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History of Cattle Production in North Dakota

 

 


 

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 2008.

Year

All Cattle

& Calves

(Jan.)

Beef Cattle Prices

(per hwt)

Beef Cows

that Calved

(Jan.)

Milk Cows

Number of Farms

Number of Cattle Operations

1870

       2,000

       

1880

     70,000

         

1890

   346,000

1900

   561,000

   

45,000

 

1910

   662,000

$ 3.90

 

74,400

 

1920

1,335,000

$ 6.70

152,000

 

77,700

 

1930

1,307,000

$ 6.10

  90,000

521,000

80,900

 

1940

1,313,000

$ 6.80

120,000

484,000

74,500

 

1950

1,495,000

$22.00

332,000

375,000

66,000

 

1960

1,758,000

$19.40

648,000

277,000

56,000

 

1970

2,110,000

$26.40

995,000

137,000

45,500

29,000

1980

2,000,000

$61.10

962,000

93,000

40,000

21,000

1990

1,650,000

$76.00

855,000

85,000

33,500

17,000

2000

1,880,000

$72.20

970,000

48,000

30,800

13,000

             

2008

1,810,000

$83.30

922,000

28,000

32,000

10,500*

 

From: National Agricultural Statistics Service, USDA, 2009

http://www.nass.usda.gov/Data_and_Statistics/Quick_Stats/

*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.

 


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