By KayLeigh Mitchell, DU's sustainability communications coordinator


Courtesy of Spickler Ranch North

Set in the Prairie Pothole region of North Dakota, Spickler Ranch North is a family business that puts sustainable principles into action every day. By using regenerative grazing practices and water efficiency methods, the Spickler family is committed to running a profitable cattle operation while protecting the rare shortgrass prairie landscape for the future.

In 2016, owner and rancher Justin Spickler reached out to his local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) agent to inquire about rotational grazing, only to learn that NRCS had not yet established a regenerative grazing program. After discussing the issues and needs on Spickler’s ranch, the local agent suggested Spickler contact Ducks Unlimited and passed along the contact information of Tanner Gue, Manager of Conservation Programs.

Like the majority of working grassland acres in the Great Plains region, Spickler’s farmland is susceptible to overwhelming drought in the dry season and heavy deluge during certain months. With the region’s dynamic climate, it is important for ranchers and farmers to have conservation practice plans in place to help mitigate drought and flooding.

Cattle and ducks may seem to be an unlikely combination, but both need common resources to thrive: grass and water. To keep ranchers in business and thriving wetlands and grasslands on the landscape, DU biologists help producers convert marginal croplands back to grasslands to support cattle grazing and enhance soil function through DU’s cover crop and livestock integration project.

As the only cover crop/livestock integration project that offers cost-share assistance in the state of North Dakota, DU’s method of moving cattle throughout the property to allow pastures to rest and perennial forage to recover mimics the hard grazing of bison herds that once grazed the lands. Through this integration project, DU helps with fencing, water systems and cover crop seed on the acres being farmed.

“All of our practices are focused on improving soil health and function,” says Gue. “When we improve the soil functionality, we improve the water infiltration rates, allowing the soil to capture more rain. Even when it is dry, there’s still water being stored to support forage crops. This is also tied to an efficient watershed which produces clean water and reduces the frequency and duration of flooding.”

An ambitious Spickler and an enthusiastic Gue discussed options that included cost-share assistance, grazing methods and water management. After a couple of hours and a cowboy handshake, the two had drafted a working plan that would benefit the ranch and the land for years to come.

“Whether I have a new idea about a farming practice or looking to expand the number of acres on my ranch, my first call is to the Ducks Unlimited team,” Spickler said. “It’s very advantageous to both me and the land to have a partnership like this that I know I can count on.”

Spickler, a fourth-generation farmer of nearly 7,000 acres and 700 head of cattle has always taken a long-term view of his business and the environment. To enhance the farm for future generations, Justin is putting a strong emphasis on sustainable practices that will allow the business to thrive for generations to come.


Courtesy of Spickler Ranch North

A Family Affair: Justin and Sara Spickler, owners of Spickler Ranch North, operate their 7,000 acre cattle farm with their four children.

“I’ve always tried to take advantage of innovative opportunities in the industry,” Spickler said. “As the owner and manager of this farm, it is my job to protect and develop the land and farm business to increase its value. Ducks Unlimited offers a lot of unique aspects with their programs like the cover crop and livestock initiative that has completely transformed our grassland acres on the farm.”

In 2023 alone, North Dakota’s DU team of one agronomist and four biologists enrolled nearly 40 new projects totaling nearly 18,000 acres. While the main goal is to enroll new lands and producers, DU team members understand the importance of relationship-building with landowners to build trust. Gue’s team provided technical assistance and viable farming guidance to more than 100 landowners across nearly 50,000 acres from cover crops to grassland and wetland restorations to grazing systems.

“Some years our numbers are better than others, but our team doesn’t measure our success by the number of projects and acres,” Gue says. “We measure our success on the quality of work we produce and the good relationships we build. It’s about helping ranchers invest in climate-friendly practices to help boost the productivity of grazing operations while building soil health, enhancing the water cycle and improving wildlife habitat.”

By implementing rotational grazing practices and water-productivity initiatives, Spickler Ranch North has seen significant improvement in the state of grasslands and soil health. The DU team designed a drought mitigation plan, installed strategic fencing and an on-sight well and implemented cover crops. The basis of rotational grazing is that it allows more time for grasses to recover and regrow between grazing episodes. This can drastically increase pasture productivity, which is achieved by minimizing the overgrazing of certain plant species in the pasture. Allowing the perennial forage to rest helps build soil organic matter to help with groundwater recharge, in turn reducing sedimentation in nearby wetlands.

“We pride ourselves at DU on being flexible with our programs and offerings,” noted Gue, “each project is not a one-size-fits-all model, so it’s important to communicate with the landowners to understand what they are looking for and how we can best accommodate their needs based on the issues or opportunities at hand. The goal is to alleviate some of the stress that ranchers and farmers deal with on a daily basis by providing them with flexible options to be successful.”

Regenerative agriculture practices are especially beneficial to producers during drought-stricken years because when cover crops are planted, it gives farmers the flexibility to rest their pastures in the fall and winter so their cattle can graze on cultivated land in the spring. DU continues to work hard to help landowners and producers find solutions for targeted grazing, livestock productivity, water efficiency and many more opportunities to benefit healthy wetlands, grasslands and wildlife habitat.