North Dakota cattle seized, sold due to neglect

The Rolette County, North Dakota, sheriff seized and eventually put up for sale over 700 head of cattle that the state vet’s office determined were not being properly cared for.

Nathan Gustafson, Rolette County sheriff said his office conducted a search of the property on June 23, 2022, which included a seizure under court order, with cooperation by Steven Nickelson, who was in possession of the cattle.

Two different anonymous tips reporting a number of dead cattle and a lack of feed prompted the initial visit. Following up on the tips, the sheriff’s office first visited the property on June 1, with Dr. Legassi, a local veterinarian approved by the state vet’s office to review the situation, said Gustafson.

Gustafson said the deputy discovered a large number of cows in comparison to the size of the pasture, a few dead cattle, very thin cows, and no feed available to the cattle at the time.

Because his staff are not animal health experts, and per state law, the sheriff requested a knowledgeable veterinarian accompany his deputy to assess the situation.

“We had a state-approved vet with us. We also had a brand inspector,” said Gustafson.

The vet determined the cattle were not being properly cared for and the small amount of hay, when available to the cows, was low in nutritional value.

The sheriff said after the initial assessment, per the vet’s recommendation, his office provided an order to Nickelson requiring him to improve the condition and well-being of the cattle by increasing the feed for the cattle, providing more nutritious feed, and/or moving them to pasture. Nickelson was instructed to provide information to the sheriff’s office regarding the size of the pastures, location of the pastures, and number of cattle he intended to ship to the pastures so that the sheriff’s office could contact the proper agency to help them determine if adequate feed would be available for the cattle in the pastures. The sheriff also instructed Nickelson to dispose of dead cattle as set forth in North Dakota law.

Gustafson said his deputies visited the property regularly to see if conditions had changed and did not see any improvement.

About three weeks after the initial judgment, the sheriff’s office spoke to a local judge and received a court order to seize the cattle because it was determined that conditions were worsening. Additionally, a few cattle had been moved but the sheriff’s office had not been provided with any information about the pastures the cattle were being moved to.

The court order provided Nickelson with two options. First, he could sign the cattle over to Rolette County – give up possession of them. The sheriff would take custody, pay the bills that were incurred (trucking, feedlot, auction market, etc) and the North Dakota brand inspection program, overseen by the the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association would determine ownership of the cattle and disperse funds as appropriate.

The second option required the cattle to be seized immediately and for criminal charges to be filed.

Nickelson chose the first option and at this time no charges have been filed.

The sheriff’s office, with advice from the local veterinarian, hired local hands to gather, pair, and ship the cattle to a feedlot to be cared for until they were in shape to be sold.

The hired cowboys and cowgirls who helped gather the cattle after the seizure later discovered that some of the cattle that were hauled to pasture were not paired up, and calves as young as a day or two old were shipped to pastures without their mothers, said the sheriff.

Gustafson said he was originally told there were about 500 head of cattle on the place, but they seized about 700 head, including about 200 baby calves.

Some of the cattle died in the feedlot, but the majority gained weight and were sold within about two weeks of the seizure.

“It was a sad ordeal all the way around,” said Gustafson. “People were mad at us until they either came in the yard or saw the condition of the cattle from the road,” said Gustafson.

“We aren’t bragging about this. If this never happens again in my time as sheriff, that would be awesome. It’s not something we want to do. But with the condition of the cattle, we felt we had to,” he said. “I can put myself in this guy’s shoes. His livelihood is being taken away. It’s a bad day. I can’t imagine, and I can really sympathize. But nobody put him in that spot, he went there on his own.”

After about $77,000 in bills were paid to cover trucking, feed, labor, etc, the remainder of the funds, around $600,000 were turned over to the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association who oversees the state brand inspection program, said the sheriff. The brand office will be responsible for determining ownership on the cattle and dispersing the funds to the rightful owners, including leinholders, if applicable.

In a Facebook post, the sheriff’s office indicated the owners of the cattle were identified as Steven Nickelson as well as Tanner and Cameron Millang.

