Ken MillerFort Rice, ND

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Ken_MillerKen Miller

Fort Rice, North Dakota

Burleigh County Soil Conservation District

Along with my wife Bonnie, I own and operate a 2,000-acre ranch in Morton County, North Dakota, where we have raised 5 children.  We enjoy time with family (especially the grandchildren), hunting, and traveling. I am a mentor for the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition, and I work full time for the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District.  My duties include working with producers on grazing and no-till cropping systems as well as cover crops.

Soil Health Practices:

We have been utilizing an intensive rotational grazing system for over 25 years. Prior to 2001 (full-tillage era), a quarter of the crop land was summer fallowed each year. The crops grown were wheat, barley, oat, alfalfa, and corn for silage. We have been no-tilling since 2001 and adding more crop diversity to the operation, including peas, soybean, corn for grain, and cover crop mixes. Diverse mixes of cover crops are planted after early harvested crops, or as a full season crop. These cover crop mixes are grazed late in the season to extend the grazing season and provide more rest for the intensive grazing system.

The intensive grazing system started in the mid 1980’s with 18 paddocks (about 40 acres each). Today the system has over 60 paddocks of native and cool season paddocks (about 20 acres in size). Over the past ten years, most of the crop land has been seeded to a diverse mixture of grasses and legumes and added to the grazing system. These cover crop mixes are grazed in late fall and early winter, which has cut feeding costs to the cow herd.  Short grazing periods followed by long recovery periods have improved the soil health, and production has skyrocketed by at least threefold. Since we implemented the intensive grazing system on our native range and pastureland, we have over doubled the recommended stocking rate, while improving the grass stand. This intensive grazing system has also benefited the wildlife population and helped to diminish the effects of drought.

Before these fields are seeded to grass, we plant a full season cover crop for at least one year.  Sometimes we plant cover crops up to five years on the poorest soils. These practices will add nutrients, break up compaction layers, and increase the organic matter. Regenerative practices have led to reduced costs of fuel, machinery, chemicals, fungicides, and commercial fertilizer usage on our farm, which has greatly improved our bottom line.

With the addition of diverse cover crop mixes in the rotation, we have improved soil health while reducing chemical and fertilizer needs, and our crop yields have improved. The diversity of these cover crops has increased the organic matter in our soils, helps break up tillage layers, and improves the overall soil health on our farm. Since we have quit tilling, the wind and water erosion has been eliminated on our farm, enabling us to build soil health.

Challenges:

Prior to 2006, the farmers in our region had not used diverse cover crop mixes on their farms to build soil health. Burleigh County Soil Conservation District planted a small plot with many different cover crop mixes, helping me and the rest of the staff to learn how the crops performed.  Our region hosted plot tours and educational meetings, and the BCSCD funded a three-year program to promote cover crops throughout the county.  Through the program, they plant up to 25 acres of cover crops at no cost to the producers. In turn for this learning experience, the producers provide a clean seed bed and agree to monitor the cover crops, provide yield data, and allow tours of their operations.

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