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History of Cattle Production in North Dakota

Janet Patton, NDSU-CGREC

The Setting


North Dakota is located squarely in the center of North America. Far from the modifying effects of the oceans, it is subject to low and variable rainfall and extremes of temperature. This difficult climate selects for plants that are low to the ground, water-efficient, and able to withstand fire. Grasses fit these requirements extremely well. Grasslands with a diversity of species are able to tolerate adverse conditions and continue to be productive. These plants also protect and modify the soil. Together, grass and soil are two of the most important natural resources of the state, making this region ideal for livestock production.

Grasslands have evolved with large herbivores, and the two are interdependent: the plants grow and are grazed by animals that distribute nutrients back into the soil. Grasses are able to recover after grazing because of their extensive root systems and growing points that are close to the ground. Historically, our “sea of grass” was able to support huge herds of bison.

Human occupation in North Dakota dates from 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age. Early hunters and the Native people of recent times were dependent on the bison for their livelihoods. Native hunters used fire to reduce plant cover and help concentrate the animals in their winter range, making them easier to hunt. This practice also encouraged grass growth in early spring, which was a critical foraging time for the herds. The coming of European immigrants to the area and the subsequent slaughter of the bison herds changed not only the lives of the Native people, but the landscape of North Dakota as well, with wheat replacing the native grasslands in the east, and cattle replacing bison in the west.

Introduction of Cattle


The first cattle brought into North Dakota were oxen and milk cows used at the trading posts. In 1860, about 800 head of cattle were present in all of the Dakota Territory, primarily along the Red and Missouri Rivers. This is the decade in which the Native people of the region were first sent to reservations. Their culture of bison and horses soon became one of cattle and horses, and many of them became cowboys and ranchers.


The first homestead west of the Red River was filed in 1868, and early claims were made along the Red River and the Northern Pacific Railroad line, which reached Jamestown in 1872 and Bismarck in 1873. The Northern Pacific, which at one time owned 23% of the state, began selling large blocks of land to investors in the Red River Valley in 1875. These ”bonanza” wheat farms were huge, 3,000 to 63,000 acres in size. The real rush for individual claims occurred from 1879-86, when over 100,000 people came into the northern Dakota Territory. Many farmers took advantage of the 1863 Federal Homestead Law, while others purchased land from the Northern Pacific. The vast majority of these homesteaders were also interested in growing wheat, however, not raising livestock, other than a few horses, oxen, dairy cows, hogs, and sheep.




Ranches of the West


While the eastern part of the northern Dakota Territory was being converted to grain production in the 1880s, the western third was undergoing a bonanza of its own. Previously, several hundred head of cattle had been driven in from Montana to supply the military, Indian agencies, and railroad crews. By 1886, however, over 300,000 head were in the soon-to-be state of North Dakota (Figure 1).The first cattle ranch in what is now North Dakota was established west of the Missouri River in 1878 and others soon followed, primarily in the Badlands and near Hettinger. Some of these early cattlemen had come to the area by way of the railroad or the army, or from the East for the hunting opportunities. Others were with well-invested cattle outfits from Texas. They saw the potential of these rangelands: good summer forage that also cures before frost, little snow cover, streams for water, and brushy ravines for winter shelter.


Figure 1. Number of cattle and calves in North Dakota, 1870-2007, as of January 1st of each year. (From: National Agricultural Statistics Service, USDA, 20 http://www.nass.usda.gov/Data_and_Statistics/Quick_Stats/.

These ranchers were most familiar with the “open range” type of management commonly used in the southern and western states. Cattle were branded and roamed on government- or railroad-owned land. They grazed freely in summer and winter without feed. Ranchers used horses to round up and sort cattle in the spring (Figure 2). Most ranchers raised steers, but there were some cow/calf operations as well.


Figure 2. Cattle round-up on ranch in the Badlands of North Dakota (1960s). Photograph Collection, Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU, Fargo (9.2.29).


Figure 3. Loading cattle onto a train, Eland, ND, (1899). Eland, N.D. Photograph Collection, Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU, Fargo (45.1.2).

