Killdeer man named Roughrider Days Rancher of the Year

KILLDEER, N.D. -- The calves are branded and the cattle have been turned out to pasture. And while the hay is ready to be cut, Killdeer Angus producer Gene Harris and his family are taking a few days to enjoy the upcoming PRCA rodeos in Dickinson...

Gene Harris is shown riding horse on his ranch northwest of Killdeer. (Submitted Photo)

KILLDEER, N.D. -- The calves are branded and the cattle have been turned out to pasture.

And while the hay is ready to be cut, Killdeer Angus producer Gene Harris and his family are taking a few days to enjoy the upcoming PRCA rodeos in Dickinson.

This year, the rodeos have special significance to the family as Harris will be accepting the Roughrider Commission's Rancher of the Year award, given annually to a southwest North Dakota rancher who contributes to rodeo and “exemplifies the western way of life,” commission member Justin Olson said.

“Gene is one of the guys who has been around a long time helping kids with rodeos and in the ranching industry,” Olson said.

The award is presented at every performance of the PRCA rodeo. Harris will receive a plaque, a commemorative jacket, and a lifetime pass to Roughrider Days Rodeo.


Gene, 57, and his wife of 34 years, Gynell, ranch 25 miles northwest of Killdeer with their daughter, Skye Harris, and their son, Turner and his wife, Katie.

“He truly loves ranching,” Gynell said. “He really loved the nature of it all. He loves the outdoors. He watches the wildlife, he watches their habitat, but it’s a challenge. He’s always moving forward. He’s always looking for the next challenge.”

Gene and Gynell described the Rancher of the Year award as a nice honor, but said it just as easily could have gone to any one of their neighbors.

“We live in a progressive community. Two of my neighbors were recognized nationally for stewardship work and our ranch was recognized nationally for our genetic work,” Gene Harris said. “We are fortunate to live with such close knit, progressive-minded neighbors.”

Western heritage Doing research on his family’s involvement at the ranch, Harris pulled out a letter written Oct. 25, 1908, by his grandfather, Eugene Harris, to his soon-to-be wife, Clara, in Minnesota. The letter read in part, “Our house is a dandy. It’s 12-by-20, has a double window and door facing south and a half window on the north with a common’s area in the middle.”

“When he wrote that letter, he never knew what he was starting. One-hundred-and-eight years later, five of his great-grandchildren also ranch in the neighborhood,” Harris said.

On his maternal grandmother's side, John F. “Johnny” Quilliam ranched in Slope County until moving to Dunn County in 1940. He was a 2007 inductee into the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Harris’ paternal grandfather and father managed the ranch for the Carus family as well. Gene and Gynell purchased half of the ranch in 1993 and leases the other half.


“We need the land because the kids are ranching with us and we have to expand to include future generations,” he said. “We live in a great neighborhood made up of family ranchers. We go to about 15 brandings every spring. I have helped brand more than 4,000 calves in that time.”

The Harrises use a traditional branding pot, but it’s heated with propane.

“This year, one of the neighbors said I was breaking tradition by not using wood, so we also used wood this year,” Harris said. “We rope and pull the calves in. We feel it's more efficient this way. We can brand a bigger number of calves in a shorter period of time.”

This fall, the Harris family plans to host a Curt Pate stockmanship clinic, where young cowboys and cowgirls can learn how to handle livestock in safe, efficient and low-stress ways.

“It’s really neat to be able to stop back and watch these young people,” Harris said. “It’s part of the future in being more responsive to consumers. They want to purchase their food from sustainable operators -- the consumer is driving the market.”

Harris has been an active participant and supporter of the Certified Angus Beef brand. In 1998, the Harris Ranch was recognized as the Certified Angus Beef commercial producer of the year. In addition, Harris has served the cattle industry as the president of the North Dakota Stockman’s Association and was the vice president of Region 7 of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

He said he appreciated the opportunity to serve because it has built a network of producer friends.

“Everybody's challenges are unique, but we have a common love of the land and tradition of family,” he said.


Oil and cattle While living a western lifestyle, the Harris family has taken advantage of the oil development in the Bakken. They operate an oilfield service company, Crosby Creek Consulting.

“We do reclamation, fencing and right-of-way seeding -- things we’ve always done on the ranch,” Harris said. “We have a good crew and good foremen that we work with every day. I split my time equally.”

Horses and four-wheelers are both used on the ranch, depending on the chores at hand.

“Somebody rides on the ranch probably every day,” Harris said. “We’re in the Badlands, so if you’re checking cattle or moving cattle, it’s on horseback.”

Though the Harrises are intent on keeping their ranching traditions alive, Gene said they always keep an eye to the future.

“You can either watch the oil development go by or participate,” he said. “For us, we had oil development on the ranch in the 1980s, so we’ve seen that come and go. We’ve helped a lot of people with questions about oil development and land reclamation.”

From a spot on the top of the hill behind the Harris homestead, you can see 60,000 acres of uninterrupted landscape amid four ranches, he said.

“It’s all happened because people are working together to limit the amount of disruption to the land, but still allow the oil companies to carry out their business,” he said. “We have to coexist. We are both using some of same resources. Fortunately, we have good companies and we are good stewards of the land.”

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