History of Cattle Production in North Dakota

Janet Patton, NDSU-CGREC

Table of Contents


The Setting

Introduction of Cattle

Ranches of the West


Ranching in Central North Dakota

Drought, the Depression, and Recovery

Trucking, Stockyards, and Slaughtering Plants

Cattle Breeds


Impact on the Economy


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.


Next section: Ranches of the West


NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center