September 26, 2009

Alvin Nelson, Part 2 - Rodeo Cowboy Becomes North Dakota Rancher

by Molly Noble Bull

Last month we learned that Alvin Nelson was the 1957 World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider. I also mentioned that Alvin and his wife, Kaye, are old family friends. But did you know that at the peak of his rodeo career, Alvin was drafted into the United States Army?  

 Alvin riding a bull at a rodeo in Boston, MA in 1953 

Rock and Roll fans might be interested to know that Alvin Nelson was drafted about the same time as the late Elvis Presley, and both were stationed at army bases in Germany. After basic training, Alvin was stationed in what was then called West Germany, and he and Kaye moved into a tiny apartment in the German town of Wertheim.

After he was honorable discharged from the United States Army, Alvin and Kaye Nelson moved back to the United States

 Photo taken around 1950 of Alvin’s childhood home in South Dakota 

Molly:  You were born in South Dakota in 1934. Yet your ranch is in North Dakota. Alvin, tell us about your ranch.

Alvin:  In 1956, I bought my ranch, the K4, with my rodeo winnings, and our ranch was located in western North Dakota in the Badlands along the west side of the Little Missouri River. In 1957, I purchased land on the east side of the river, and today, the Little Missouri River runs right through our place. 

 The Nelson’s K4 Ranch today.

Alvin:  Our deeded land consists of 2400 acres. However, we also have a permit to run 275 head including cows and bulls on the National Grasslands, sometimes referred to as federal land. The National Grasslands were originally homesteaded and then during the depression in the 30s the federal government stepped in and purchased the land for as little as $2 an acre, promising the ranchers of North Dakota that they could buy it back if they ever wanted to. However, the government reneged on this agreement and wouldn't sell the land back to ranchers as promised. Some of the land the government purchased for $2.00 an acre came from people who had lost their land for back taxes during the depression.  

A popular question often asked farmers and ranchers was “How many head of cattle do you have or how much land do you have?” So nowadays when I am asked that question, I usually say, "I have too many cattle when it’s time to feed them and not enough when it’s time to sell them."

 A section of land is 640 acres, and we run 2.8 acres per cow per month for eight months or 27 head per section. On the river bottoms where the soil is rich and the grass grows lush and high in good years, we can run one cow per acre per month. In winter, the temperature is normally about forty degrees. Rarely, but for very short periods of time, the temperature can drop to 60 degrees below zero. The average snowfall in our part of the state is about 6 inches a year—although it varies. I chose to buy a ranch in the badlands because the buttes, the hills, the brush, and the trees offer good protection from the cold as well as some open grazing in the winter.

Molly:  Alvin mentioned the word buttes, and for Texans like me, that was a new word. So, I looked it up, and according to the dictionary, a butte is an isolated hill, especially one with steep sides and a flattened top.
Alvin, tells us more about the buttes and other facts about ranching in North Dakota. 

Alvin:  In bad weather, cattle gather down in the buttes where they are shielded from the wind and rain—not only by the buttes but by the hills and trees. Ranchers from Texas and other places down south keep asking me how the cattle keep from freezing during a North Dakota winter. Well, my answer to that question is another question. How do the deer, elk, wolves, cougars, coyotes and other wildlife keep from freeze in winter? Same thing. The land protects them.

We do bring heifers or cows that look like they might be having trouble calving into the barn for calving. Cows are bred about June 20th, and we start calving around the first of April. We run 250 cows and expect about 235 calves. Calves are sold in October when they are 7 months old. We raise Charolais-Angus cross feeder calves on our ranch. We cross Angus cows with Charolais bulls, and part of these are grazed on the National Grasslands. 

Ranchers in the Badlands of North Dakota must have a permit to run cattle on the National Grasslands, but not all ranches in our state are part of the NG or National Grasslands. The price to ranchers is based on the amount of cattle the land will support, both the deeded land and the NG permitted land. The price to ranchers is based on the amount of cattle that can be run in the National Grasslands and on the deeded land. 

The price, then, is not based on the amount of cattle that can be run and not on the amount of deeded land. The price is as high as if the rancher was buying all deeded land, and in addition to this, the rancher must pay a grazing fee each year. So in a sense, it is like buying the land and then renting it at the same time.

Molly:  Wow! Thanks for explaining this.

You and Kaye have one grown son, a daughter-in-law and a grandson. What can you tell us about your family?

Alvin:  Our son, Louis Alvin Nelson, was born in 1962, and Louis and his wife, Allene, run the ranch, nowadays. They have one son, Garett, and the western spirit runs deep. Louis, Allene and Garett love living on the ranch as much as Kaye and I do, and although I am retired now, I do a little fencing and a lot of weed spraying.
Louis and Allene keep busy with lots of different activities. They do the ranch work and riding as well as compete in rodeo events. They train horses for their team roping and barrel racing and spend time practicing. We call in the neighbors, and they all practice in a big arena on the ranch. Louis also has a grass seeding business; so they are super busy. 
Molly:  I understand you changed rodeo as a sport forever—especially bronc-riding? Tell us about that. 

