Black Leg Ranch, owned by Doan family of McKenzie, North Dakota, wins environmental stewardship award
Healthy soil. Abundant wildlife. Improved water sources. Intentional business planning. Quality of life.
These are all aspects of what the Doan family, owners of Black Leg Ranch of McKenzie, North Dakota, include in their definition of sustainability. As winners of the prestigious 2016 National Environmental Stewardship Award, presented at the 2017 Cattle Industry Convention and NCBA Trade Show in Nashville, Tennessee, earlier this month, the Doans have proven that sustainability is not just a goal, but a way of life. Today Jerry and Renae Doan’s four children and their families are all back on the ranch, representing the fifth and sixth generations on the land.
The Black Leg Ranch comprises 17,000 acres in central North Dakota. About 14,000 acres is grazing land, where they rotate 600 head of owned cattle and custom graze 2,400 head. Close attention is paid to soil health, which generates greater forage production, limits erosion and reduces costs. The Doan family also partners with farmers on 3,000 acres of cropland, which allows the family to guide crop rotations, no-till practices and cover crops, while providing residue for cattle forage.
In addition, the Doans have implemented an intensive grazing program after installing more than 65 miles of high-tensile fence to create 90 pastures, allowing them to move cattle to new grass every one to seven days.
“We put an emphasis on soil health to help boost the land’s productivity and generate income,” said Jerry Doan. “We use an intensive grazing management system that basically mimics with intensive grazing what the buffalo did with natural roaming.”
The Doans have also made significant water improvements with new wells and a pipeline. “It helps move cattle into areas where they wouldn’t necessarily graze before; it eliminates cowtrails, and helps improve wildlife.”
The Black Leg Ranch started in 1882 – before North Dakota was even a state – when Jerry Doan’s great-grandfather, George Doan, claimed a homestead. Doan’s grandfather, Jewell Doan Sr., built the ranch up in the dirty thirties, buying land for $1 an acre when people thought it wasn’t worthless. “He was an incredible businessman – liked by everyone,” said Doan. “He did everything with his airplane – flew where he needed to go, worked cattle. He had the wildest cattle around because of it!”
Jewell Doan Sr. introduced Angus cattle to the ranch in 1930 – some of the first in the nation – to a predominantly Hereford landscape. “People hated those black cattle, and he was just enough of a character he named it the Black Leg Ranch,” said Doan.
After graduating from North Dakota State University with a degree in animal science, Jerry Doan returned to the ranch as the fourth generation. “Times were tough in the ’80s, and I decided to attend an Allan Savory holistic management school to learn how to better manage our natural resources,” he said. “Our goal is to turn the ranch over in better shape than what we go it in – in terms of natural resources, wildlife, soil health, and business. We want to leave it better.”
Today the family has proven they are capable and committed to making it better. Doan said their main bread and butter is the cow herd and cattle business. “But as we added other members of family, we had to find new niches.
“I kind of said to each one of the kids when they wanted to come back, ‘What are you going to bring to the operation? What niche can we find, what area can you specialize in?’” said Doan. This need for diversification has evolved into a fully-functional working guest ranch, agritourism and hunting operation, and corporate event host that enables them to share their story of stewardship with people outside of agriculture.
Son Jeremy and his wife Ashlee are parents to Jaxton and Avriana. After he graduated from NDSU, Jeremy returned home and established Rolling Plains Adventures – a hunting and guiding operation. They offer five guest facilities, including the main lodge that was the original Sears and Roebuck ranch house where Jerry’s father was born and died. “We talked about tearing it down and rebuilding, but realized people want to hear and see the history, it’s all part of the story,” said Doan. The remodeled ranch headquarters includes a commercial kitchen, liquor license and hosts corporate events along with mule and whitetail deer, pheasant and waterfowl hunters.
Son Jay graduated business school in Arizona and worked for Anheuser-Busch out of state before deciding he missed North Dakota. He proposed starting an agritourism business as his niche. Today he and wife Kari, parents to Jamisyn and Jayston, help manage the corporate events and western weddings, which are booked out a year in advance. In 2012 they were awarded the North Dakota Governor’s Award for best tourism package in the state.
Daughter Shanda Morgan is married to Don, who works in banking, and they are the parents of Jayden, Kyler, Shayda and Kayzen. Shanda rodeoed at the University of Wyoming and lived in Texas before returning home to help develop the tourism and hunting operation. She also assists with the wedding venue business and corporate guest events.
Youngest son Jayce just returned to the ranch after rodeoing and graduating college at Montana State. “He’s more into the cattle side, doing some grass finishing on beef, looking at ways we can develop that business,” said Doan.
Doan said his wife Renae is “the glue who holds it all together.” Along with working as an assistant to the Senate Majority Leader in the North Dakota legislature, Renae works behind the scenes in all aspects of the ranch operations. “Most of this wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for her,” said Doan. “She’s never one to be out in the limelight, but she’s always working behind the scenes to make sure everyone is taken care of. She’s a big part of the success of the whole thing.”
Working together as a family is a joy that comes with challenges. Doan said they strive every day to improve communication, and most importantly – to understand where each member of the family is at in their visions. “My goals and dreams are much different than my kids’ because I’m at different stage of life. It isn’t always easy, but I’ve really tried to stay open minded and because of that, have been able to support their ideas.”
Marshall Johnson is vice president of the National Audubon Society and has collaborated with the Doans on several bird studies. Although often times conservation groups and ranchers can be at odds with each other, these two clearly have a mutual respect for the work of the other.
“To have someone that’s innovative like that, adaptive like that, it’s really inspiring to those of us in the conservation community,” said Johnson. “And I think that type of openness to innovation is why they’ve been so successful.”
Doan said diversifying has created opportunities to tell their story to people and groups who may not always have the same philosophies. “When I can get them on the land and show them what we’re doing, so many go away with a positive image. Ninety percent of the time we are on the same page – the other 10 percent, we just agree not to focus on that. Most of the time we can work together; we just have to bridge that gap.”
With the mark of a true steward, Doan said they will always work to find ways to get better.
“We want our stewardship to continue to improve. We’ll probably never be finished, but I just want to keep pulling up that hill,” he said.
“At end of the day, we’re leaving a legacy. I feel this ranch is bigger than all of us. Our rich history and tradition is bigger than us.”