The moment when Jerry Doan “finally got soil health” was when an Australian researcher visited his ranch, Black Leg Ranch in Burleigh County.
It was the middle of summer, a hot 95-degree day in North Dakota.
“She took out a thermometer and stuck it in the soil. It read 68 degrees,” Doan said. “Did you know that at 70 degrees, 100 percent of the soil moisture is going to plant growth. In addition, at 70 degrees, the biological activity in the soil is at its maximum.”
That meant all the regenerative soil health measures that Doan has incorporated on the ranch over the years was truly paying off.
In conventional till, where the soil is disturbed, the soil temperature could read 100 degrees, and that means only 15 percent of the moisture received will go to plant growth. And if the soil temperature is higher - 140 degrees - all bacteria in the soil that supports the plant dies off.
When the Doans went through the drought of 2017, they withstood it because they had great water infiltration from no-till, cover crops, plant diversity and other soil health measures, and they were able to keep the temperature down in his fields.
“This is huge for us guys in the west where we are always struggling to have moisture. If we are able to keep our temperature down, and we are able to infiltrate moisture, and the plants can take it up, we can get through those droughts better,” Doan said.
Those soil health measures implemented on the Doan ranch include cover crops, increased plant diversity, keeping a living root on the soil as long as possible, litter or residue, no soil disturbance, support for wildlife, and integrating livestock.
Family and ranch history
Doan and his wife, Renae, fourth-generation on the ranch, have all their grown children, fifth-generations, and their grandkids, sixth-generation, back on the ranch (some also work off the ranch), and now one of their grandsons is even helping ranch. It is a ranch that needs to support several families.
“We have been operating our ranch holistically for more than 40 years, and cover crops is part of that,” Doan said. “My great grandfather came down in 1880 and built a sod house in 1882 in southern Burleigh County on the east side of the Missouri River.”
The attempt to support all the Doan families on the ranch ended up creating “challenges and opportunities like agritourism.”
Regenerate the soil
The Black Leg ranch has been in no-till for more than 20 years, winter-grazing cows for 12 years, and planting full season cover crops for 15 years.
“In agriculture, we’ve narrowed it up and gone to monocultures. That is not what nature wants. That is why Mother Nature is trying to put weeds and forbs back into the mix because we messed it up,” Doan said. “That’s why it is important to put as much plant diversity as you can back in the system. Look at native range – there are more than 200 plant species out there.”
Winter grazing is key to their soil health.
“Winter grazing is very important but it has been a very challenging year,” he said. “But this winter can’t be as bad as living in a sod house in 1882, and trying to put food on the table, so we have to keep things in perspective.”
Doan said those in agriculture need to tell their story and “sell a positive image to the world.”
Agritourism positive image
With their agritourism that brings people to their ranch for weddings, hunting, and having a real ranch experience with riding horses and more, they have had visitors from 40 countries and 50 states. Soon, the family will be opening a craft brewery “Black Leg Brewery” on the ranch for the tourists.
“The message I (first) get from all of them is agriculture is terrible; you are ruining the watershed and the land,” Doan said. “Then they come out here and they go ‘wow,’ and encourage me to spread the message (about what we are doing). So I encourage you to tell your story.”
Doan said at the ranch, they have become profitable from ranching holistically and following regenerative soil health principles. Besides that, he considers quality of life vital to being able to get through the challenges unique to agriculture – and especially through the bitter cold winters.
Soil health leads to profitability
Soil health has been a constant family goal to stay profitable.
Doan was unsure at the beginning of going no-till, and having to commit to not disturbing the soil. Now, he says that no-till has been key to profitability on the ranch.
Keeping litter on the soil does help with weeds, and it has helped Doan to cut down on inputs.
Doan also believes in integrating livestock, as they spread manure on the land, and their hoof action on residue helps the biology in the soil. Doan hopes cow/calf and crop producers work together someday, where they can integrate livestock on all croplands, and cooperate on resources.
Using cover crops
When Doan started using cover crops, he had wrecks the first couple of years.
“We were planting one or two or three species at the most a number of years ago and planting late, with a lot of weed pressure. I don’t get it,” Doan said. “I sat down with my boys and we asked ourselves, ‘what are we trying to do here?’ We knew the number one cost for cow/calf producers is winter feed costs, and cash flow is a challenge.”
They discussed if they could use cover crops to cut down on winter feed costs, and they knew a lot of their cropland was depleted.
In Doan’s grandpa’s day, farmers grew wheat/summer fallow on marginal lands, which decimated the topsoil, and depleted the organic matter. That happened on every farm, pushed by government programs.
Their final hope was “to propagate the wildlife,” because they needed the wildlife for the positive image of agriculture it gave to tourists.
What happens today with cover crops
Today, they plant full season cover crops for winter grazing, mainly due to the challenge of moisture in their part of the country.
“I am all for it if you can plant a cover crop after another crop,” he said.
They seed the cover crops in mid-June, with the crops designed for nutrient recycling.
After they learned how to plant cover crops successfully, their water infiltration and quality improved, and wildlife increased.
