Like many ranching families, the MacDonalds changed as the cattle business changed. Polled Herefords ran on the central North Dakota ranch until the 1980 and ’90s, when Will MacDonald’s dad recognized that adding Salers could offer some benefits.
“My grandfather is the one who started in the seedstock business in 1939 when he bought some registered Polled Hereford heifers. The family raised Polled Herefords for many years and then my dad bought our first Salers cattle in 1983 at the Denver Stock Show. We’ve had a production sale every year since 1972, so we’ve had 50 years of production sales—first with Polled Herefords and then transitioning in the 1980s and 1990s to Salers cattle.” The sales are held at Kist Livestock Auction in Mandan, ND.
“We usually sell about 150 bulls each year and about 100 bred females. This is part of our business model, providing outstanding females to some of our customers,” he says.
The MacDonalds calve out about 600 cows and heifers, and this provides a lot of offspring to choose from to go through the sale. “We are very picky about what we sell. All of our steers and cull heifers are finished here on the ranch and usually go to JBS in Grand Island. We have been collecting carcass data on our harvested calves for the past 25 years.” This data, along with ultrasound of the live animals, gives a good idea about how the genetics perform.
Some of the cattle are Optimizers—the composite created by crossing Salers with Angus, Red Angus or other breeds. “About 60 percent of the herd are purebred or high percentage Salers and about 40 percent are Optimizers. We also have a few purebred Angus, and sell about 5 to 10 Angus bulls through our sale as well,” he says.
The Angus and Salers make a good cross. “The Salers cattle have served us well; they are hardy and work well in our environment here on the Northern Plains. Winters can be harsh.” Most of the herd calves in February and March, to have bull calves old enough to sell as yearlings in their sale in early March. The ranch has good facilities for calving in cold weather.
“We are calving right at the same time as our bull sale, which seems kind of crazy, but there’s really no way to get around that. I always say that if there’s a more complex way of doing things, we’ll figure it out!”
Most of the ranch work is done by family, but they also have some hired help. “Over the years we’ve had a lot of Brazilian trainees; they came here for a year on a student visa and usually lived with my mom. COVID stopped that program, however. We also have one fulltime employee,” says Will.
About the same time the family started with purebred Salers, they also started breeding Optimizers. Most of the continental breeds, when they first came into this country, were not very numerous, so they were bred to other cattle, to “breed up” until they reached a high enough percentage to be called purebreds. “We had the Polled Hereford cattle, but Mom and Dad also bought some registered Angus heifers—when we first started with Salers—just to breed to the Salers. This was the beginning of our Optimizers as well,” says Will.
Ranchers in this region of North Dakota really like the Salers cattle. “This is known to be a calving-ease breed, with good maternal traits,” Will says. “The cows are very fertile and last a long time in the herd. They are productive and raise big calves. One thing that keeps our customers coming back for more of these genetics is just the fact that these cattle require less labor—starting with the calving ease and calf vigor.” They are able to take care of themselves.
“Here in North Dakota, we can have a tough calving environment and the calf vigor of the Salers cross is appreciated. The athleticism of Salers is also a plus; the cows will graze at high elevations and the bulls get out and breed in extensive and rough terrain.”
People often worry about disposition because some Salers cattle originally imported in the early days of the breed displayed an unfriendly temperament. Will says this trait has been strongly selected for by Salers breeders across the country. “We breed for good disposition, and emphasize it a lot in our breeding program, and many people come to buy our cattle because they know these cattle will have a good disposition. This is something we’ve really worked on,” Will says.
In carcass traits, both breeds are very good. “Salers is one of the higher-marbling continental breeds, so this makes a good fit.”
Will MacDonald is the fourth generation on this historic ranch in North Dakota. This is a Salers and Optimizer seedstock operation run by Will, his wife Jerilyn and their son Jerrod (5th generation) along with his mother Linda. The ranch headquarters is located about 10 miles southeast of Bismarck, on the bluffs overlooking the north banks of the Missouri River. It lies along State Highway 1804, so-named for the year Lewis and Clark traveled up the Missouri on their historic voyage. The family has been in the seedstock business since 1939.
“My great-grandfather William homesteaded here in the 1880s. He left Nova Scotia as a young boy and was working on the railroad when it came through the Dakotas. He had a couple brothers who came to Bismarck before he did. When the railroad was being built through this area in the 1880s, it was stuck here for about 10 years. It had to cross the river and they had to build a bridge and they also had some financial issues. So while work on the railroad was halted, my great-grandfather homesteaded here,” Will says.
“We always say that when he decided to stay, he mainly looked at the scenery—because we are right up out of the Missouri River—but forgot to look at the soil. It’s mostly blow-sand. We do some farming, but a lot of our ground is too sandy to farm; it’s almost like the Nebraska Sandhills, but even finer sand.” It needs to be kept in grass rather than plowed up for farming. Grazing is the best use for this land.
William’s son Jim was the next generation on the ranch. “His son—my dad—was Bill, and I am Will. Our oldest son is Jerrod. He is now 24, and just a couple years out of college. We have two other boys; Jayden is a junior in college at NDSU pursuing an ag ed degree and Ty is a senior at Bismarck High School. My mom, Linda, is also still active here on the ranch with us. My dad passed away in 2013,” Will says.
Will’s mother grew up in western Montana, though both her parents are from Linton, North Dakota, which is only 50 miles down the road from the MacDonald Ranch. “My grandfather (my mom’s father) grew up here during the Depression but he was not a farmer and did not like North Dakota at all. He and my grandmother got married right out of high school and left North Dakota and went to the Big Hole country in western Montana. He started working there, feeding cows for one of those ranches, with a team of horses. My mom was born in Hailey, Idaho, because that’s where my grandparents were living at that time,” Will says.
Then they moved to a small place near Hot Springs, Montana, and put together little pieces here and there to create a pretty good ranch at that location. “Meanwhile, here in North Dakota in the 1960s the dams were built on the river, including a dam at Pierre, South Dakota which backed up water clear into North Dakota to create Lake Oahe. That’s when our family lost all their river bottom land; it was covered with water. That river bottom was part of the original homestead,” he says.
“My dad and grandad didn’t think they could make a living here after they lost the river bottom land. My grandad always wanted to try a mountain ranch, so they packed up everything and bought a place near Plains, Montana. They were ranching there, and that’s where my dad met my mom.”
The MacDonald family lived in Montana for only seven years. “They tried to sell this place in North Dakota and never could get it sold. They had several different ranches and moved several times, then eventually went back to North Dakota, so I was born here. My mom’s dad later bought a ranch in British Columbia in the Fraser River country. It became one of the larger ranches in Canada.”
Will grew up on the North Dakota ranch, then went to college at NDSU and got degrees in ag economics and mass communications then came back to the ranch. He and his wife Jerilyn, who works as an registered nurse in Bismarck, were married in 1993 and have been on the ranch ever since. It’s been great to have a multi-generational ranch, working with family, and to now have their own son becoming part of the operation. “We are blessed to have family around us, and to recognize God as the most important aspect of our lives; we try to serve the Lord Jesus in all that we do. We consider that we are stewards of what we have here, taking care of the land and animals. When faith in God is a person’s priority, everything else falls into place. It guides us in dealing with people and with the land and the cattle.”