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Family, ranching, and farming: McDonalds focus on productivity, quality in diverse operation

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Hulett – Since 1977, the McDonald family has farmed and ranched on their current piece of property north and west of Hulett, but their history extends much deeper.

“I was born and raised over by Aladdin,” says JO McDonald. “My dad still lives over there, and my wife Rhoda came from Camp Crook, S.D.”

Their families still run cattle, and JO and Rhoda have followed in their footsteps, also expanding and adding diversity to their operation the Northfork Buffalo Ranch.

Cows and hay

“We’re a cow/calf operation, and we put up some hay,” JO explains. “In good years, we can sell a lot of hay, but with drought, it’s been a little bit tough.”

“We like to keep busy doing things, so we do some contract farming, as well,” adds Rhoda, who notes that they keep busy cutting hay on a number of ranches in the county. “We also run a small herd of buffalo, and we have a few horses.”

The cattle on the ranch are black and black baldy. JO explains that the Hereford bulls make a good cross, and they have consistently sold to the same buyer.

“We advertise the cattle on Superior’s country page,” he says. “We’ve tried a little bit of everything in the cowherd, but the black baldies sell really well. People like both the females and the steers, and we’ve been able to get a premium out of our calves.”

In a normal year, the family keeps heifers, but in drought years, like 2017, they’re able to sell early to preserve their feed resources.

Diversified livestock

In the late 1980s, Rhoda says they invested in a small herd of buffalo.

“Buffalo aren’t much trouble, and they survive well,” JO says. “We don’t have to worry about them.”

However, if drought hits and they need to destock, JO says moving buffalo can be challenging.

“We usually sell a trailer load of yearlings each year,” he adds.

Rhoda mentions, “We also like the buffalo meat. When prices are lower, we eat more buffalo than beef.”

“One of the things we do with our buffalo is use the calves to train working cow horses. Our son-in-law trains horses, and the buffalo calves are great for training horses,” she adds.

Rhoda also mentions that they raise a handful of ranch horses that they sell and utilize on the ranch.

“Our daughter Autumn runs barrels, too, and I’ve been running barrels this summer,” says Rhoda, “so we have horses for that, too. It’s fun to get out and have a girl’s day out.”

A year in the life

The year for the McDonald family starts with calving at the end of March.

“We can get bad weather, but we’re lower in elevation and try to winter the cattle near home where it’s flat,” JO says. “We try to calve near our place. We have portable panels and shelters to protect themselves.”

Each year, they move the location of calving to reduce disease incidence.

Part of their cattle herd stays near the home place year-round, but they also run the rest in the hills in the region.

After the cattle head for summer range, they begin farming.

“We used to raise wheat, but when the wheat market got so poor, we planted it back to grass,” JO explains. “This is good winter wheat country, but the grass provides good grazing, too.”

He adds that the family has always sold hay, and strong prices enable the family to supplement their cattle income with hay sales.

The McDonald family also raises cover crops.

“We’ve been no-till farming for 20 years or so,” JO says. “We needed something to rotate our hayfields with, and we used to use small grains. When the wheat market went downhill, we were looking for something to build the soil, so we decided to try a cover crop.”

For three years, they’ve been raising a mixture of turnips, radishes, barley, oats, sorghum, millet, peas and more.

“We’re hoping to raise winter feed and build the soil,” he continues. “It does well when it has moisture, but it’s a little tough when we’re in a drought.”

Family focused

Family has remained  a centric value for the McDonalds.

JO and Rhoda have three children. Daughter Kelcie is married to Justin Lawrence, and the couple has two children, Kagan and Dally. Autumn, their middle daughter, married Zane Dempewolfe and has two boys, Dace and Dempsey. The youngest son Luke lives and works on the ranch with his son Abel.

“JO says we might not be rich, but we’re going to have a lot of experience, and we’ve supported the kids in a lot of different ventures,” Rhoda says. “Kelcie and Justin train horses and have cattle. Autumn and Zane train horses and have cattle, too, and Autumn’s also a hairdresser and trains barrel horses.”

Luke excels as a woodworker and often creates custom projects for people around the community.

“Luke and his dad work well together, and they do a lot together on the ranch,” Rhoda says. “Our family believes is good work ethic. We need more people with good work ethic in this country, and we’ve taught that to our kids.”

Ranch life

Though they’ve moved away from their home ranches, JO and Rhoda both say that ranching and Crook County are close to their hearts.

“I like Crook County,” JO says. “It’s a good county to live in, and it’s diversified. The country is productive, and this is a friendly community to live in.”

Rhoda adds, “I love ranching. I think we could make a place anywhere, but I like our little valley. This is God’s country.”

Luke is also fond of the ranch.

“I was born and raised here,” he says. “When I went to college in Rapid City, I wanted to come back here when I was done. I’ve been here ever since.”

Luke adds, “I agree with mom that we could probably make a place anywhere, but I like it here.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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