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Ken Miller shows off the rich soil beneath a field of cover crops on his Fort Rice, N.D., ranch on Oct. 5, 2017. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

Miller Ranch wins ND Leopold Conservation Award with focus on soil health

FORT RICE, N.D. — Herds of sleek black cattle graze in the lush green fields and pastures around Ken and Bonnie Miller's ranch. The yard is tidy, everything in its place.

But for everything a visitor can see, the Millers are most proud of what they have done to care for what isn't seen.

"Taking care of the herd below the ground is the most important thing," Ken explains.

The "herd below the ground" to which Ken refers is the vast microscopic life in the soil. A handful of soil, he says, contains more living things than there are on the face of the Earth.

"Once you think of the soil as being alive, it changes the way you think about it," Bonnie says.

The Millers have spent years focusing on improving the biology of the soil, fixing fragile ground and transforming their herd into one that works with the environment on their south central North Dakota land.

For their efforts, the Millers have been named the recipients of this year's North Dakota Leopold Conservation Award, which honors North Dakota landowner achievement in voluntary stewardship and management of natural resources.

The Millers also were finalists for the inaugural 2016 award, which went to Black Leg Ranch. Brandon Schafer, 319 watershed coordinator for Morton County Soil Conservation District, says the district nominated the Millers because of how they embrace concepts of giving back to the land and the people on it.

"Everything that the Millers do takes into account the 'whole' of their operation," Schafer says. "This is everything from the wildlife, plants, water, livestock, family, neighbors and quality of life to name a few. Ken and Bonnie also are selfless in sharing how they accomplish this with people from across the county, country and world through the numerous events that Ken has hosted and been asked to be a part of."

The other finalists for this year's award were Jeremy and Sarah Wilson of Jamestown and Gene and Christine Goven of Turtle Lake.

Bonnie calls the award "humbling."

"You have to celebrate your accomplishments and give appreciation to the people who helped us get where we are," she says.

Decades of progress

The Millers display a photo of their farmstead from sometime in the mid 1940s. The black-and-white print highlights the openness of the prairie beneath the bluffs that split the ranch into higher ground and lower ground. Back then, there was no shelter, nothing to protect the land from the harsh prairie winds.

Ken and his brother convinced their father to let them plant a shelterbelt when they were in high school. Though their father was dubious about the venture's chances, the trees survived and thrived, and after high school Ken planted another shelter belt. Now those and more trees provide ample shelter throughout the yard, which used to be important when the Millers calved out in February and March.

But the trees were just the first of many changes to come.

Conservation long had been a goal of the Millers. The ranch, about half an hour south of Mandan, overlooks the Missouri River. Ken always worried about the effects of soil erosion from the water and the rain.

In the mid 1980s, Ken attended the Savory Institute, an organization started by conservationist Allan Savory that focuses on the importance of soil health. There, Ken learned about holistic management and was introduced to some of the techniques and ideas that continue to inform the management of his ranch.

The Millers credit staff from the Morton County Soil Conservation District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service for assistance and support over the years. Ken also learned through his former career with Burleigh County Soil Conservation District, where he could observe experiments at the Menoken Farm on good ground, then try them out on his own marginal ground.

Now, the Millers plant with no tillage, use cover crops to add diversity to cropping rotations, move cattle every few days on small paddocks that once were large pastures and experiment with other ways to improve their sustainability and soil health.

One of the things Allan Savory questioned way back in the 1980s was why the Millers were calving in the midst of frigid, snowy North Dakota winters. Deer and other animals aren't giving birth until spring has sprung, so why fight nature?

Ken pondered it for years before changing his calving pattern. Since 2006, his cows have calved in June, out on pasture and past time for worrying about frozen ears and tails. No longer does he have to check cows in freezing temperatures, and input costs are reduced as the cattle have time after winter to regain body condition before calving. The cattle are all-natural and grass-fed, which cuts down on trips through the chute, and, the Millers feel, produces a healthier product.

"It really makes ranching easy," Ken says.

The herd has changed to better fit the conditions and to become more efficient. The Millers started with a mainly Black Angus herd, then over the years transitioned to Hereford and Simmental, getting bigger and bigger animals. They've moved back to Angus — finding breeders that raise cattle that have a smaller frame even than the average Angus. Instead of maintaining the body weight of a 1,400 pound animal, the cows now top out around 1,100 or 1,150 pounds.

Impressive results

It's the first week in October, and Miller and his son-in-law Jesse Karabensh are planning how to use an irrigated cover crop field, with portions that reach nearly 9-feet tall. The field had been in wheat this spring and was baled due to poor quality in early July. Then it was planted to an eclectic mix of seeds: a couple of types of millet, sudan grass, turnips, radishes, several varieties of clover, kale, cowpeas, soybeans, sunflowers, italian ryegrass, hairy vetch, lentils and oats among them.

Karabensh has swathed around the field and will swath paths in a wagon-wheel pattern where fencing can be set up to move the cows through the field sometime in November. About half the forage will be consumed by the cattle, with the herd stomping through small paddocks every day or so. The rest will be left as cover for the ground and vegetation for wildlife.

The cover crops, Miller explains, help heal the land as well as provide an economical source of feed. Every hay field that comes out of production goes into cover crops for at least two years; the diversity of the mixture helps regenerate the soil. Cattle, which are stocked at a high density in the paddocks, help the process, with their manure and the stomping of their hooves.

Since they started changing their practices, the Millers have seen improvements on their land. Ravines have filled in. Run-off has been nearly eliminated. Grass grows in places that once were sparse. Ken credits soil-friendly techniques with helping the ranch make it through this summer's drought in relatively good shape.

"In the past this would have been a disaster," he says.

As much as the land has improved, the Millers want to keep finding ways to make it better.

"You've got to keep learning," Ken says.

And, just as importantly, they'll keep telling their story. Ken welcomes people who are interested in learning from his successes and his failures to visit the ranch.

"We've got to get this message across," he says. "We've got to tell our story of how we're improving the land."