Southeast North Dakota poised to lead growth in livestock farms, ag policy veteran says

Nathan Sanderson, speaking at the North Dakota Livestock Alliance annual meeting, described how animal agriculture rebounded in South Dakota.

Nathan Sanderson of South Dakota compares the number of dairy cows in South Dakota and North Dakota while speaking at the North Dakota Livestock Alliance annual summit in West Fargo, North Dakota, on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. When he revealed the final row of numbers, it show that South Dakota now has 187,000 dairy cows while North Dakota has just 14,000.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

WEST FARGO, N.D. — If animal agriculture is going to take off in North Dakota, the southeast corner of the state will probably “lead the charge,” according to a former South Dakota economic development official.

Nathan Sanderson helped promote animal ag in South Dakota during the Gov. Dennis Daugaard administration, when the state saw livestock numbers begin to rebound after decades of decline. He spoke Wednesday, Feb. 8, as the keynote speaker at the North Dakota Livestock Alliance annual meeting in West Fargo.

Nathan Sanderson, speaking at the North Dakota Livestock Alliance annual meeting in West Fargo, North Dakota, on Feb. 8, 2023, discussed how South Dakota put an emphasis on animal agriculture under former Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

“I think southeast North Dakota is prime for these kinds of things because it's the area of North Dakota that’s closest located to processing opportunities,” Sanderson said. “Whether that’s dairy, whether that’s swine, that I-29 corridor presents a lot of really good opportunities.”

That would mimic where the livestock growth in South Dakota has been.

Sanderson said most of the livestock growth has been “East River,” or east of the Missouri River, instead of grazing areas of western South Dakota.


Sanderson, now executive director of the South Dakota Retailers Association, served as the director of policy and operations for Daugaard, who was governor from 2011 to 2019, and worked closely on livestock development.

He said instead of backing individual projects, the Daugaard administration promoted animal ag in general. But he said they did it through one-on-one conversations at the local level.

I think we built a good coalition, and we had a lot of different people having a lot of coffee table conversations,” Sanderson said. “When you’re sitting in somebody’s kitchen and you’re talking about a livestock development project, that’s a lot more personal than some government bureaucrat coming to a meeting saying, ‘this is good for you.’”

The state did help map what might be the best places for animal ag based on criteria such as a roads and other infrastructure, but being far enough away from housing and sensitive environmental areas such as wetlands.

A similar effort has taken root in North Dakota, led by the North Dakota Livestock Alliance.

Amber Boeshans addresses the North Dakota Livestock Alliance annual meeting in West Fargo on Feb. 8, 2023.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

The North Dakota group hired the same firm that did the mapping in South Dakota, according to Executive Director Amber Boeshans, with two counties — Ransom and Traill — in a pilot project.

“It looks at things such as where’s the power? Or where’s the water? How’s the zoning in that township, how’s the zoning in that county? All the different things that need to fall into place, … not only for a livestock facility but for agricultural industry. So maybe a feed mill, maybe a (soybean) crusher; whatever that may be.”

She said the maps, based on what already is public information, will be owned by the counties and will identify “good, better and best” townships, not individual parcels.


The project is being funded with help from the North Dakota Farmers Union and North Dakota Corn Utilization Council.

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If the information proves valuable, a statewide project could happen with mappers from North Dakota.

With some dairy processors in need of more milk, Sanderson said South Dakota started its renaissance by setting a goal of adding 30,000 dairy cows at a time when the state only had 90,000. It now has 187,000 dairy cows, more than it had in 1980.

“We set a goal, we worked on outreaching to individuals, and then we followed that up with deliberate action,” Sanderson said. “We made livestock development a priority.”

North Dakota has gone from 93,000 dairy cows in 1980 to just 14,000 in 2023. The story is similar with hogs.

Young pigs in a barn.
Young pigs inside a barn near Oakes, North Dakota.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

Sanderson told Agweek that North Dakota’s laws that prevent corporate ownership of farmland doesn’t mean animal ag can’t grow.

“I also don’t think it's quite as large of a hindrance as what a lot of people would say, simply because you’re going to structure your operation in a way that’s going to be best suited to the laws that are available to you locally,” Sanderson said.

A bill in the North Dakota Legislature that would loosen restrictions on corporate involvement in livestock operations was debated in a hearing but has not been voted on.


South Dakota had similar restrictions on corporate farms but it was tossed out by a court ruling in 2004.

Sanderson said most of the livestock operations continue to be family run.

“The vast, vast majority of these livestock operations are family owned,” he said.

Chelsey Erdmann and her father, Jeff Schafer, are livestock producers at New Rockford, North Dakota. They were part of a panel discussion at the North Dakota Livestock Alliance annual meeting on Feb. 8, 2023, in West Fargo.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

Earlier during the annual summit, two farm families, one from South Dakota, one from North Dakota, were part of a panel discussion on the appeal of animal ag.

Chelsey Erdmann was there with her father Jeff Schafer. They are part of a beef and crop farm at New Rockford, North Dakota.

“Before I came back to the farm, my dad reiterated to both my brother and I that this was a lifestyle. This was not about chasing money. This was a way that we were going to live,” she said. “I think that we have found a way to embrace that.”

Reach Jeff Beach at or call 701-451-5651 (work) or 859-420-1177.
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