Siblings, Erin and Drew Gaugler, have spent the last two years exploring and documenting the impact of bale grazing on their New Leipzig, N.D., farm, and its impact on soil health.
The Gauglers grew up in southwest North Dakota, and over time, both realized they wanted to be involved with the agriculture industry. Drew transitioned back to the farm after 10 years of working in the oil industry, and Erin is in the process of transitioning back to the operation. Currently, she works as a range research specialist at the NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center.
“The work I’m doing allows me to research and develop an understanding of the science behind the management,” Erin said.
The siblings predominately manage a commercial cow-calf operation. However, they are in the process of bringing sheep back to the ranch to help diversify what they’re doing.
The Gauglers had land with major resource concerns. It had been historically farmed with no inputs and was depleted to a point where it was no longer productive.
“We started trying to come up with ways to rejuvenate the land,” Erin said. “We wanted to develop the system by using our livestock and that turned our attention to the idea of bale grazing – something that would not only be an ecological benefit, but something that would reduce our labor and also be cost-effective.
The project started in 2018 with some baseline testing to asses and better understand how what they were doing on their land would impact the results they were looking for.
“We wanted to see if we could utilize bale grazing to improve our soil health, including physical, chemical and biological properties,” she said.
During the project’s first year, the Gauglers planted a multi-species cover crop prior to bale grazing. That cover crop was designed to help them achieve some of those soil benefits they were looking for, and it included 15 different species, including: buckwheat, flax, radish, hairy vetch, phacelia, cowpeas, safflower, millet, red clover, barley, sunflower, rape and sweetclover.
“The idea behind some of the species was focused on soil health – penetrating through compaction in the clay pan areas and stimulating the microorganisms in the soil,” Erin explained. “Additionally, the diversity of the cover crop helped to create a habitat for pollinators and a symbiotic relationship among plant species that promoted nutrient cycling and more.”
The cover crops were grazed in the fall, and then the site was prepared for bale grazing. Hay was hauled to the grazing area and bales were distributed with special emphasis on places where additional organic matter was needed. They used temporary fencing to limit feed the cattle so that they would consume the feed efficiently.
“Bale grazing is a winter-feeding management option for producers that has shown benefits in a variety of areas. The environment, overall goals and resources of the producer implementing the practice will influence how it is carried out and the potential benefits that can be achieved,” she says. “The producer can control what they want to accomplish, the scale of the project and what is feasible in each situation.” As year two of the project rolled around, the site was planted to a perennial crop. The planting was baled in late fall and those bales were used for grazing. Time and labor savings were achieved by not having to haul hay or spread manure from animals that could have alternatively been wintered in a dry lot.
After two seasons of bale grazing, the Gauglers noticed an obvious difference in plant production within the field where they had bale grazed
“You could see a physical difference in both color and plant height. It seemed that the area of impact was spread out further from year 1 to year 2,” Erin explained. “That transition that is something we’ve noted as ‘successful.’ The production within those areas has almost doubled compared to spots where that residue isn’t being spread or that nitrogen or urea isn’t being held onto for plants to utilize.”
To test what they were seeing, the Gauglers collected soil samples that included both direct and indirect impact sites – sampling directly under where the bale was grazed, adjacent to an area where a bale was grazed, as well as areas that had no animal impact.
“We didn’t see much of a change in terms of organic matter from one treatment to the next, but we attribute that to the fact that organic matter is something that takes years to see a percentage change in,” she said. “There was difference in terms of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium based on those sampling areas. We’re hoping that we can spread our impact across the entire area to create a more homogenous response.”
The Gauglers were able to get their work funded through a grant by the USDA North Central SARE program for bale grazing to build soil health. This specific grant only included cattle, but the Gauglers had a positive experience and wanted to see if they could further improve the management, so they applied for a second grant focused on the same concept.
The new grant started last year, and the Gauglers will be using multi-species bale grazing to build soil health.
“Through the use of hair sheep, we hope to improve forage utilization. However, we want to incorporate them in a way that’s not labor intensive, which can be a challenge,” she said.
For the Gauglers, the SARE program is a partnership, providing them with partial-funding for their project, but also access to a network of people that has helped broaden their perspective on sustainable agriculture.
“The Farmer-Rancher Grant Program is a competitive grant program for farmers and ranchers who want to explore sustainable solutions to problems through on-farm research, demonstration, and educational projects. Regardless of funding, the feedback that is given from the review committee is invaluable,” Erin concluded.
For more information on the USDA North Central SARE program or applying for future grants, please visit northcentral.sare.org/state-programs/north-dakota/.