History of Cattle Production in North Dakota



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.


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