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Next-generation cattle ranchers bring diversity

Laura Handke for Progressive Cattle Published on 25 July 2019
Doan family

McKenzie, North Dakota’s Black Leg Ranch is raising the bar when it comes to diversifying the operation.

With hunting packages, destination weddings, corporate retreats, micro-brewery and a specialty farm-to-table grass-fed beef and buffalo meat brand, the Doan family has not only created viable revenue streams for the next generation to return to the ranch but also helped put North Dakota on the map for both domestic and international agritourism.

Since 1882, the North Dakota acreage that would become today’s Black Leg Ranch has been home to the Doan family. And like all ranches, the succession of challenges faced and challenges overcome has helped shape both the family and operation into what it is today.

“My great-grandfather came down out of Canada in 1880 and homesteaded what was then the Dakota Territory in 1882,” says family patriarch Jerry Doan. “When we talk about challenges, we really don’t have a clue. We don’t know how it was to put food on the table and keep a ranch going in the Dakota Territory. But we are proud of our heritage.”

Jay and Jerry chck pasture conditions

As the fourth generation of the Doan family to ranch the Black Leg, Jerry and his wife, Renae, recognized both the blessing and challenges that came with the next generation returning to the ranch and looking to the operation as a livelihood.

“I have four kids: Shanda, Jeremy, Jay and Jayce. All four went to college – three across the country and one stayed in-state, and all four came back home and wanted to be involved in agriculture in North Dakota,” says Jerry. “That is really, really exciting, but it is also very challenging.”

Among those challenges was not only the need for financial sustainability to provide for the additional incomes but also the communication barriers that come with most family agricultural operations.

Jay Doan, son and partial owner of the ranch, shares that without innovation, the ranch would not have been able to provide. “When we started looking at out-of-the-fence ideas, the first thing our parents said was, ‘Don’t change our lifestyle.’

“Our (the three brothers’) reply was that if we didn’t all think of the ranch as a business, there wouldn’t be a lifestyle to live.

“I think that was one of the toughest conversations, and it is still a traditional mindset we are breaking through a little more every day; we look at how decisions will affect the ranch today and for the next generation,” he says.

Coming back

Keeping with tradition, the eldest brother, Jeremy, was prepared to run ranching operations on the Black Leg. Jeremy attended North Dakota State University and returned to the ranch immediately after graduation. Shortly thereafter, he launched the first piece of what would become a multienterprise endeavor: Rolling Plains Adventures Black Leg Hunting.

Hunting on the Black Leg rapidly grew to be a successful and dependable source of revenue for the ranch and, as the business grew, so too grew the opportunity to further diversify.

“Jay was the one I thought would never come back to the ranch. He was working in corporate America in Austin, Texas, and living what the rest of us thought was the high life. And then one day we got a call saying he was tired of the fast pace and ready to come home,” Jerry says.

Returning to the ranch in 2008, Jay brought with him both the experience and network of working for a Fortune 100 company – experiences he says helped to influence his outside-the-fence ideas for diversification as well as the business acumen to help mitigate the financial risks of those ideas.

“I truly enjoyed corporate America,” he says. “I cherish that experience because I do feel you need to get away from the farm or the ranch. Don’t get me wrong; the experience you get on the farm or ranch is priceless, but you need to get away to gain other real-life experiences, build an appreciation for business and network outside of what you have always known.”

The cowboy of the family, Jayce, attended Montana State University on a rodeo scholarship, returning after graduation to help manage the cattle and buffalo operations.

Diversifying the ranch

Jeremy and Jay began to renovate the old buildings on the ranch, transforming them into hunting lodges. Their first renovation held a special place in the history of the Doan family and today serves as a focal point for the ranch.

The Grand Lodge

“My grandparents’ house was an old Sears and Roebuck catalog house built in the early 1900s. My grandpa, Jewell, was born on the kitchen table and died in the same room 80 years later. That house was and is a part of our family’s history,” says Jay. “It took us two-and-a-half years to gut and restore; today, it serves as our grand lodge.”

Over the next few years, three additional buildings were renovated, effectively establishing four guest lodges on the property. During this time, a renovation of a quonset corn building provided the event center that would be known as the Copper Jewell Barn, named for the Doans’ grandfather.

Next came the opportunity to incorporate all-inclusive vacation packages for those looking for a true ranch experience, both domestically and abroad. The weddings and corporate retreats that followed kept the three renovated lodges busy during hunting’s off-season.

“We went into the international market and partnered with the Department of Commerce to offer the only all-inclusive guest ranch experience in North Dakota,” says Jay. “That was a really tough thing to do; it is a five-year process to break into the foreign guest ranch market, but we did it. Today, we have hosted all 50 states and 40 foreign countries on the ranch. The guest ranch business has been a blessing to us.”

A voice for agriculture

Today, the Doan family’s innovation and hard work has garnered many awards, but the diversification and expansion are not finished.

Black Leg Brewery, a 15-barrel, fully automated system, provides another business diversification opportunity for the ranch.

Using locally grown barley and wheat to make the unique Black Leg Beer, the Doans plan to incorporate the spent grain into the finishing rations of a select number of cattle that are then processed for the ranch’s specialty meats brand.

Black Leg Ranch was awarded the Environmental Stewarship Award in 2017Additionally, a number of the grass-fed and finished beef and buffalo herds are also processed for the brand, while the buffalo offer additional diversity in hunting game.

From beer to buffalo, Jay shares that the diversity the ranch has incorporated has helped to magnify the ranch’s voice for agriculture both in the U.S. and beyond. A voice that is needed, he says, as many in agriculture struggle to embrace the transparency agritourism necessitates.

“We can truly show the world what agriculture is. We can show what a diverse operation looks like,” he says, “especially those from the East and West coasts. Those who think agriculture is poisoning the land. We are completely transparent in what we are doing, and we can show that we are helping to make the land better for the next generation.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: Pictured from left to right are: (back row) Shanda Doan Morgan, Jerry, Renea, Jayce and (front row) Jeremy and Jay. 

PHOTO 2: Jay and Jerry check pasture conditions on the ranch.

PHOTO 3: The Grand Lodge was formerly the early 1900s Sears and Roebuck home of Black Leg Ranch patriarch Jewell Doan.

PHOTO 4: Black Leg Ranch was awarded the Environmental Stewardship Award in 2017. Photos provided by the Doan family.

Laura Handke is a freelance writer based in Kansas.