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Published December 17, 2012, 08:18 AM

Still Pioneers

ND ranch family builds on cornerstone

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

BISMARCK, N.D. — William “Bill” MacDonald often wonders what his grandfather — “Red Bill” MacDonald — might say if he could see the MacDonald Ranch today.

The ranch headquarters is marked by a grand brick sign on the east side of historic U.S. Highway 1804, about 10 miles south of Bismarck, N.D. The family is known primarily for its registered Saler cattle.

Bill, 68, and his wife, Linda (no slouch in the cattle business herself) run the place with their son, Will, 44, and his family. The MacDonalds

advertise their cattle on the Internet, and have sold bulls and semen to Australia and other places. The MacDonalds supply their own labor, but also host agricultural trainees from other countries.

What would Red Bill think?

“He was a progressive guy, so I think he’d be happy,” Bill says. “I would assume so.”

A historic legacy

The MacDonald family history reads like a pioneer novel.

Red Bill MacDonald was born in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in 1861. His father died young and his mother couldn’t support the children so, as the story goes, sent her 12-year-old on the road with a pair of new shoes and a Bible.

Red Bill ended up in Bismarck, working on the railroad, in about 1875. The town had been established in 1872 when the Northern Pacific Railway reached the eastern banks of the Missouri River. George Armstrong Custer died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Bismarck became a territorial capital in 1883 and the North Dakota state capital in 1889.

The founding MacDonald was a worker and entrepreneur.

He helped riprap the railroad bridge across the Missouri River, completed in 1882. He “proved up” the homestead in 1886. He used a team of oxen to haul the cornerstone to build the first state capitol, completed in 1894. To supplement the ranch, Red Bill also sold cream, milk and cut ice from the Missouri River in the wintertime.

In his 30s, Red Bill married a 16-year-old neighbor girl. They had four daughters and a son, James.

Montana connections

James MacDonald started the purebred beef operation in 1939 — MacDonald Purebred Polled Herefords in Bismarck. “There’s been registered cattle here in one form or another ever since,” Bill says. Bill was born in 1944, and is James’ only surviving child.

Bill says James was a restless fellow. When construction on the Oahe Dam in South Dakota started in 1948, he anticipated how much of his river bottom land would be inundated. The family put the headquarters up for sale in 1961 and moved to a new ranch in Plains, Mont., before the dam was complete in 1962.

Bill became a partner in the Montana ranch at 17, but James in 1966 decided to move back to Bismarck. Bill and his new wife, Linda, followed in 1967. In 1972, James died of a heart attack.

At age 27, Bill and Linda were in charge.

They decided to aggressively pursue the registered cattle business. They’ve held bull sales every year since. They added land parcels, including 300 acres of irrigated cropland as a sort of insurance policy for their cattle operation. Today, the operation is about 6,000 acres.

Linda vividly remembers one of the toughest periods in the ranch’s history: the farm credit crisis that started in 1982. They’d bought a brand new 4840 John Deere and were paying 18 percent interest.

“I’ll tell you it was scary,” Linda says.

“We never missed a payment,” Bill says.

Slow Saler switch

In the midst of the credit crisis, Bill and Linda also came to the conclusion they needed to change cattle breeds.

Bill became interested in Saler cattle, a breed that originated in France. Bill traveled alone to the National Western Stock Show in Denver in 1983 and bought a single Saler bull that originally came from Alberta, Canada.

“They offered so many things,” Bill says, of the breed whose coat ranges from mahogany red to black. “They have easy calving — the largest pelvic opening of any breed. They have calf vigor at birth. That’s worth dollars, you know. And they have excellent fertility.”

That fall, Bill turned the new bull in on some of his polled Hereford cows. The first calves that spring were smaller than he expected. Briefly, he wondered if he’d made a mistake.

“But by July, they’d passed the other cattle we had in growth,” Bill says. “They were more than holding their own.”

In the 1980s, the MacDonalds started bringing in some Angus to cross with the Salers. “I wanted something with a different color,” Bill says.

Instead of selling bulls at two years old, the MacDonalds could sell Saler bull calves as yearlings. The crossed registered cattle were called composite bulls — later dubbed Optimizers.

The Saler breed became a big part of the MacDonalds’ lives. Bill served on the national Saler association board for six years. Their daughter, Beverly, was the national Saler queen. She was invited to central France in 1998, and attended an English/French association meeting.

“They invited her, and we went along,” Bill says.

‘Complementarity’

Today, that daughter is Dr. Beverly Tong, a medical doctor in Williston, N.D. Bill and Linda’s youngest, James, is an assistant professor in ruminant nutrition at the University of Nebraska -Lincoln.

The oldest, Will, is a partner in the MacDonald Ranch.

Will had been interested in cattle breeding all along. He started showing the family’s Salers in the late 1980s at the National Western Stock Show in Denver and later at the American Royal in Kansas City and the North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville, Ky.

He went to North Dakota State University and graduated in 1991, a double major in agricultural economics and mass communications. Will was on the ranch through the 1990s when the MacDonalds increased to greater percentages of Salers.

Part of the advantage is heterosis, the normal increase in performance from crossbreeding. “The other part of it is the breed ‘complementarity’ — taking the two traits of the breeds and balancing them together,” Will says.

In 1995, the MacDonalds started finishing their own cull steers and heifers. They’ve collected carcass data on those. In 2000, they started collecting live, ultrasound carcass data on all of their bulls and replacement heifers. “It’s all for the same thing, to predict carcass data for different genetics,” Will says.

Red Bill’s legacy

Red Bill probably would have liked the innovations his family continues to bring to the business.

Will is a self-described computer and video techie. He started making video sales of the bulls in the 1990s, sending video tapes to prospective buyers. “I’ve been through more generations of video editing equipment than I could afford,” Will says.

Their market is primarily for commercial producers. They mail out to 400 or 500 customers a year and have about 2,200 prospective clients in their database. Since 2007, MacDonald Ranch promotion has gone online.

About two-thirds of the calves are born through artificial insemination and embryo transplants. The MacDonalds completed 500 to 600 artificial inseminations last year.

The MacDonalds often retain a semen interest when they sell a bull. Occasionally, they’ll sell a bull calf and syndicate it among several owners. “We sell 150 bulls per year at this point, and a few registered heifer calves, some bred commercial females,” Will says.

In the past year, the MacDonalds started a Genetic Partners Female Sale, where their bull customers can bring their commercial calves or bred heifers. That sale will be Jan. 14 at Napoleon (N.D.) Livestock Auction.

This winter, they’re putting up a 50-by-100-foot working barn, finally bringing some of their cattle work out of the elements. Another small victory in the long history of a ranch — the barn will be fun to have, Bill says, “after doing it the hard way for all these years.”

Red Bill, a progressive guy, probably would have liked that, too.

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