Weathering the Drought

DU's voluntary conservation programs are helping producers and duck populations be more resilient during dry times on the prairies

© Jim Thompson

By Robert Ford

The Prairie Pothole Region of the United States and Canada is currently in the grip of one of the worst droughts in more than two decades. North Dakota, which supports some of the highest densities of breeding ducks on the continent, has been especially hard hit. Granted, the prairies have a highly dynamic climate. For example, the past 26 years have been exceptionally wet in North Dakota despite intermittent periods of dry weather, which have masked the broader trend of above-average precipitation. But this year is different. North Dakota just experienced the second-driest nine-month period (September through May) in 127 years, and 2021 may end up being one of the driest years on record.

While these conditions will likely affect waterfowl and their habitats for at least the next couple of years, the drought may have a more lasting impact on those who work the land. The vast majority of the Prairie Pothole Region is privately owned and managed for agriculture. Consequently, farmers and ranchers are crucial partners in Ducks Unlimited's efforts to conserve wetlands and grasslands for breeding ducks and other wildlife. DU and cooperating government agencies such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) work closely with producers to conserve vital waterfowl habitats on working lands while also making their operations more sustainable and profitable.

A large proportion of the Prairie Pothole Region has been converted to row crop agriculture, and much of the grassland that remains is managed by cattle ranchers or producers who raise crops as well as livestock. In a "normal" year, livestock producers can rely on some rainfall during the growing season to stimulate grass growth and provide forage for their cattle. This spring, however, minimal precipitation limited the growth of pasture grasses in many areas.

Initially, ranchers used whatever feed they had on hand or bought hay while waiting for pastures to green up, but as the drought persisted into summer, many were forced to search for alternatives to feed their livestock. As summer progressed, many contemplated reducing the size of their herds due to a lack of available forage and soaring hay prices.

Faced with such challenging economic conditions, many ranchers are now considering retiring. Grazing lands may change ownership when livestock operators retire, and the new owners often convert pasture to row crops such as corn or soybeans. Unfortunately, wetlands are highly vulnerable to drainage when grazing land is converted to cropland.

To help keep farmers and ranchers in business and wetlands and grasslands on the landscape, DU biologists help producers adopt a variety of conservation practices that are beneficial to their bottom line. For example, DU helps producers convert marginal croplands back to grassland to support cattle grazing. DU also helps landowners put in fencing, water sources, and other infrastructure to implement rotational grazing practices. Cattle are moved among multiple paddocks to allow pastures to rest and grass to recover, replicating the behavior of bison herds that once intensively grazed prairie uplands for short periods of time before moving on. Pastures revitalized through rotational grazing are healthier and more resilient to drought. The enhanced grass growth also provides better upland cover for nesting ducks and other wildlife.

DU and other partners help landowners develop rotational grazing systems on Conservation Reserve Program land that is set to expire, providing a profitable alternative to converting grass cover to cropland. By partnering with DU and cooperating conservation agencies, producers have options to combat financial stress and drought while keeping livestock on their land. What is good for livestock—grass and water—is also good for waterfowl.

Although landscapes with fully functional wetlands surrounded by grassland are most productive for breeding ducks, wetlands embedded in croplands also provide crucial resources for migrating and nesting waterfowl. When wetlands are drained, most are never restored, permanently reducing the capacity of the landscape to support breeding waterfowl. Drainage also eliminates important ecosystem services that wetlands provide for people, such as water purification and flood retention. DU has responded by developing conservation programs, including planting cover crops and integrating cattle grazing on croplands. Principles promoted through DU's soil-health program build organic matter in soil, reduce soil compaction, and increase water infiltration. Additionally, minimizing soil disturbance reduces sedimentation in nearby wetlands.

These regenerative agricultural practices are especially beneficial to producers during drought years, because those who choose to plant winter cover crops intended for grazing have the flexibility to rest their pastures while cattle graze on cultivated land in fall or the following spring. Moreover, cattle grazing on cropland replenishes the soil with nutrients and decreases expenditures for tractor fuel and spreading manure.

As a Montana rancher wisely said, "It always rains after a drought." Yes, the drought will end sometime, and when it does, ducks will return to the prairies in impressive numbers. That's why Ducks Unlimited is working hard now to ensure that our partners in the agricultural community—and the crucial waterfowl habitats they nurture and protect—will be there to greet them. 

Robert Ford is a DU biologist based in Devils Lake, North Dakota.