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Sand Ranch Selected for North Dakota Leopold Conservation Award


The Sand Ranch of Ellendale is the recipient of the 2021 North Dakota Leopold Conservation Award®.

Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the prestigious award recognizes private landowners who inspire others with their dedication to land, water and wildlife resources in their care.

In North Dakota, Sand County Foundation presents the award with national sponsor American Farmland Trust, and state partners: North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition, North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts and the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association.

Brad Sand, a rancher from Ellendale in Dickey County, will be presented with $10,000 and a crystal award for being selected during the North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts’ Annual Convention on Sunday, November 21.

“The North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition is honored to present this prestigious award to the Sand Ranch,” said Jerry Doan, NDGLC President. “The way that Brad Sand manages his operation is an outstanding model in the implementation of voluntary conservation and outreach on the role private landowners play in conservation. He is a true inspiration for other landowners.”

“The North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts is proud to be part of the prestigious Leopold Conservation Award in North Dakota,” said Brian Johnston, NDASCD CEO. “We are proud to honor the Sand Ranch as 2021 recipient of the Leopold Conservation Award. NDASCD congratulates Brad Sand, recognizing his commitment to incorporating sound conservation practices to ensure the land will be productive for many generations to come.”

“The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association offers its congratulations to this year’s Leopold Conservation Award winner,” said Jeff Schafer, NDSA President. “Ranchers and farmers take their jobs as stewards of the land and the livestock seriously. To us, it is not only how we make our living, but how we can ensure a legacy for future generations.”

“Recipients of this award are real life examples of conservation-minded agriculture,” said Kevin McAleese, Sand County Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer. “These hard-working families are essential to our environment, food system and rural economy.”

“As the national sponsor for Sand County Foundation’s Leopold Conservation Award, American Farmland Trust celebrates the hard work and dedication of the North Dakota recipient,” said John Piotti, AFT President and CEO. “At AFT we believe that conservation in agriculture requires a focus on the land, the practices and the people and this award recognizes the integral role of all three.”

Earlier this year, North Dakota landowners were encouraged to apply (or be nominated) for the award. Applications were reviewed by an independent panel of agricultural and conservation leaders. Among the many outstanding North Dakota landowners nominated for the award was finalist: Spring Valley Cattle of Glen Ullin in Morton County.

The first North Dakota Leopold Conservation Award was presented to Black Leg Ranch from McKenzie in 2016. Last year’s recipient was Dockter-Jensen Ranch from Denhoff.

The Leopold Conservation Award Program in North Dakota is made possible thanks to the generous support of the American Farmland Trust, North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition, North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts, North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, Sand County Foundation, Starion Bank, North Dakota Game & Fish Department, APEX Clean Energy, Audubon Dakota, Basin Electric Power Cooperative, Burleigh County Soil Conservation District, ConocoPhillips, Cow Chip Ranch, Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited, Emmons County Soil Conservation District, KEM Electric Cooperative, McDonald’s, Mor-Gran-Sou Electric Cooperative, North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality, North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, Pheasants Forever, Roughrider Electric Cooperative, Slope Electric Cooperative, The Nature Conservancy, The Wildlife Society, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program.

In his influential 1949 book, “A Sand County Almanac,” Leopold called for an ethical relationship between people and the land they own and manage, which he called “an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.”

Sand County Foundation presents the Leopold Conservation Award to private landowners in 23 states for extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation. For more information on the award, visit


Brad Sand planted 12 rows of trees, each more than a mile long, with help from a local conservation group when he began cattle ranching in 1974.

“I did it for the wildlife, the soil, and for my cattle,” he said.

The same can be said of his implementation of conservation practices at Sand Ranch ever since.

“When you take an active role in making the land better, it’ll take care of you and the people who eat your food,” Brad said.

By using what he learned in classes and on ranch tours, Brad reduced his risk from volatile markets and extreme weather events. Sand Ranch has become an example of how conservation can be environmentally and economically beneficial.

Sand Ranch’s 700 acres are located in the Drift Prairie physiographic region: home to some of North America’s best grasslands and depressional prairie pothole wetlands.

“I enjoy using cattle to manage the resource,” he said.

Brad’s rotational grazing strategy mimics how bison once roamed the prairie. Short, intense bursts of grazing followed by a long recovery time for the grass. Grazing stimulates plant root growth, enhances nutrient cycling in the soil, and produces diversified grassland species.

A grazing partnership he helped establish with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department on public Wildlife Management Areas increases his feed production, while enhancing wildlife habitat and recreational experiences for the general public. In the early 2000s he partnered with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to build wildlife-friendly cross fencing.

Brad also works with Ducks Unlimited to improve his grazing system and restore native grasses on marginally productive soils. He regularly hosts tours to facilitate cooperation between agriculture and environmental organizations to advance the cause of private lands conservation. He also fields calls and emails from farmers, ranchers and conservation biologists as part of the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition’s mentorship network.

The restorative powers of grazing were evident when he turned 80 acres of hay into a pasture. Years of haying had exported carbon, resulting in degraded soil health and less diversity and density of grasses. All of that reversed by returning cattle to the land.

“Grazing cattle on this hayland has improved forage production,” he said. “Instead of constantly removing carbon, now I’m putting something back.”

Brad has always grazed cattle on recently harvested crop fields to reduce winter feed costs and grow less hay. He began planting cover crops in 2010 to provide even more feed, attract beneficial insect pollinators, and improve the soil’s biology.

Healthy soils tend to have increased water infiltration rates and can hold more residual moisture, which is important during dry years. The mix of cool and warm season grasses and forbs in his pastures are also how he manages for drought.

The fall of 2020 was especially dry, but Sand Ranch didn’t run out of grass. In fact, some deer hunters asked Brad why he hadn't grazed his pastures, when he had. The healthy soil had held enough moisture to keep growing grass amid a drought.

It was visible proof of how embracing conservation has improved soil, water, wildlife and livestock, just like the 12 rows of trees from decades ago.

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The Leopold Conservation Award is a competitive award that recognizes landowner achievement in voluntary conservation. Sand County Foundation presents the award in California, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, and in New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont).


Sand County Foundation inspires and empowers a growing number of private landowners to ethically manage natural resources in their care, so future generations have clean and abundant water, healthy soil to support agriculture and forestry, plentiful habitat for wildlife and opportunities for outdoor recreation.


American Farmland Trust is the only national organization that takes a holistic approach to agriculture, focusing on the land itself, the agricultural practices used on that land, and the farmers and ranchers who do the work. AFT launched the conservation agriculture movement and continues to raise public awareness through its No Farms, No Food message. Since its founding in 1980, AFT has helped permanently protect over 6.5 million acres of agricultural lands, advanced environmentally sound farming practices on millions of additional acres, and supported thousands of farm families.


The NDGLC is a non-profit organization that believes through voluntary actions, respect for private property rights, and providing education on the values and multiple benefits of well managed grazing resources, the goals of promoting the health and sustainability of North Dakota's grazing lands are achievable.


The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association is a 90-year-old non-profit trade organization that works to unite, protect, promote, educate and serve the beef industry of North Dakota.


The purpose of the North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts is to further the widespread application of sound and practical soil and water conservation practices in North Dakota. Our goal is to provide quality membership services and nursery products to carry out the soil conservation program of the soil conservation districts of North Dakota.