by Jay Fuhrer

Burleigh County is one million acres in size and is located in south central North Dakota,

USA. Prior to statehood in 1889, the original vegetation consisted of mixed-grass native

prairie. Presently, half of the county is used to produce crops such as; spring wheat, oat,

barley, corn, pea, flax, millet, sudan, sorghum, canola, sunflower, and alfalfa. The

remaining half supports grassland cow/calf beef production. The average farm includes

both cropland and rangeland and is approximately 2500 acres in size.


During the 1980’s farmers and ranchers historically managed their operations in a

traditional manner of tillage dependent cropping systems with simplified rotations, no

cover crops, high input costs, and season long grazing. In the early 1990s, the Burleigh

County Soil Conservation District Supervisors formed a team and began implementing

no-till cropping systems with some crop diversification and simple cover crop mixtures.

Native Rangeland was established as their Soil Health template for cropping and grazing

systems. Since native rangeland in the northern Great Plains is a sustainable ecosystem

with hundreds of species it made sense to increase their annual crop diversity by using all

four major crop types and to eventually add high diversity cover crop combinations. In

addition, they began cross fencing their pastures and rotating their livestock through

several pastures; mimicking the bison grazing characteristics. Additional grazing tools

included winter grazing and mob grazing.


Since 2000, through education, observation, trial and error, and sharing information with

other farmers and ranchers, the team increasingly recognized the impact their

management changes were having on the soil resource and how improved soil health is

the key to a successful management strategy. They have continued to build on this

foundation of soil health by further intensifying their cropland and grazing management.

No-till cropping rotations have been expanded and diversified as a result of inclusion of

highly diversified cover crop mixtures, which started in 2006. Additional cross fencing

has allowed for better control of time, extended recovery periods and facilitated livestock

movements which are closely tied to plant growth/regrowth rates.


Recognizing the significance of soil health resulted in a fundamental change in the team’s

management philosophy. They base their management decisions on improving soil

health by managing the cropping enterprises, livestock, and grazing, so each compliments

and enhances the other. The link in this integration of a diversified no-till cropping

system with intensively managed grazing has been the addition of highly diverse cover

crop mixtures. The farmers and ranchers incorporated the cover crop mixtures into their

no-till systems to enhance the soil health foundation consisting of: soil aggregates, crop

diversity, soil organic matter, nutrient cycling, surface litter, moisture management, pest

management, water quality, wildlife, and livestock forage. These diverse cover crop

mixes serve as a bridge between the livestock and cropping enterprises, resulting in

improved soil health which has reduced input costs and enhanced economic returns.

Monitoring tools include the Standard soil test, Haney soil test, Forage Analysis, and the

Phospholipid Fatty Acid biology test.


Today, approximately 70% of the Burleigh County farmers have transitioned from

mechanical tillage and summer fallow to a successful no-till cropping system based on

soil health. While approximately 50% of the mixed operations have transitioned from

season long grazing to rotational grazing. Notable credit is given to the soil health

leadership provided by the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District board of