Best Angus and Quarter Horse Ranch survives drought and blizzards to continue Badlands tradition
Pete and Vawnita Best's road to ranching in the Badlands began more than 200 miles from there when Pete was a 14-year-old 4-H member living in Rolette, North Dakota, and selected a heifer from McCumber Angus Ranch for a livestock project.
WATFORD CITY, N.D. — The landscape paints a vivid picture of why Pete and Vawnita Best raise cattle and horses in the North Dakota Badlands.
The view from Best Angus and Quarter Horse Ranch’s picture window of a late May day is of rugged buttes and green valleys that stretch as far as the eye can see. Outside the front door, horses graze on tender shoots of grass while their foals alternatively dart around the mare and lay on their sides dozing in the sun. Down the road, black Angus cattle roam thousands of acres of grassland.
“I like being called to be a caretaker of God’s creation,” Vawnita said. “I appreciate the way of life that we have and the sense of place and community associated with being here."
The Bests’ road to ranching in the Badlands began more than 200 miles from there, when Pete was a 14-year-old 4-H member living in Rolette, North Dakota, and selected a heifer from McCumber Angus Ranch for a livestock project.
Pete bred the heifer to McCumber Angus Ranch bulls, founding his own herd on the small hobby farm outside of Rolette where he grew up, and eventually anchoring Best Angus and Quarter Horse Ranch in the Badlands 15 miles southeast of Watford City.
”They were very influential in making this thing work," he said. “Probably half of our cows go back to that original heifer that I purchased.”
More than two decades passed between Pete’s 1991 departure from Rolette after graduating from Rolette High School and ranching near Watford City.
After his high school graduation, instead of ranching full time, he decided to get a bachelor’s degree in animal science from North Dakota State University in Fargo so he would have skills to fall back on if his ranching dreams didn’t materialize.
“I didn't want to ranch right away because I tore my knee up in football. I needed a back-up plan,” Pete said.
He graduated from NDSU in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree and went to work for two years for Zip Feeds in Towner, North Dakota. In 1996 Pete married Vawnita Hovet, who grew up on the Watford City ranch where the couple now live. Pete worked as a territory manager for Zip Feeds for two years after graduation while Vawnita finished her bachelor’s degree in animal science.
The couple then moved to Watford City where they both worked for First International Bank and Trust as loan officers, one of the few job options available in the late 1990s before the oil boom that would turn the economy around.
In 2001, the Bests left Watford City for Towner, North Dakota, where Pete worked as a loan officer for Western State Bank and Vawnita had a job at Winger Cheese, a company that since closed its doors because of a dwindled number of dairy herds in the county.
After two years in Towner, Pete and Vawnita moved to Mandan, North Dakota, where they lived for several years while he worked in the farm finance industry and she was North Dakota’s state meat inspector.
Pete’s work in the finance and agriculture industries taught him valuable lessons about what does and doesn’t work in ranch management.
“It’s made a huge difference," he said. His off-ranch work also demonstrated to him that you can’t judge the success or failure of a farmer or rancher from the outside.
“It's not what people think. It’s not necessarily the public's perception,” he said.
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During the time they were working other jobs, the Bests' cattle were at McCumber Ranch in Rolette and Medalen Angus Ranch in Towner, and the couple helped care for them on weekends.
In 2008, