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Jed Rider of Alexander, N.D., spoke Aug. 21, at the America's Grasslands Conference in Bismarck, N.D., about how he has created grasslands on former irrigated cropland. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)

Rancher finds profitability in creating grasslands on cropland

BISMARCK, N.D. — Jed Rider grew up on an irrigated sugar beet farm, but he always wanted to be a cowboy.

He and his family toiled for years on the irrigated farm in northwest North Dakota, harvesting crops that didn't quite pay off in the end. Still harboring his cowboy dream, Rider began reading about holistic management, sustainable agriculture and grazing. He wanted to run more cows than he could on his native pastures near Alexander, N.D., and in 2008, he talked his father-in-law into letting him switch 400 acres of cropland back into grasslands.

Rider, told the crowd on Aug. 21 at the America's Grasslands Conference in Bismarck about how he has created grasslands on former crop ground. Even with cropland rental rates, it's paying off.

"It's way more profitable," he said.

Rider's first planting, in 2008, consisted of a mix of grasses. That pasture has little resilience and "little margin for error," he explained. In a 2012 planting, he incorporated more diversity, adding native species like purple prairie clover, purple coneflower and maximilian sunflower. That did better, but not good enough, he said.

"There's not near enough color out in that pasture," he said.

In 2018, he added more diversity, because, he said, "Desperate soils call for desperate measures." The '18 planting was 65% forbs and legumes, like alfalfa, cicer milkvetch and clovers, and 35% grass species.

"I think it's going to work," Rider told the crowd. "I'll tell you in 15 years whether it does."

Creating grasslands, Rider said, wouldn't be possible without careful management. He practices bale grazing in the winter, as a way to "import carbon" onto the land. He uses high stocking density of cattle to get the maximum impact across the land while giving the land plenty of rest and recovery time by using short durations of grazing on each piece of land.

"You can go onto my ranch and 5,000 acres of it are without cattle," he said.

Rider wants people to know that land can be returned to grass and still be profitable. He encourages others considering the move to talk to others who have done it. Rider is a mentor for the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition, and he said he is open to sharing his successes and difficulties.