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Five-Generation Ranch Thrives on Agritourism & Sustainability
During the winter of 2013/2014, the Angus cattle at Black Leg Ranch survived nearly the same way buffalo did before George Doan homesteaded the McKenzie, North Dakota, land in 1882. The 500 cows grazed for their food; they weren’t fed additional hay. It wasn’t a matter of neglect, but of thoughtful planning that included planting 500 acres of a nutritional 12-crop cover crop. George would also be wondering why the fields he toiled so hard to blacken haven’t been tilled for 15 years.
The old homestead has come full circle under the care of great-grandson Jerry Doan and his family, who embrace nature’s sustainable ways along with modern definitions of how to make a living with agriculture. George’s 160 acres has grown to 10,000 acres that support four families in ways George would never have imagined. Besides raising cattle, his descendents earn a living because people are willing to pay to work on the ranch, hunt the wild animals that live there, or get married in a rustic setting.
The Doans are proud that the land has stayed in the family for five generations. Jerry took over the ranch from his father, Jewell Jr., and now he works with his wife, Renae, sons Jeremy, Jay, and Jayce, and daughter Shanda.
An old photograph (circa 1889) with George and his wife, Louisa, with their first child standing in front of sod houses, reminds them how far the Doans have come.
“My grandfather (Jewell Sr.) brought the first Angus cattle to the area in about 1930,” says Jerry. “It was all Hereford country. Everybody hated Angus because they were different and all black, and they were pretty wild. The neighbors called those black cattle ‘black-legged cattle,’ so my grandfather named it Black Leg Ranch. It’s also the name of a disease. I always thought that when I got old enough I’d change the name, but now there’s enough history in it and everybody knows it.”
When other homesteaders moved away during the Depression, Jewell took risks and bought land from them, with money he made from off-farm jobs working for the county, building and selling rafters, and working at a California fish cannery during the winter months.
“This is a Sears, Roebuck & Co. house that came in on the Soo Line railroad,” says Jerry, looking around the house remodeled to look like a log lodge. “My grandfather died in this house. My dad was born on the kitchen table in this house, and he died 80 years later, 10 feet away on the couch.”
Jerry, 61, grew up on a typical North Dakota ranch for the time, with chickens, a cow or two for milk, a big garden, and tractors that pulled plows and disks to grow wheat.
After earning an animal science degree at North Dakota State University, he returned to the ranch and followed the recommendations of using conventional tillage and of adding chemicals and fertilizers to grow crops on the sandy soils.
As he learned more about soil health, he switched to no-till. He recognized the positive effects of cattle grazing cover crops and leaving manure and urine and crop litter to build organic soil fertility. Though the Doans still need to use some chemicals, they’ve been able to greatly reduce fertilizer costs by using waste from their Angus herd and the 2,000 yearlings they background each summer.
To create a sustainable system, the Doans follow the example of buffalo that intensively grazed the land, moved on, and returned when the grass had grown again. By moving electric fencing, they move the cattle on new ground every day or two during the growing season.
For winter feed, they grow cover crops in addition to corn, soybeans, and alfalfa.
“We’re growing cover crops with three goals in mind,” explains Jerry. “One is to build soil health. Two is to get rid of winter feed costs. Three is to propagate the wildlife; it pulls in deer and pheasants. We’ve been doing it a few years, and last year was the first year we went completely through without any feed.”
The 12-crop mix they grew for a full season included radishes, turnips, cow peas, millet, Sudan grass, collards, kale, soybeans, clover, and a nutritious, short brown midrib grazing corn.
The Doans put up hay just in case, but they appreciate the labor and cost savings of not having to haul hay all winter or pen up the cattle and then have to move manure.
“The cover crop that we’ve got to the west that the cows grazed last winter had the highest biologic activity tested in Burleigh County,” notes Jerry. “It just gets my attention that we’ve got all these bacteria and nematodes, and we’ve got the worms coming in. We never understood the importance of that before.”
Cover Crop Bonus
The cattle aren’t the only ones to benefit from the cover crop. Hunters love it too, which works out well for Jeremy. After earning a degree in animal science, he returned home in 2000 to help on the ranch and figure out how to make additional income.
“We put an ad in the paper that we had land for hunting, and we were shocked that people were willing to pay for an asset we already had,” recalls Jeremy. Since then, Rolling Plains Adventure, the name the family uses to market the ranching and hunting opportunities, has grown steadily.
The Doans cut strips in their cover crop fields for hunters to walk through from September to November and to let the cattle graze on them the rest of the winter. Along with creating dams and water sources and growing corn, soybeans, and sugar beet food plots, Jeremy says there has been an increase of pheasants, deer, and other wildlife.
Jeremy began other services, then teamed up with his brother, Jay, when he returned home in 2009. After earning a business management degree and enjoying a successful career in the corporate world, Jay sought the solid values of ranch life. The brothers offer several agritourism opportunities on the ranch: people paying to work cattle, ride horses, fish, or hold corporate meetings and other events, including weddings.
In 2010, Jay and Jeremy remodeled the old Sears, Roebuck & Co. house into a log lodge with a meeting area, bar, nooks of mounted wildlife dioramas, and rooms with log beds, whirlpool tubs, and modern conveniences for guests. The house and two lodges, remodeled from old ranch-hand housing, provide plenty of space for hunters and guests who pay to experience life on a working ranch.
Most of the lodgers come from other countries, Jay says. They’ve seen old Western movies, are fascinated by the cowboy way of life, and are drawn to wide-open spaces. Black Leg Ranch offers that and more, with hundreds of old wagon trails, remainders of a ghost town, Native American artifacts, and even quicksand. Its website (blacklegranch.com) and a few articles in overseas publications attract international guests to the North Dakota ranch.
Chores get adjusted when a wedding is booked. Everyone pitches in to help, and that can be challenging when ranch work needs to be done by Jerry and youngest son Jayce. The 21-year-old helps with the agritourism venues, but he admits his heart is in ranching.
“I’m really interested in the history aspect. I just think it’s neat that my great-grandpa and great-great grandpa made it through the Depression and were actually able to expand the place,” he says. “The way I see it, it’s always been a cattle ranch, and I just hope I can keep that tradition.”
Jerry hopes so, too, and though he never imagined the ranch would be host to people from Norway, Germany, or even U.S. cities, he recognizes the opportunity to educate people about how ranchers care for the land and their animals.
“These hunting groups tell us, ‘You better spread the message because where we’re from, they would just as soon shut you down,’ ” Jerry notes. “So in our little, small way, we’re getting a lot of people through here, and we can at least talk about the positive side.”
He’s not sure what his great-grandfather George would think about Black Leg Ranch’s agritourism sideline, but he’s pleased that his children have been resourceful enough to figure out ways they can make a living on the ranch.
“We have to keep an open mind about how we define agriculture,” he says.