the Bowman-Slope Soil Conservation District’s 2017 Conservation Achievement Award. They were recognized for implementing a rotational grazing system, adopting a long-term grass monitoring system, seeding native grasses, planting field windbreaks and farmstead trees, using cover crops to improve soil health, and installing livestock watering and solar systems to improve grazing distribution.

Donald has utilized the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to advance his ranching practices. He started by using the Great Plains Conservation Program in 1994 when he returned to the ranch.

Donald’s grandfather homesteaded the ranch in 1906. When Donald returned, the ranch also included cropland, so he initially partnered with the NRCS to convert all the farmland to grass, using the NRCS program to cost-share installation of water pipeline and cross-fencing. He utilizes solar-powered electric fencing for some of the cross-fencing and a solar pump at one well to provide water.

Today, he has 300 head of cattle with an Angus base and Simmental influence. He uses a twice-over rotational grazing system that includes four pastures, each about a quarter section of land, for his main herd of 150 cattle. Other smaller pastures are leased for the remainder of the herd.

In the early 1990s, Donald worked as a county agent for the Bowman County North Dakota State University Extension Service, regularly meeting with NRCS and U.S. Department of Agriculture staff to discuss grazing strategies and holistic management. After one meeting, Donald decided to call Allan Savory to speak to local producers, which sparked some of Donald’s interest in grazing management and water development.

“I’m pretty open to new ideas and trying stuff. Some of it works, and some of it didn’t,” Donald said. “The grazing system has worked pretty well. One of the biggest benefits we did through NRCS was running pipeline to get good water to all of these pastures.”

He appreciates the NRCS programs helping him and other young producers to leverage their funds to improve their farms and ranches.

“I look at it as learning new management tools,” he says. “It allows me to make improvements at a faster pace because it leveraged my money.”

farmer, pasture

As district conservationist, I would say that Don and Sarah are a joy to work with. They are always willing to talk through a conservation concern and plan the best action, whether proven or in the trial stages, continuing to analyze the results throughout implementation. Whether the trial is a success or a failure, they keep a positive outlook and never lose sight of the fact that learning what doesn’t work is beneficial to them and future generations as well. While some projects have not been a success, many have been,” says Bowman County District Conservationist Wendy Bartholomay. 

Last year, Seven Hat Ranch was forced to sell 60 pairs from the herd during a difficult drought, which brought some reflection from Donald.

He shares a story passed along from his grandfather, who remembered walking from the ranch to Belfield 30 miles away in grass that was never below his knees.

“You think of that resource. I wish I could have seen that,” Donald says. “I like to see grass standing when I come out of a pasture. I don’t like these pastures that look like a lawn.”

But he knows returning the pastures to those conditions will take time.

“Mother Nature has her own idea about doing things. You have to be patient. If you take your time and take the pressure off the ground, Mother Nature will heal it, but it will be on her terms, not yours,” he says.

“Don, Sarah and their family have an extensive rangeland monitoring system that they implemented themselves to remind them how far they have come and assist with determining the next opportunity for improvement,” Bartholomay points out.

To increase production on older hayland, Donald has started rotating crops on the ground. He sprays the standing alfalfa with Roundup, then plants Roundup Ready corn, followed by a cover crop the next year, then hay barley. By the fourth year, the ground is planted back into a grass or pasture seeding or alfalfa again. He rotates about 50 to 90 acres each year. He also plants about 100 acres each year of cover crops to use as late-fall grazing.

Using artificial insemination (AI) and operating his own Badlands Genetics AI business, Donald is also cognizant of genetics within his herd, which he believes is part of range management also. While his pastures are in better condition than they were 25 years ago, so are the cattle, he says.

farmers, ranchers

“We wean off more weight in less days than we did 25 years ago. And genetics have something to do with that,” he says.

Donald remembers picking sweetpea and bluebells from the area pastures for his mother as he was growing up on the ranch, often flushing sharp-tailed grouse from the prairie. As his three children near adulthood, he wants the same for them.

“I do a lot of things that are more reminiscent,” he says. “I’m trying to manage and get back to those good old days.”

So, his management practices include establishing habitat for the grouse and seeding grasses that include eight different species of flowers for pollinators.

“I like to see a little color out there,” he says, describing one pasture that was entirely blue one year from a native flower that looks like flax.

“Don and Sarah have great respect for the land and all the creatures, domestic and wild, that roam the prairies. Don especially has fond memories of the sharp-tailed grouse and is striving to create the habitat necessary for the sharp-tailed grouse to live and prosper on his ranch. The respect that Don and Sarah have for the land and all that it gives to us, has been instilled in their children as well,” Bartholomay adds.

The family is also developing tree stands, hand planting 600 trees, including a mix of lilacs, chokecherries, pines and cedars, although he jokes that he still hasn’t figured out how to grow trees in the area’s clay hardpan.

To help improve the soil, he’s starting intensive bale grazing to increase the cover and litter on the soil surface to try and promote more grass growth in those areas.

It’s all with an eye to the past, and the future.

‘“I like to describe my place as a generational ranch,” he says. “The heritage that I see that my grandfather and my dad did on the place, to me that has a lot of meaning and purpose. I wish a plow had never been invented in this country. This ground shouldn’t be farmed. It’s grassland.”

He advises other producers to listen to their elder’s advice, but also be willing to try new methods.

“It’s kind of a big experiment out here,” he says.

“My goal is to hand the ranch off to the next generation with the resources healthier and in better shape than when I got it and hopefully I’m teaching my children so that will be their goal, too,” he says.