Their soil under cover crop residue after the cows grazed was tested and found to have the highest biological matter in the soil in Burleigh County, and Doan said he has been “proud of that.”
“We have a lot of cover crops right now, but we have not been able to winter graze because of the terrible cold,” Doan said. “But the wildlife are utilizing the cover crops. One field is full of pheasants and another field is full of a couple hundred deer. I hope they don’t eat it all, because I still want to graze it.”
Doan puts a lot of legumes in his mixes to build their own nitrogen, so he can cut down on inputs.
He uses a 22-species cover crop mix, and the key is a lot of diversity. Some of those species include an oat/pea forage, a ryegrass, pearl millet,
For winter grazing, every mix should include a BMR corn that is a sweeter corn and good for grazing; forage collards like a cabbage plant that stays green and leafy even in snow and is very good for cows; and millets that work great in a grazing season.
“Those three things are key for a winter grazing season, but we fiddle with our mix to keep the cost down,” he said. “When we started, cover crops cost us $30 an acre, but our costs now are $22 an acre.”
For instance, one year cowpeas were very expensive, so they took them out of the mix for a couple of years.
They had to take sunflowers out completely because the blackbirds were not only eating all the sunflowers, but were taking the millet, intended for their livestock, out, too.
Doan showed his cover crop field last fall, which was beautiful and chest high.
Some of the Doan’s goals change, as they figure out different and more profitable ways of integrating their livestock with cover crop grazing.
Adding perennials for grazing
Currently, they are trying to add perennials into the grazing rotation. That would cut down on the need to plant every acre for grazing every year. They do have alfalfa and other hay, but that is for backup hay bales, not grazing.
“We seeded western wheatgrass, alfalfa, milk vetch, and collards, and our goal was to see if we could take a hay crop and graze it before we graze the cover crops,” Doan said.
They had a bromegrass pasture that they wanted to get rid of. The cows don’t like brome; it does not attract pollinators and it doesn’t produce much hay. They tried hitting it with glyphosate.
“We had some cider milk vetch in the lower areas and hoped it would spread that seed across the landscape,” he said.
They put 900 pairs in there in the fall of 2017, watching to see if they could spread that vetch over the pasture.
“Last spring, I started to see little patches (of milk vetch) crop up. Milk vetch is a non-bloating legume that will offer you some early season grazing,” Doan said.
Grazing cover crops
The family’s goal is not to graze cover crops until December or even later in the winter. Cows stay on native range or crop aftermath as long as possible.
“Cows do a good job of digging through the snow and finding the collars beneath the snow. We have done this where we didn’t need to feed a bale of hay for five or six years,” he said. “If you can do that, and Bismarck State College calculated this out, you can save $200 a head. If I can save $200 a cow, that is a big deal, especially when I bring back my family to the ranch.”
That savings also includes seed costs, equipment cost, land rental, and other costs to raise the cow, not just the feed.
Unfortunately, this has not worked this year. With the extreme cold, the Doans have been feeding hay to their cattle out on the land. They keep their cattle out on the land as nature intended along with calving in the pasture, which is why they calve later in the year, in May/June.
“We try to leave 50 percent (of the residue) for the soil, and that is hard in the snow,” he said.
They participate in the Nutrition Balance Analyzer program from Texas A & M, which analyzes manure for forage nutrient analysis, a good way to measure if cows are getting enough nutrition. “Whenever we run the cows on cover crops. They keep some of the best cover crops for the third trimester.
“Our cows are not getting fat, but they are not losing weight, which is what we want,” Doan said. He wants his cows to be about 1,100-1,200 pounds in size.
Doan said they never bring their cows into the watershed area or into a corral, and they have good water systems to keep their cows out on the land.
“Keep the cows on the land; keep the biology out on the land,” he said.
Benefits from cows on land
What have been the benefits from allowing cows to forage for feed through the snow, and graze throughout the year on native prairie, cover crops, grass and hay forages:
- Only need to put up about 800 bales, which are only used in severe winters, such as this year.
- Need less haying and feeding equipment.
- Less time needed hauling manure, feeding, spreading manure and haying.
- Less dollars spent in fuel and machine repairs.
- Less wear and tear on equipment.
“When you do those things, you start being more profitable,” Doan said. “Our expenses go way down, and we provide for the wildlife.”
Severe winter 2019
Because of severe winters, the Doans always have a backup plan in place to use if needed.
“This year, we started to feed hay at the end of January. This winter, the fourth coldest since records have been kept, was too bitter and the wind so severe, and the cows couldn’t stand it,” he said. Doan found that in the severe wind chills, his cattle did not want to walk to the water, so they need to have portable water as a backup.
Doan plans to put them back on the cover crops in another couple of weeks.
When there are challenging years, and Doan loses cattle, it can be depressing.
But he has been told if he could not afford to lose cattle, he should not own any.
The other thing he was told is to step back and see the big picture.
“You are managing holistically. It is hard when you are living in it, but we do need to step back from it and see it as a whole,” Doan said.