Let’s talk tough here. Leo McDonnell runs a cow/calf operation with over 600 mama cows milling around in the North Dakota Badlands. It’s beautiful country but they don’t call it Badlands for nothing. He also operates Midland Bull Test, home range for about 2,500 of the world’s best bulls, in Columbus, Montana. It’s a town located an hour north of the Wyoming border, and the Big Sky overhead stretches from Billings in the east to Bozeman in the west.
Only the strong last very long in that part of the country. People with gentler constitutions soon migrate to gentler climates. If the long, cold winters don’t get you, caring for that many bulls and nursing hundreds of mama cows through spring calving will soon wear you down.
The McDonnell family has been part of ranching in the area for at least four generations: Leo and his wife, Sam, are both from families with deep roots in Badlands agriculture. They’re passing on that heritage, too. They have three daughters, and a son who remains closely connected to the ranch.
“My son and his wife run Midland Bull Test,” he said with a touch of pride in his voice. Of his daughters, “The youngest is a teacher, another is a CPA and the third is an artist. She’s the tree hugger of the bunch and brings an important balance and perspective to the family.
“We’re proud that all of them graduated from college” he said, “Our son is an Oklahoma State grad; our daughters graduated from Montana State in Billings.”
There could be a next generation of ranchers coming along, too. Leo and Sam have 10 grandchildren waiting in the wings. There’s bound to be at least one or two cowboys or cowgirls in that brood.
Just recently, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack appointed McDonnell to a three-year term on the Cattlemen's Beef Promotion & Research Board. He was nominated by the Montana Farmers Union and Montana Cattlemen's Association. He participated in new-member orientation in Denver in January and was seated for his first meeting of the full Beef Board during the Cattle Industry Annual Convention.
When I asked why he agreed to serve, he responded, “I like to keep busy.” Yes, he does. He’s always been involved in beef industry organizations, serving as chair of the Montana Cattle Feeders Association, director of the American Angus Association and volunteering with the Montana Stockgrowers Association, Montana Cattlemen's Association, Montana Farmer's Union, and the Beartooth Stockgrowers Association. He was also a co-founder of R-CALF USA and a he’s currently a director for the U.S. Cattlemen's Association.