Millang said the cattle were on his land at the time of the seizure. He said Nickelson asked for permission to move the cattle to Millang property after two severe April blizzards. The property Nickelson moved them from was extremely muddy, said Millang.

Nickelson could not be reached for comment.

North Dakota chief brand inspector Corby Ward said his office is in the process of determining ownership of the cattle. Nickelson did not rebrand the cattle, so ownership will need to be proven using bills of sale, auction market receipts, etc, said Ward.

In rare cases when the brand inspection program is unable to determine ownership on cattle or no rightful owner comes forward, funds are held in an estray account for 72 months, as per North Dakota Century Code.

After 72 months, if nobody proves ownership on estray livestock, funds are deposited in an estray account and may be used to help defray expenses for the brand inspection program.

TSLN spoke with Cameron Millang. He said he and his mother had leased about 100 cows to Nickelson starting in 2020. At some point between then and the time of the seizure, the lease turned into a “contract for deed” or “owner financed” agreement where Nickelson was making payments to own the cattle. Millang said Nickelson still owes six payments on the cattle so Millang still has a financial interest in the cattle. The new agreement was a “handshake deal” Millang said. He said a spokesman for the brand inspection program told him that because his brand is expired, it is not considered legal proof of ownership on the cattle. As of press time he had not received any payment for the seized cattle, he said.

Julie Ellingson, the Executive Vice President of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, the group that oversees the brand inspection prgram, explained the situation with the lapsed brand.

“By law, all brands had to be renewed by Dec. 31, 2020. After that time (Jan. 1, 2021), they were considered ‘expired.’ The brand is expired at that time, but state law provides for a one-year grace period, which allows the original brand owner more time before the brand can be registered by another. The grace period ended Dec. 31, 2021. After that, (in this case, Jan. 1, 2022), the brand cannot be renewed. The brand is then considered ‘lapsed.’ The former owner, however, can apply for it as a new brand. However, anyone else can too. After the renewal period and grace period have passed, the brand loses any grandfathered status and must be screened according to current recording requirements. Consequently, lapsed brands may or may not be available for registration. (4.1-73-15). Mr. Millang’s brand renewal application was received on June 27, 2022,” she said.

Gustafson appreciated Nickelson’s understanding throughout the ordeal. “He was as civil as he could be in this,” Gustafson said.

North Dakota State Veterinarian

North Dakota State Veterinarian Dr. Ethan Andress did not comment on this case or the condition of the cattle..

Dr. Andress said his office is careful to only approve vets for each situation that are knowledgeable about the species in question and who do not have a conflict of interest. The state veterinarian office pays the selected vet to make one visit and complete a report of the situation.

Andress said his office probably takes several calls per week from concerned individuals asking them to look into potential cattle neglect or abuse cases.

A few cases are severe enough to require a vet and the local law enforcement to work together to protect animals in unhealthy situations.

He said after following up, his veterinarians often need to educate the concerned party about normal production agriculture practices. Other times, the vet needs to educate the animal owner to help him or her understand how to better care for the animals in question. The main criteria he or his vets look for when making an animal welfare evaluation is: availability of feed, water and shelter. “After that, they are looking at body condition score, are the animals healthy, are they able to move around, etc.”

“Sometimes we get a call from a well-meaning individual asking if xx number of cattle is appropriate on xx number of acres. I tell them, it all depends on the situation – is it a feedlot? Is there feed, water and shelter? Do the animals look healthy? There is no one-size-fits-all standard. Each situation is unique,” he said. “It all depends on resources, manpower, and other things,” he said.

Seizure is a last resort option, said Andress. “The goal is not to take cattle. The goal is to help the industry do a good job of caring for animals. Our goal is never to prosecute. Our goal is to help animal owners make the best decisions for them and their livestock,” he said.

Cases like the Rolette one are rare, and would only happen when the situation is severe. Andress said that in recent years, the number of people who own livestock but don’t have adequate livestock knowledge has increased.


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