Stories in North Dakota

Ranching for a Better Life

How one historic ranch turned over a new leaf and improved profitability, soil health and their quality of life.

Herd of Angus beef cattle grazing in a pasutre.
Cattle Beed cattle grazing in a Nort Dakota pasture. © Black Leg Ranch

It took Jerry Doan a while before he could make peace with the sneers from neighboring ranchers in Burleigh County. But Doan is also quick to acknowledge that this type of work requires thick skin, particularly for those pursuing the path of regenerative ranching.

Diverse Grasslands and Business Ops

Owner and operator at Black Leg Ranch in central North Dakota, Jerry will be the first to tell you his angus beef operation is “completely nontraditional.”  

At Black Leg Ranch, the Doans host weddings, hunters and even brew beer—all while running cattle on their 17,000 acres. A homestead dating back to 1882 and long managed conventionally for grazing and farming, Jerry first decided to start making changes in the ‘80s. At the time, the ranch not only was struggling to remain profitable but, as he was finding, wasn’t too much fun anymore. It didn’t take long for Jerry to learn that working with nature could not only restore the health of their grasslands but also bring some enjoyment back to ranching. 

Healthy Soils, Bottom Lines and Quality of Life

It started small at first but with time and some technical expertise, Jerry had implemented a high-intensity rotational grazing plan that improved the health of their grasslands, pushed back calving dates to be more in sync with nature and increase overall output, and planted cover crops on their remaining cropland acres to minimize soil disturbance. Now a self-described soil health convert, Jerry serves as chair of the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition and regularly hosts educational tours at the ranch. 

Bison herd.
Bison Cattle grazing in a North Dakota pasture. © Black Leg Ranch
Cattle herd.
Cattle Beef cattle grazing in a North Dakota pasture. © Black Leg Ranch
Bison Cattle grazing in a North Dakota pasture. © Black Leg Ranch
Cattle Beef cattle grazing in a North Dakota pasture. © Black Leg Ranch

“Jerry is a great example of how stewardship of grazing lands evolves over time,” says Nancy Labbe, TNC’s Northern Great Plains Rangelands Program Director. “His move from ‘sustainable’ to ‘regenerative’ grazing not only had a positive impact on the environment but also on his bottom line and family life.”

The Doan Family (ten people) on horses riding through a pasture.
A Family Affair Black Leg Ranch is a family-run business in North Dakota. © Black Leg Ranch

Quote: Jerry Doan

When I got engaged in the soil health movement, it brought my passion back to agriculture because I see what a difference it makes.

The combination of practices, along with patience and perseverance, has paid off. The ranch is not only in much better shape environmentally, it’s more economically stable as a result. And that’s good news for environmentalists too! Because with the ability of intact grasslands to hold and store both water and carbon, keeping ranching families like the Doans in business might be one of the best climate change defenses we have.