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