Several large cattle companies brought in Texas steers for summer grazing starting in 1881. One outfit, the Continental Land and Cattle Company, managed up to 60,000 head. Howard and Edward Easton and A. C. Huidekoper established the Custer Trail Cattle Company along the Little Missouri River in 1882. They brought in Shorthorn cattle from the East. Two Minnesotans, H. B. Wadsworth and W. L. Hawley, also brought in eastern cattle to their Maltese Cross Ranch, which was sold to Theodore Roosevelt in 1883. The Marquis de Mores of France arrived in the Badlands in 1883 to establish a slaughtering plant, shipping beef to the eastern states in refrigerated cars. In 1884, Roosevelt and ranchers from 11 cattle companies started the Little Missouri Stockmen’s Association. Along with Medora, Dickinson was also a major shipping point at this time (Figure 3).

This was a booming region, and many people made huge investments in its development. By the fall of 1886, however, the ranching bonanza collapsed. Due to competition, high shipping costs, and a demand for corn-fed cattle, prices dropped from a peak of $9.35 per hundredweight in 1882 to $10 less than the cost of production and shipping per head. To make a difficult situation even worse, the dry summer of 1886 was followed by a long, harsh winter, resulting in the death of thousands of cattle, perhaps 75% of the total number. Many ranchers were forced out, and those who stayed had to change their ranching methods to survive. Instead of open range, ranchers saved the protected pastures in the Badlands for winter grazing, and also brought in hay. Most ranching in the region was done on a smaller scale than before. Sheep from Utah and Oregon were also raised in the region, along with a large number of horses. More small-scale ranchers and farmers moved in to the area around the turn of the century. As counties were organized, title to the land, and subsequently taxes, were required. The large cattle outfits were forced to sell out. The last big cattle drive was in 1889, with over 7,000 head shipped out. When barbed-wire fences started to appear, the days of the open range were over.



By 1890, the wheat bonanza in the eastern part of the state also came to an end due to low prices. Wheat yields had also been declining during the 1880s, and James J. Hill, owner of the Great Northern Railroad, promoted diversification or “mixed” farming with both crops and livestock, as did the North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station in Fargo. To promote this idea, Hill gave away 50 Shorthorn bulls to farmers living along the railroad. Starting in 1903, the Railroad also gave free and reduced train tickets to farmers to visit the Experiment Station and see plantings of new crops and the Station’s dairy herd, which had been in production since 1894.


At the end of 1895, there were 41 creameries and cheese factories in North Dakota. By 1904, these numbers had more than doubled. The Hettinger Experiment Station was established in 1909 to conduct dairy research. The New Salem Dairy Circuit also began that year with a mission to produce an improved line of dairy cattle. Members had access to cooperative-owned equipment, shared pastures, and high-grade bulls. Purebred stock was eventually sold throughout the state and to other states as well. This endeavor continued and is now known as the North Dakota Dairy Herd Improvement Association.





Ranching in Central North Dakota

Figure 4. Woman milking a cow near Douglas, N.D. (1910-1919). Cordes, William Martin, 1894-1977, photographer. Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU, Fargo (2053.4.1)

The years 1898 to 1915 brought in a second wave of settlers to North Dakota. The largest wheat crop to date was harvested in 1915. In the central part of the state, however, farmers were interested in both crop and cattle production. Those who lived too far from the railroad line to transport grain raised cattle. By 1918, all the land was settled, with rangeland, crop, and hay land interspersed. Even in the early days, ranching was a mixture of open range and methods used farther east. For example, ranchers rode horses to herd their beef cattle and grazed railroad- or government-owned land, but they provided shelter and hay for their cattle in winter. Fencing allowed for selective breeding and the reduction of diseases. Herds of 20 to 40 head were common, with some herds of up to 200 head. Some farmers also raised dairy cows, hogs, and sheep (Figure 4). Cattle and dairy production increased dramatically through the 1910s (Table 1).




Table 1. Cattle numbers and prices and numbers of farms in North Dakota, 1870 to 2006.


