Part I: Cattlemen’s Association heads to Dakotas

By Keenan Bishop Published:

Members of the Franklin County Cattlemen’s Association recently explored North and South Dakota for their educational tour this year. Between trying to accommodate everyone’s schedule, the tobacco harvest and before winter cattle feeding began we finally ended up going in late October. This turned out to be an interesting time to head north for several reasons.

The ranch and extension folks I talked to up there assured me that the weather was usually just a little colder up there than in Kentucky that time of year but it was drier so the threat of snow wasn’t an issue. They also informed me that it was the opening of pheasant hunting season, which we found out is a major celebration up there.

Twelve of us left out for Fargo packed for a broad range of conditions and ready for another cattlemen’s adventure. We arrived that evening and met Carl Dahlen, North Dakota Beef Cattle Specialist and his wife Roberta, a swine researcher at NDSU, who treated us to a visit to an intercollegiate rodeo on campus.

Several local schools were competing and it was a lot of fun with our ringside seats. The new part for us was that women competed in the roping and tying events, and the tying involved goats. The next morning we met at The Shack for breakfast and discovered the Dakota’s love affair with warm sticky buns and why. They were big and tasted excellent.

Carl gave us an overview of the state, explaining that the Missouri river not only physically divides the state but in many other ways, too. The eastern half is mostly farming while those living in the western half considers themselves westerners and focus on ranching.

The state only has about 600,000 residents but 65,000 have recently arrived with the oil boom. Boom towns have increased tenfold in only a few months and growing pains are evident.

Income from cattle

About two-thirds of the agricultural income comes from cattle. The prairie around Fargo was the bottom of a glacial lake so the soil was very deep and fertile where we started and was highly valued for crops. Grain prices and weather patterns are causing corn production to creep west and north several hundred miles though into what was formerly only pasture or range.

We spent the rest of the morning touring the NDSU research facilities and getting vans stuck in the mud and muck. Apparently our arrival had signaled the end of the drought there, much to their relief.

NDSU has a 200-head herd of shorthorn, Simmental and angus cross cows for its research, which includes feeding studies. They calve in January, which is brutal there so they have sheltered facilities for the newborns. One interesting tidbit learned was that calves with frostbitten ears tend to do poor throughout life because of hidden foot problems from that same exposure.

Heading west

We left our gracious hosts, the Dahlens, who had given up a Sunday morning for us and started our leisurely drive west. We passed through the hometown of writer Louis L’Amour and the world’s largest buffalo and then enjoyed miles of flat, treeless prairie, few travelers and even fewer farmsteads.

Mandan, nestled between the Missouri River and the Badlands, was our home for the night. The next morning we met up with Kelly Schaff of Schaff Angus Valley, a well-known name in the Angus business. The ranch was homesteaded by Kelly’s great grandfather in 1902 and has had a production sale for 109 consecutive years, a record in the business.

That sale lasts for 12 hours and attracts more than 1,700 people from around the world. The ranch includes almost 8,000 acres with an annual rainfall of 13” of which half is snow. The problem is that the snow melts off before the ground thaws so much of that leaves the area. They get only one cutting of alfalfa a year.

Their excellent soils and native grasses produce cows known for their maternal abilities and performance. They sell about 500 bulls a year and the herd average is an unbelievable 880 pounds at 205 days of age. All of this is accomplished with little to no supplemental feeding. With new SAV caps in exchange for our local Kentucky gifts of appreciation and some fresh pictures of pheasant on the run we said our goodbyes and doubled backed north.

Interesting feedlot

On the other side of Bismarck along the river is a feedlot that we had heard of and were very interested in finding out more about. Missouri River Feeders is a 10,000 head feedlot that finishes cattle on silage along with distillers grains and a few other commodities.

That’s nothing new to us but what we were interested in was their export operation. Alex Hays was kind enough to show us around and explain their USDA inspected quarantine herds that get shipped to Eastern Europe/Western Asia. It seems that Kazahkastan, while trying to survive the breakup of the former U.S.S.R., consumed most of their breeding cattle in order to survive.

Now they are importing groups of registered Hereford and Angus cows to start new herds there thanks to a subsidy offered by their government. MRFs sends several thousand head, 185-195 at a time on a plane out of Fargo for a 22-hour flight to their new home which is very similar to the Dakotas.

Leaving the feedlot we passed a smaller lot of PBR rodeo bulls, which fled in fear when we stopped to look, go figure.

Into the Badlands

Our destination that night was west into the Badlands of the Roosevelt National Park. We managed to get rooms in the town of Dickinson on the edge of the oil boom. I was warned early on that rooms would be at a premium because of the boom and pheasant hunting.

This town seemed overwhelmed with drilling and pipeline construction trucks. That night you could see the flames where the wells were burning off methane gases from fracking operations. We were told that a common hourly wage in the oil fields was $40 (the feedlot mentioned that they couldn’t keep help because of it being siphoned off for the oil work), a truck driver straight out of high school could make six figures easily there.

We saw the Badlands at dusk and realized that though beautiful, they were aptly named. Erosion there is measured in inches per year.

The next morning broke rainy and cool – again, and we loaded up early for our long drive into South Dakota and the Black Hills before heading east through the Badlands. We soon realized how easy it was going to be to rack up more than 1,679 total miles as the country unfolded before us with miles of asphalt ahead and little to break up the monotony – or the wind.

We passed through Belle Fourche, the town’s claim to fame is that it is currently the geographic center of the United States. And we were approaching the middle of our trip too.

Check back next week for part 2 when we learn what hunting season is all about.

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