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The first in Becker County: Rolling R Ranch earns state water quality certification

Dale and Beth Rengstorf of Rolling R Ranch were recently given a sign from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture that indicates their status as a water quality certified farm operation. On hand for the ceremony were (right to left) Dale Rengstorf, PJ Breen, Beth Rengstorf, Logan Riedel and Peter Mead. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
Dale and Beth Rengstorfs' Rolling R Ranch, where they raise 700 head of bison for marketing to grocery and restaurant operations across the country, recently became the first farm operation in Becker County to be certified under the Minnesota Ag Water Quality Certification Program. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

When Dale and Beth Rengstorf applied to have their ranch north of Pelican Rapids certified under the Minnesota Ag Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP), Dale was given a list of questions to answer about how they managed their 2,200-acre agricultural operation, and learned what they would have to do to meet the standards of the program.

The answer? Very little.

"The way I was already doing things met all of their requirements (for certification)," said Rengstorf, who raises a herd of about 700 head of bison on the property, using the land for pasture and hay.

Last month, the Rolling R Ranch became the first farm in Becker County to be certified under the state-run water quality program.

The ranch, which is located in the southwest corner of Becker County — with small amounts of grazing land extending into Otter Tail and Clay counties as well — has been in operation for 31 years now. At the time, Dale decided to switch to raising bison instead of pigs because "I wanted to get into something that would have a better return (on investment)," he said. "I was in the hog business, raising feeder pigs, and it was taking up a lot of my time. It was very labor intensive."

By contrast, bison are pretty self sufficient, he added, noting that they get most of their nourishment through grazing. "They mostly eat grass, but toward the end (right before selling them) I finish them with grain," he says.

Once the bison reach maturity, they are sold to a plant in New Rockford, N.D., where the animals are slaughtered and the meat marketed to grocery and restaurant operations across the United States.

Most of Rengstorf's work involves managing where and what the bison eat when they are grazing — and this is where the MAWQCP enters the picture.

The Rengstorfs' farmstead is north of Pelican Rapids, as is the home of their daughter, Karla, and son-in-law, PJ Breen, who is now very involved in the day-to-day operation of the ranch's pasture and hay fields, which are in Becker, Clay, and Otter Tail counties.

Much of the Rengstorfs' land has significant slope, ranging from 7-12 percent, and the gravelly, sandy soil types are also a challenge. But Dale believes that he has found an ideal use of these challenging fields:

"This land is not necessarily well-suited to row crop production," he said. "But we have been very successful at establishing pasture mixes of various types. These fields are well-suited to raising bison and for rotational grazing."

Rengstorf has proved this by restoring many fields to pasture grasses after excavation companies operating on neighboring land complete the removal of gravel and reshape that landscape.

The Rengstorfs' proactive approach to conservation prevents soil erosion and slows water runoff rates, and their farming practices protect the nearby lakes as well as groundwater. Here are some of the conservation practices utilized on the ranch:

• Perennial pasture and hay fields: All fields in the Rolling R Ranch operation are in perennial vegetation, being utilized as pasture and hay production. As a result, soil erosion rates (whether by water or wind) are very low, gully erosion is eliminated, water runoff rates are reduced, and soil organic matter levels improve.

• Rotation grazing: The bison are rotated frequently between pasture fields, called paddocks or cells. The benefits of rotational grazing are many: forage production is increased; forage stand longevity is improved; and, overgrazing of pasture is prevented, which also aids in reducing both soil erosion and water runoff rates.

• Controlled access to water: Where the bison need access to a pond for water, Rengstorf has installed controlled access areas for the bison, which reduces impact on the pond and its banks. He also uses fencing and 100-foot setbacks to manage the animals' access to water.

• Careful management of fertilizer: On fields that are utilized for hay production, commercial fertilizer is applied at half of the University-recommended rate of nutrient application. No commercial fertilizer is applied on the land utilized for grazing. "If you do rotational grazing properly your soil builds up its own nutrients," says Rengstorf, because the animals' own manure is spread more evenly across the pastures, fertilizing the land naturally.

• Careful use of Herbicides: Rengstorf keeps his use of herbicides to a minimum — only spraying when needed to control weeds such as spotted knapweed in his pastures, often using the practice of 'spot spraying.'

Rengstorf said that he began using these practices voluntarily, when he was working with representatives from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) as part of the Minnesota Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers to help plan and implement conservation practices that address natural resource concerns and for opportunities to improve soil, water, plant, animal, air, and related resources on their land.

Rengstorf says that implementing these practices "makes for healthier soil, healthier animals and cleaner water."

"We all need to be involved in protecting our water and soil," he added. "We all rely on clean water and productive soil for our health and wellbeing,"

These conservation-minded decisions enabled the Rolling R Ranch to join 680 other farming operations across the state in becoming water quality certified since the program was first implemented in 2014.

The MAWQCP was initiated through a memorandum of understanding signed in January 2012 by Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson.

After a successful pilot phase in 2014-2015, the program is now available to farmers and landowners statewide. To date, the program has certified 680 farms totaling nearly 450,000 acres. In addition, it has:

• Added more than 1,300 new conservation practices;

• Kept over 48.1 million pounds of sediment out of Minnesota rivers;

• Saved 122 million pounds of soil and 28,291 pounds of phosphorus on farms; and,

• Reduced nitrogen losses by up to 49 percent.

"This is excellent news," said Governor Mark Dayton in a news release issued by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture this past week. "I want to thank the 680 Minnesota farmers and landowners who have voluntarily committed to improving the quality of water that all Minnesotans drink.

"I also thank (Minnesota Agriculture) Commissioner Dave Frederickson, and the many talented professionals at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, for their outstanding leadership on this initiative," Dayton continued. "This program's positive impacts will endure far beyond this current administration, and significantly improve our state's water quality for generations to come."

The MAWQCP was developed to recognize and inspire conservation efforts and connect farmers with resources to continue enhancing their water-quality practices. The voluntary program gives certified farmers 10 years of compliance with new water quality laws and regulations. It is an award winning public-private partnership that now includes companies like Land O'Lakes, Hormel Foods, and Central Farm Service Cooperative.

"We all need to work together to help protect Minnesota's ground and surface water," said Commissioner Frederickson. "The Minnesota Ag Water Quality Certification Program, along with our partners, are helping family farms ensure a legacy of sustainability that will benefit generations to come."

According to a recent survey of 250 certified producers, nearly 63 percent say they participate in the Ag Water Quality Certified Program to demonstrate their commitment to water stewardship, while 99 percent say they are likely to recommend the program to others. Survey participants also say the use of the MAQWCP as a marketing opportunity is one of the top four reasons they participated in the program.

Local farmers and landowners who are interested in learning more about the MAWQCP should contact the Becker Soil and Water Conservation District offices in Detroit Lakes, or visit www.MyLandMyLegacy.com.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 17 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454