All Cattle

& Calves


Beef Cattle Prices

(per hwt)

Beef Cows

that Calved


Milk Cows

Number of Farms

Number of Cattle Operations
















$ 3.90






$ 6.70







$ 6.10







$ 6.80
























































From: National Agricultural Statistics Service, USDA, 2007



Drought, the Depression, and Recovery


The drought years of 1917 to 1921 provided a hint of things to come. Hay became expensive and scarce. Once again, drought and a bad winter (1919-1920) coincided with a severe drop in cattle prices. The 1930s brought the biggest test of all to agriculture in North Dakota. Record low rainfall, record high heat, and the onslaught of grasshoppers devastated crops, hay, and pastures. In 1934, many ranchers lost cattle to starvation in spite of the 2,420 railroad carloads of feed grain from the federal government. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration bought more than a million head of cattle at $15-20 a head. Most were slaughtered and very few were kept for breeding stock.


It was at this time that the government purchased “submarginal” land from landowners to help relocate struggling farm families. Several federal governmental acts and agencies were involved with these Land Utilization Projects. In North Dakota, over one million acres of erodible land were converted to pastures for livestock production by the Soil Conservation Service of the USDA. Fences were removed, stock ponds were built, and many acres were re-seeded. Grazing rights were given to adjacent landowners. Grazing associations were established to work with the governmental agencies and to collect funds for development projects. These areas eventually became the National Grasslands: the Sheyenne to the southeast, the Little Missouri of the Badlands, and the Cedar River in the southwest part of the state, primarily within the Standing Rock Reservation. Over 300 ranching operations lease these lands today.

Prices improved in the 1940s and producers increased herd sizes to keep up with the demand for beef (Table 1). By the 1950s, the number of beef cows in the state surpassed the number of dairy cows, due in part to the low price of milk and the increase in production per cow. Rural electrification was nearly complete in North Dakota by 1954, which changed farm life dramatically. Shelterbelts, first planted in the late 1930s, along with stock ponds and new grazing management methods, improved livestock productivity.

Trucking, Stockyards, and Slaughtering Plants


During the 1930s, livestock prices were so low that farmers could not pay the cost of shipping their cattle by rail to the packing plants. Trucking became the best method of transportation, and by 1940, the majority of animals were hauled by truck to stockyards and slaughtering plants.

The Equity Cooperative Packing Company began operation in 1919 in what is now known as West Fargo. It bought, sold, and processed cattle, hogs, and sheep. Armour and Company bought the plant in 1925 and added a creamery. The Armour Plant was a big operation, but due to the high number of animals to be slaughtered in 1935, the West Fargo Union Stockyards opened in competition with the Armour Plant.

Figure 5. Aerial view of West Fargo Union Stockyards (1952?). West Fargo Union Stockyards Photograph Collection (Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU, Fargo).

Business increased for the West Fargo Union Stockyard when the Armour Plant shut down in 1960. It became one the major stockyards in the region (Figure 5) until business slowed in the 1980s. The Siouxland Dressed Beef Company also built a slaughterhouse and packing plant at a new location in 1960. After changing hands several times, this plant was closed in 1998.

As of July 2007, there were seven state-inspected slaughtering-processing plants in North Dakota, along with seven official processing-only plants. There were 92 custom exempt plants as well, where an individual-owned animal may be brought in for slaughter and processing.

A $3 million cattle and bison processing plant in Fargo is scheduled to open in February of 2008. This project is in conjunction with NDSU’s beef research program and North Dakota Natural Beef, LCC. Slaughtering will take place at the North American Bison Cooperative plant in New Rockford, and chilled carcasses will be shipped to the Fargo plant for processing.

With an increase in local slaughtering plants, there is an increased need for feedlots. About 95% of the nearly one million calves produced in North Dakota are shipped to feedlots out of state. As of 2005, the state had 11,000 beef cattle producers and only 183 feedlot operations with facilities for more than 500 head of cattle. Twenty-two operations had more than 1,000 head. Two-thirds of the cattle in North Dakota feedlots were backgrounded, and just over one-third were finished.

