North Dakota 2021 Sand Ranch Ellendale Leopold Conservation Award Recipient

Sand Ranch

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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