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Outdoor Heritage Fund finances Ducks Unlimited cover crop grazing program

BISMARCK -- Tanner Gue spends a lot of time with farmers in southeast North Dakota, helping them navigate conservation program options in his role as a biologist with Ducks Unlimited. In recent years, many producers with crops and cattle have exp...

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A Ducks Unlimited project funded by the North Dakota Outdoor Heritage Fund will help farmers and ranchers integrate cover crops into their rotations for the purpose of livestock grazing. (Ducks Unlimited photo)

BISMARCK - Tanner Gue spends a lot of time with farmers in southeast North Dakota, helping them navigate conservation program options in his role as a biologist with Ducks Unlimited. In recent years, many producers with crops and cattle have expressed interest in grazing cattle on cover crops on their cropland.

However, they typically have one concern: the financial risk of implementing a new practice.

So, Gue and Ducks Unlimited, in cooperation with Pulse USA, North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, local soil conservation districts and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, applied for a grant from the North Dakota Outdoor Heritage Fund to provide cost-share assistance to producers who want to try out cover crops on their cropland.

The pilot program, called the Cover Crop and Livestock Integration Project, received $625,394.90 from the OHF. Ducks Unlimited, Pulse USA and the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust will put in additional in-kind and cash resources of $31,329 and producers are expected to contribute $416,929.90.

CCLIP is open to producers in 11 North Dakota counties: Barnes, Dickey, Eddy, Foster, LaMoure, Logan, McIntosh, Ransom, Sargent, Stutsman and Wells. The counties are in the flyway for duck migration as well as in the Prairie Pothole region, which contains a high density of wetlands.

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Gue has had interest in each of the counties, and several producers have signed up. Among them is Donn Nelson of Dickey County, who has been looking for ways to improve soil health and to incorporate livestock on more of his acres because of a lack of pasture availability in his area.

Working with Ducks Unlimited has provided him with additional resources for fencing and water infrastructure, he says.

Gue explained producers can receive 60 percent of the funding for fencing infrastructure, including cross fence or perimeter fence; water infrastructure, like wells, pipes, pumps or tanks; and windbreak panels. Producers also can receive 60 percent of the funding for cover crop seed mixes and technical assistance from Pulse USA.

Emily Paul, a sales representative for Pulse USA, says representatives from her company will talk with farmers and ranchers about why they want to use cover crops on their fields. They'll look at herbicide records, talk about seeding timing and discuss species' options.

"What I'll be doing with individual farmers or ranchers is helping them think about what their long-term goals are with this and their short-term goals and how we can use different seeds to meet them," she explains.

Nelson says he likely will use cover crop mixes that include winter annuals like rye or triticale to provide early-season grazing options in the spring.

"I can leave my pastures idle and gain a month of grazing or more on green, viable forage," he says.

What he plants will depend on the crop the cover mix will follow. Especially following soybeans or dry edible beans, he wants to make sure there is some cover on the ground.

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"We're pretty bare after soybeans," he says.

Pulse USA will offer discounts on seeds for anyone tied to CCLIP, Paul says. But she says the biggest advantage to the project is its reliance on local knowledge and resources, including people who grew up on farms and ranches in the area.

Gue says Ducks Unlimited's interest in cover-crop grazing stems from the positive effects the practice can have on the environment. Cover crops can provide food and thermal cover for cattle and for wildlife that stick around for winter, like deer and pheasants. Cover crops also reduce surface runoff and flooding in nearby wetlands. Plus, getting cattle onto the cropland can improve the soil on that ground while giving pasture grasses a chance to rejuvenate.

"We'd get, hopefully, healthier wetlands in surrounding areas where we're doing these," Gue says.

In exchange for funding, Ducks Unlimited requires that producers plant cover crops on the selected land at least two years out of the five-year program and that they don't manipulate wetlands during those five years.

"We see it as a short-term way to conserve that habitat," Gue says.

Though the program lasts only five years, Ducks Unlimited is hopeful producers will continue to integrate cover crops into their rotations long past the end date.

Nelson says CCLIP is flexible and tailored to producers, and he encourages anyone who has an interest in grazing cover crops or improving soil health to at least check it out. Though he says mentioning Ducks Unlimited to farmers and ranchers in the Prairie Pothole region often draws cringes based on competing interests and past issues, he's been happy with the program and the help of Gue to come up with a program that fits his needs.

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Gue says he will work with producers to determine the right number of acres and the right situation for them. Anyone interested can contact Gue at 701-355-3592 or tgue@ducks.org .

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Ducks Unlimited hopes expanded use of cover crops will provide feed and thermal cover for cattle as well as wildlife. (Ducks Unlimited photo)

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