Cattle Breeds


The first cattle brought to North Dakota were mixed “native” cattle used for draft, meat, and milk. The range-tough Texas Longhorn, a Spanish breed, was introduced into the western part of the state in the 1880s. Improved breeds like the Shorthorn, originally from England, were also introduced at this time. Cattle of this breed were large, strong, docile oxen, and good milkers. The Hereford, originally a triple-purpose breed from England, was later bred for beef production. The Angus was also an early introduction, selected for beef quality. These breeds were added to the North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station herd in the early years.

Cattle breeds used only for beef production became even more common by the 1950s. At the time, the preferred breeds were stocky, fat, and early maturing. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the demand for leaner meat led to the introduction of breeds with less fat and a higher dressing percentage. Today, the most common breeds in North Dakota are Angus, Hereford, Simmental, Charolais, Gelbvieh, Limousin, and Saler. Other breeds raised in the state include BueLingo, Chiangus, Galloway, Longhorn, Maine Anjou, Polled Hereford, Red Angus, Red Poll, Shorthorn, South Devon, Tarentaise, and Wagyu.

Unlike beef breeds, the breeds chosen for the dairy industry have changed little over the years. Native and Jersey cows made up the first dairy herd at the Experiment Station, with Holstein-Friesian cattle being bred at New Salem. Today, the majority of dairy cattle throughout the country are Holstein. Although cow numbers have dropped, milk production per cow has increased nearly six-fold since the 1900s due to improved nutrition, genetics, and management.



The North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station began early in the state’s history. The first director, H.E. Stockbridge, said in the first annual report in 1891 that the Station had a mandate to be “strictly agricultural…and of definite practical results of value to the intelligent farmers of North Dakota.” The Station encouraged diversification from the beginning, i.e., the addition of livestock, especially sheep and dairy cows, to every farming operation. “Mixed” farming was promoted because it would benefit the soil, utilize forages and by-products, and stabilize the farm economy. This recommendation by the Station directors and John Sheppard, long-time faculty member at the Station and a “champion” of livestock, was slow to be adopted, however, and wheat remained “king” in the eastern part of the state.

The Dairy Department of the Agricultural Experiment Station began in 1894 with work on cow rations, the proper handling of milk, and the nutritional content of native hay and tame grasses. A sub-station in Edgeley was started in 1902 to study the production of forage and grain for livestock. The Station proposed the establishment of a “grass trial station” in the western part of the state to address the problem of overgrazing, and the Dickinson Sub-Station soon opened by 1905. In 1910, the Hettinger Sub-Station began dairy research. Twenty-four demonstration farms across the state were also in operation by this time. Crop rotation, hay production, and manure application to cropland were tested on these small farms.

Livestock research became the primary interest of the Dickinson Station in 1945. This included breeding, feeding, management, disease control, and forage and feed production. The Hettinger Station switched its emphasis from dairy to sheep production in the 1940s. By the 1960s, beef cattle producers were promoting the idea of beef research at the Carrington Station and a new grassland management station at Streeter. These goals were met by 1981. In conjunction with the Animal Science Department at NDSU and federal agencies such as the USDA, cattle production continues to be a major area of research for the North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station and the “sub-stations” now known as Research Extension Centers.


Impact on the Economy

Cattle are raised in every county of North Dakota. The regional distribution of livestock is shown in Table 2. As of 2005, the state ranked 17th nationwide in overall cattle numbers, and 13th in calf crop. In 2004, livestock production brought in 20.6% of the state’s total agricultural commodity cash receipts. Cattle and calves produced 16.2%, and dairy products produced 1.8% of the total. In dollar amounts, this represents $823 million. The cattle industry has played an important role in North Dakota’s history and development, and will continue to be a productive part of North Dakota’s future.


Table 2. Livestock numbers in North Dakota by region in 2006.




Beef Cows

Milk Cows

Hogs and Pigs

Sheep and Lambs























































State Total






From: The National Agricultural Statistics Service, USDA, 2007.



NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center
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