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Savory Institute visit to ND ranch focuses on importance of soil health

Roughly 200 people attended a tour of Black Leg Ranch near Menoken, N.D., on July 19 that featured conservationist Allan Savory. The tour included a look at one of the ranch's pastures. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service1 / 4
Jill Howard with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in North Dakota presented Jerry Doan of Black Leg Ranch with a plaque on July 19 as a token of appreciation for his family's work in promoting conservation and working with area entities. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service2 / 4
Allan Savory, right, speaks at Black Leg Ranch on July 19. From left are Byron Shelton of the Savory Institute and Jerry Doan, owner of Black Leg Ranch. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service3 / 4
Jay Fuhrer, soil health specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, shows some of the root types in a field of cover crops at Black Leg Ranch on July 19. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service4 / 4

MENOKEN, N.D. — Jerry Doan in the mid 1980s attended the Savory Institute, an organization focused on the importance of soil health that was started by conservationist Allan Savory. In the intervening years, Doan's Black Leg Ranch has become a paragon of a ranch striving to improve the environment.

But when Savory on July 19 visited the ranch about 20 miles west of Bismarck, he promised he wasn't going to go easy on his analysis of Doan's efforts.

Savory spoke at a number of events in the Bismarck area July 19-20, including a talk at the Miller Ranch in Fort Rice and at the North Dakota Heritage Center Auditorium. The events were put on by the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Morton County Soil Conservation District, Dakota Prairies Resource Conservation and Development Association Council and the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition.

The talk at Black Leg Ranch, which also featured Byron Shelton of the Savory Institute, was a chance for Savory to see what his management techniques had inspired three decades earlier.

Standing on a grass-covered hill overlooking miles of prairie, Doan explained how, before he got going on the holistic management he learned from the Savory Institute, the hills in the pasture were sand dunes, and the general condition of the land wasn't improving with normal grazing.

Now the hills are covered with a variety of species. And Doan and his family have been honored with several prestigious conservation awards, including the inaugural Leopold Conservation Award for North Dakota as well as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's Environmental Stewardship Award, for their various efforts.

But Savory, true to his word, was hard to impress.

"This is moving forward, but to me, it could be a lot better considering the years he's been out in it," he said. "My criticism is, the rate is too slow."

Savory didn't put the blame on Doan but on himself, instead expressing regret that his institute hadn't offered enough encouragement to make the progress even better.

Doan explained how he split the pasture into three pastures for a rotational grazing system. But Savory pointed out he doesn't like to use the term "rotational grazing." He prefers "planned grazing," and he thinks it's a matter of careful observation and constant moving of herds through grasslands. That, he believes, requires putting even more animals on the land and moving them as conditions dictate.

Savory's views are somewhat controversial in conservation circles, with many people skeptical that putting more animals on the land could improve the soil. But Savory's techniques and ideas have been embraced by many in agriculture who want to find ways to improve their grasslands while maintaining productive livestock herds.

Doan was happy to receive feedback from Savory, who he called "the guru of the planned grazing."

"That's good," he said of Savory's criticism. "We're here to learn."

The event included speeches in Black Leg Ranch's Copper Jewell Barn, tours of a pasture and tours of a cover crop field.

During the speeches in the Copper Jewell Barn, Jill Howard, the NRCS's acting state conservationist, presented Black Leg Ranch with a large glass plaque as a token of the organization's appreciation at the cooperation of the Doan family. The Doans, Howard said, have served on boards and panels and hosted workshops and tours over the years, sharing their conservation stories.

"They do so over and over again," Howard said.

Doan was pleased with the crowd at the event, which included people from across North Dakota and into several nearby states. The use of holistic management, he said, is "not rocket science" but takes a bit of effort and planning. He said the practice has improved profitability on his ranch, but more importantly has improved the condition of the land.

"It's important in agriculture that we regenerate our soils and our pastures," Doan said. "If we don't do that, we'll have problems down the road."

The Doan family will continue to spread the message of what agriculture is doing to improve the environment, he said. And they'll continue their conservation efforts.

"We've seen some great improvements, but we'll never get to where we want to go. We just keep pulling up that hill," he said.

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