Lewis and Clark
The Keller Family
Exactly 200 years ago, the legendary Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery was making its way up the Missouri River to the present day site of Mandan, North Dakota, where they would hole up to ride out the winter of 1804-05.
Before they reached Mandan, the 38-man party of explorers would pass within a couple of miles of what is now Keller’s Broken Heart Ranch.
On land that was once grazed by massive herds of American Bison, the Keller family maintains a purebred herd of more than 300 head of Simmental females.
In many ways, the Keller family is not unlike the Lewis and Clark expedition. “When we established this ranch in 1978, we were certainly exploring an area with a lot of unknowns,” Dwight Keller says. “My dad, Eugene, had been a dairy farmer at Beulah, North Dakota. When our farm was swallowed up by coal development there, he bought this place.”
Dwight came home from college in 1982 (armed with a BS from North Dakota State, graduate work at Utah State), to join his dad in establishing a beef operation.
“Dad had always enjoyed beef cattle, but was forced by circumstances to stay with dairy. When he bought this place, he could see that it was ideal for beef production,” Dwight says. “He bought some cows and I bought some – mostly commercial red and black baldies.”
One other way the Kellers relate to Lewis and Clark is that they live in close harmony with the land, the weather, and available resources. Cattle graze for much of the year, with dependence on homegrown feed to get them through tougher winters. Hunting the abundant whitetail and mule deer, wild turkeys and pheasants is a pleasant recreation for the men in the family.
“I had been involved in livestock judging, first in 4-H, in college at NDSU, and then as a coach in graduate school,” Keller explained. “From what I’d seen in conjunction with that activity, I’d formed a very good impression of Simmental cattle.
“I was looking for a breed that would offer both maternal and terminal qualities. I felt that the other exotic breeds just didn’t match the Simmental for maternal ability. We made the decision to breed our cows to Simmental bulls in 1982 and immediately boosted our weaning weights by 100 pounds,” he continued.
A rare break in the action at the ranch,
when we got Luke and Jake together for a picture!
“From a start that was all commercial, we began to register those first half-blood calves with the American Simmental Association and bred up from that point,” he says. “Over the years, we purchased very few females, no more than a dozen.”
Artificial insemination was initiated in 1984, with Susan, Dwight and Eugene sharing breeding responsibility.
They are willing to pay top dollar for quality cleanup bulls. “We know that you must pay more for good breeding stock and we go wherever the genetics happen to be,” Dwight said.
A Team of Three Generations
Like their cattle, the Broken Heart labor force is also mostly homegrown, and incorporates the varied skills and talents of three generations. Dwight’s wife, Susan, is a veterinarian who oversees their herd health program and makes the 60-mile round trip daily to the State Capitol complex in her “other” job as a deputy state veterinarian.
A Kansas native, Susan had accepted an externship at the Midway Clinic in Mandan during her junior year in vet school. While there, she worked on a chronic mastitis problem in the Keller dairy herd. “We never did get that mastitis straightened out, but by the end of the summer, Dwight and I were dating,” she laughed.
“After graduation, I went to work at a clinic in Bowman, then was offered a position back at the Midway Clinic when one of their vets was forced to retire because of health considerations. Dwight and I were married that November,” she said.
After two years with Midway, she went into private practice for 10 years, until 1997, when she applied for her present position with the State Veterinarian’s office. Her duties cover a wide range of subjects from import-export issues, to monitoring Johne’s Disease, to diagnostic work, to complaints about humane treatment of dogs and cats.
Luke on Raven heading out to check a pasture.
Dwight’s parents, Eugene and Helen, also live on the ranch. “They are critical to any success we have had and still contribute so much to the daily work,” Susan volunteered. “The word ‘retirement’ is not in their vocabulary, since they truly love what they do.”
Dwight and Susan are the parents of three children, each of whom is the owner of a small herd of cattle, designated for underwriting their college education.
The oldest is Luke, who is 19. Luke, a graduate of Mandan High School, is in his second year at NDSU where he studies animal science. “Luke understands pedigrees and EPDs and is very involved in our breeding decisions,” Susan says.
Jake in his John Deere T-shirt,
getting out of the John Deere
and trying to get out of a picture.
Jake is almost 14 and tends to follow in his older brother’s footsteps. An outstanding student, he’s in the eighth grade, and also has a talent for team roping. Jake has become a big help when it comes to haying and field work. He’s also handy with a horse and owns a few cows of his own now too.
Tessa is almost 10 years old and a has become a real hand with a horse already. She is the artistic member of the family. “She draws pictures for us constantly,” her mom said.
For the past 20 years, the Kellers have been involved in the International Farm Agricultural Association, hosting students from other countries for a year at a time. “It’s like an internship and we pay for the program plus a salary,” Dwight said. “We’ve had students, both men and women, from Panama, Australia, Japan, Brazil, and others. The students stay with my parents and take their meals there. We treat them like family and they’re good help.”
February Pay Day
For several years, Keller’s Broken Heart Ranch has conducted a bull sale held in February – the day after President’s Day at Kist Livestock in Mandan.
“We usually sell about 50 bulls,” Keller says. “The first couple of sales were kind of tough, but we’ve been headed in the right direction ever since. We’re discovering that there seems to be a trend back to red cattle in this area. At our last sale, we sold roughly 25 reds, and 25 blacks. The emergence popularity of Red Angus has helped to enhance that interest.”
Breeding females are sold by private treaty. “We run some small ads in a couple of local farm publications, relying on repeat buyers and word-of-mouth,” he said. “Repeat customers are valuable. If they are satisfied, it isn’t long before their neighbors and friends get interested. We sell quite a few bred cows, changing our genetics by frequently turning over our generations.”
Culls are sold through the Mandan sale barn. Occasionally, he retains ownership in an effort to acquire carcass data. “I compliment the focus the ASA Board has displayed toward carcass and tenderness,” he added.
Keller also endorses ASA’s Total Herd Enrollment (THE) program. “I don’t think you can have too much information on your cow herd. We hesitated about getting into THE, but realize that it is the way to go. I definitely approve of that approach,” he said.
“The Simmental business is much better that it was a few years ago,” he claims. “Simmental sales have been among the best in the state. We have many performance-minded commercial cattlemen who want good genetics and realize the value of heterosis. Simmental are well-positioned to cash in on that demand.”