New Grasslands Partnership with USDA Will Protect 6,000 Acres

DU is working with cattle ranchers to conserve native prairie in Minnesota

© Ric Matkowski/Unsplash

THEIF RIVER FALLS, Minn. – March 15, 2023 – Healthy grasslands are the key to carbon storage and water retention, as well as improved water filtration, increased soil quality and the survival of countless animal species. That’s why Ducks Unlimited (DU) has partnered with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to protect 6,000 acres of grasslands in northwest Minnesota over the next three years.

DU is engaging and educating Minnesota cattle ranchers on the benefits of sustainable grazing practices. Minnesota has lost an estimated 99% of its native grasslands and prairies, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Although this native prairie grassland loss is significant, some acres have been restored to native and tame grassland through a variety of federal and state conservation programs. Other native grassland acres have been converted to row crop agriculture.

“The NRCS has a long history of working with landowners and ranchers to protect and restore our prairies, so DU is excited to partner with them on this project,” said Chris McLeland, DU director of conservation programs. “We know healthy grasslands are critical to slowing global climate change and for the future of all kinds of wildlife.”

The NRCS program, known as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), offers ranchers financial assistance and strategies for keeping grasslands sustainable, namely by moving their cattle before grass health is compromised. EQIP assists with costs for fencing, seeding and other expenses while providing technical assistance from a grazing biologist and other resources, free of charge.

NRCS and DU work with producers to develop a specific science-based conservation plan that outlines practices and activities that can help solve on-farm resource issues. When producers implement these practices and activities properly, it can lead to cleaner water and air, healthier soil and better wildlife habitat while improving their agricultural operations.

Once a producer contacts their local NRCS office, a conservation planner schedules a site visit to the property. The planner walks the land with the rancher to discuss goals and review any resource concerns. After the site visit, the conservation planner develops a plan that includes a variety of conservation practices to address resource concerns and establish management goals.

To assist the NRCS with administering the EQIP program in northwest Minnesota, DU hired Grazing Biologist Sabrina Claeys. Like NRCS conservation planners, Claeys provides technical assistance to livestock producers, develops grazing plans and helps ranchers navigate the federal cost assistance programs. Nearly 75% of Minnesota’s land is privately owned and, since the state ranks in the top 10 nationally for livestock production, there is great potential to conserve grasslands on private property.

“Our grasslands are a highly underrated ecosystem,” Claeys said. “Many of our waterfowl species nest in native grassland adjacent to wetlands, which is why it’s so important to conserve them. They also provide habitat for upland gamebirds, pollinators and other wildlife. Grasslands are maintained with the use of prescribed fire and grazing, which is why this program is in place. Livestock are an important tool in our management toolbox that can help manage our grassland and pastureland.”

As the effects of climate change persist, saving grasslands has become critical because they can efficiently sequester carbon, the main greenhouse gas linked to climate change. When our prairies are converted into croplands and soil is tilled in preparation for planting, carbon escapes. A recent study revealed that 2.6 million acres of grasslands across the U.S. and Canada were plowed under from 2018 to 2019.

If grasslands continue to be lost at this rate, it will be impossible to reach global climate targets, according to the World Wildlife Fund, a conservation organization that works in over 100 countries. It’s been reported that the grazing methods NRCS and DU are promoting could store up to 300 million tons of carbon dioxide worldwide every year.

“Grasslands are an important part of the landscape in northwest Minnesota,” said NRCS Grazing Lands Specialist Jeff Duchene. “Livestock producers rely on them for cattle grazing, and they also provide important habitat for pollinators and wildlife in the region. NRCS has built strong relationships with landowners and producers here, which has resulted in habitat conservation on all lands.”

Grassland health is also closely tied to water retention, paramount during drought. Grass has proven to be better than trees at capturing and holding ground water – critical to reducing sedimentation and erosion. Grass is a more sustainable food resource for wildlife and livestock because it continues to grow even when rain events become infrequent.

Livestock can be used to manage grasslands by installing temporary fences and rotating appropriately. This can improve soil health, herd health and operational efficiency. The implementation of cover crops is also beneficial to the landscape, helping build soil health and provide livestock with added forage, extending the grazing season.

"Most people don’t realize this, but duck populations need cattle to survive,” Claeys said. “Without grasslands, waterfowl lose nesting and brood-rearing habitat. The combination of well managed grasslands and wetlands will only increase duck numbers while adding to the overall health of our prairies.”

Media Contact:

Joe Genzel

(309) 453-0979