Alvin:  The leather piece that goes from the stirrup to the saddle is called the stirrup leather, and when I started rodeoing, the stirrup leathers would slip around the saddletree bars, causing a bind so the bronc-rider couldn’t throw his feet forward. Most cowboys tied up their stirrups, but I discovered a better way to do it. I tied my stirrups up in what is called “quarter binds” which prevented the stirrup leathers and stirrups from slipping. Other bronc-riders were quick to copy this technique, and it is still in use today. 

 Alvin Nelson winning the saddle bronc riding event in 1957 at Madison Square Garden
This photo was featured in an earlier article, but it is well worth seeing again.

Molly:  Amazing. Now, tell us what is going on in your life today. 

Alvin I was just elected to serve on the Board of Directors for the Rodeo Historical Society at the National Cowboy Western Heritage Center at Oklahoma City, OK. It's on the web site at:

In 2004, I was also inducted in the Pro-Rodeo Hall of Fame at Colorado Springs. The Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association appoints a selection committee, and any member of the PRCA may contact the PRCA headquarters at Colorado Springs, ask for an entry form, fill it out, and send it in.

Shawn Davis rode broncs when I did and is general manager of the National Finals Rodeo at Las Vegas, Nevada, and he nominated me. Also, Jim Peterson and Otto Oster of the Mobridge, South Dakota Rodeo Committee nominated me. Each year the entries have to be submitted by January 15th, and the committee considers all entries. I was notified in April that I had been chosen to be in the induction class of 2004, and to me, it was like winning another world championship. My son, daughter-in-law and grandson, and 140 family and friends were there with Kaye and I for the induction. I was chosen by the guys I competed against, and to me, it was a tremendous honor.  

Alvin and Kaye Nelson today.

Molly:  Alvin, you’ve had and are still having a wonderful and exciting life. Thanks for sharing part of it with us. I appreciate this interview more than I can say.  

Next month, I will be interviewing Kaye Nelson, a North Dakota rancher’s wife for over fifty years. 


Tina Dee Books said...

Great article, Molly!

Thanks Mr. Nelson for visiting with us and sharing your amazing life adventure. It's an honor to have you as our guest here on Bustles.

Molly Noble Bull said...

I know I speak for Alvin when I tell you how much he enjoyed doing these interviews and sharing photos of his amazing life. And next month you will get to know is equally as amazing wife, Kaye Nelson.

bigguysmama said...

Really enjoyed these 2 interviews. Very excited about you interviewing Kaye! He's had an amazing life. He could seriously write a book!

Mimi B

Mona Kramer said...

Thank you for such an interesting story! Alvin and Kaye are a real asset to the western world and are committed to carrying on tradition! Many young people should take this opportunity to learn from one of the best in the ranching business!
Ron & Mona Kramer

Anonymous said...

Great article. I have known the family since 1961 when Kaye and I attended UND-W together.
What an honor, Alvin. Will look foward to reading about Kaye in the next issue.
Elaine Strand

Molly Noble Bull said...

Dear Tina, Mimi B, Ron and Mona and Elaine,
Thanks for witing. I hope you will take a look at the books advertised at this site.
We are all Christian authors here, and we have some really good western writers. Hope y'all will check us out.
By the way, I met Alvin and Keye in 1958.

Molly Noble Bull said...

That should be Alvin and Kaye Nelson, not Keye.
The Nelson are great folks. Oh, the funny stories I could tell about our times together.

brendalottakamaggiebrendan said...

Wonderful interview. I love reading real-life stories!

Kathleen L. said...

What a treat! As a girl who grew up far away from horses but dreaming about them, I am still star-struck to read about these bigger-than-life horsemen. wonderful glimpse into Americana. Look forward to reading about Kaye.
: )

Molly Noble Bull said...

Thanks Brenda and Kathleen. Thanks for stopping by. Hope you will come back real soon.

A J Hawke said...

Thanks to Molly and Mr. Nelson for the great interview. It is not only of great interest to me, but you have helped me with my current WIP. My story takes place in northern Colorado. I have had two different critique partners (not from the west) question how cattle can survive through the winter. I will be referring them to this posting. Your explanation is perfect, the land provides.

I look forward to your interview with Mrs. Nelson.


Janice Olson said...

Wonderful interview with Alvin Nelson.


Edna said...

What a ranch! My husband loves to watch bull ridding, I just sit here and moan when they fall off and then try to get way, I like to read book about the old west and the new west just books in general. I am an advid reader as I am retired and have plenty of time now.


Debbie Gail Smith said...

Thanks for the interview and pictures. Very interesting.
I only dream of being a rancher. Except, I would have to stay in Texas because I wouldn't be able to handle the winters in ND.

Molly Noble Bull said...

Thanks A.J., Janice, Edna, and Debbie,
I appreciate your comments, and I know Alvin does, too.