New Opportunity for Local Ranch Family

DU'S Working Grasslands Partnerships and ND's Outdoor Heritage Fund Opens Doors for Local Ranchers

Steve Walker’s family raised him on a dairy farm, and he naturally took a liking to cows. When he grew up, he met the daughter of a cattle rancher in Montana. Later, they moved to North Dakota to pursue the rich grassland. Steve and his wife Tana began a dream of starting a ranch of their own in the heart of the Coteau region of North Dakota, a landscape dotted with sloping hills and duck-filled wetlands.

In search of more grass, the family discovered a property owned by another family. The land had been enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which helps farmers convert highly erodible cropland to grass. However, the CRP contract for the land recently expired and the owner had a choice: he could leave it idle, convert it back to cropland or lease it for cattle grazing. The Walker family expressed interest in leasing the land to graze cows, but the property wasn’t set up for cattle. The owner referred the Walkers to Ducks Unlimited to see if there was an option available to them.  That’s when Steve Walker learned about the Working Grasslands Partnership Program through Ducks Unlimited.

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The Working Grasslands Partnership Program is funded by a North Dakota Outdoor Heritage Fund (OHF) grant. Established in 2013, OHF provides grants to state agencies, tribal governments, political subdivisions and nonprofit organizations for qualified conservation efforts. Ducks Unlimited connects with partners to develop effective programs that will maximize both landowner opportunities and wildlife habitat conservation. DU and its partners then help landowners apply for program funding.

The Walkers worked with Ducks Unlimited biologists to draw up a plan to prepare the land for long-term, healthy grasslands and cattle management. A rotational grazing system was plotted, and with OHF funds and DU’s grasslands planning, the Walker family installed 8 ½ miles of fence and two solar-powered water wells. Now, the family has almost 6 dozen head of cattle grazing on their 300+ acres. The land is divided into sections, or ‘cells’, to enable the herd to graze one section of the land while another section grows and recovers before the herd is moved into a new section. This process of rotational grazing ensures maximum use of the grassland for cattle and healthy management of the grassland for wildlife.  The ranch land is thick with grass and dotted with wildflowers and wetlands. Song birds perch on the new fence line and the cattle can be heard lowing in the distance.

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Steve Walker’s youngest son, Ridge, wants to continue the family legacy and had a large role in preparing the property for cattle. He worked with his friends to install the fence lines and gates. The boys love their ranch work and joke with each other as they hop onto an ATV to check water pumps and set up a new gate. Steve Walker hopes the opportunities afforded by OHF and organizations, such as DU, will continue to help his son prepare for a ranching life. This property is just the start of a life-long dream.

The property is enrolled in Private Lands Open to Sportsmen (PLOTS) program. The North Dakota Game and Fish (NDGF) P.L.O.T.S. program pays landowners a fee to allow public access to the land for outdoor recreation. Combining the PLOTS program with the Working Grassland program ensures these properties are maximized and wildlife can flourish. What’s more, outdoor enthusiasts including hunters and birdwatchers can enjoy the majestic sweeping prairie and thick natural grassland as well.

Program Partners include the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, Partners For Fish and Wildlife, Landowners, DU, Pheasants Forever, NDGF, North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts, and  OHF.  Tanner Gue, conservation biologist at DU says, “The Working Grassland Partnership Program is currently one of our most popular programs available to farmers and ranchers in North Dakota. It’s also one of many great examples of our working-lands programs that help farmers and ranchers achieve their operational goals while enhancing and conserving important wildlife habitat. It’s a pleasure to work with folks like the Walkers."

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Without the Working Grasslands program and DU partners, this land may have been converted back to cropland and the Walkers likely wouldn’t have been able to graze the property. This program helped a cattle family strengthen their grazing system and kept these grasslands and wetlands intact.