You can tell a lot about soil by pouring a little water on it. Ducks Unlimited is helping North Dakota ranchers test the health of their soils by using a simple water infiltration tool.
“We are now seeing storms that drop increasing amounts of moisture in shorter periods of time,” said DU Conservation Programs Biologist Dane Buysse. “If our soils do not have the capacity to infiltrate high amounts of water in short periods of time, the water will only go one way – downhill - and carry sediment and nutrients with it. Organic matter and soil structure are the keys to retaining moisture during high rainfall. By simply implementing rotational grazing infrastructure and planning grazing periods, we can achieve both.”
Buysse says soil health practices provide many benefits to wildlife and society. The concept of slowing water down reduces sedimentation into wetlands, reduces the potential for flooding and provides plants with soil moisture during drought periods.
“Rotating cattle between pastures provides critical rest recovery time for grass which allows for deeper root growth, better forage production and improved nesting cover for waterfowl,” he said.
Buysse manages DU’s Grasslands Enhancement Pilot Project (GEPP), which provides cost-share to implement rotational grazing infrastructure. The program focuses on public and state school trust land in the Bakken oil field with a goal to enhance 4,000 acres. Because these practices are beneficial for sustainable ranching and wildlife populations, landowners voluntarily work with Ducks Unlimited biologists to install quality water, cross-fencing and power.
“The prairie landscapes of North Dakota developed under the hooves of millions of bison and other grazing animals. By implementing planned grazing systems, we are doing our best to mimic the behaviors that created the native ecosystems we all enjoy,” he said. “The hoof action and grazing pressure stress the plants, and that is exactly what is needed to jump-start the carbon cycle, which produces lush grasslands for nesting waterfowl and other wildlife species.”
DU spends time in the field to talk with ranchers about the significance of water infiltration and provide them with the tools to perform the tests on their own land.
“If you want to have an eye-opening experience, you can perform the test in your backyard to see how well your soils take in water,” Buysse said. “We tested a site in 2017, and the water infiltration rate was 2 inches per hour. Moisture levels were substantially higher this spring, and one site absorbed an average of 13 inches per hour.”
The GEPP was funded in part by a grant from the North Dakota Outdoor Heritage Fund. The North Dakota Natural Resources Trust and Ducks Unlimited were the grant sponsors.
Ducks Unlimited Inc. is the world's largest nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving North America's continually disappearing waterfowl habitats. Established in 1937, Ducks Unlimited has conserved more than 14 million acres thanks to contributions from more than a million supporters across the continent. Guided by science and dedicated to program efficiency, DU works toward the vision of wetlands sufficient to fill the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow and forever. For more information on our work, visit www.ducks.org.
Becky Jones Mahlum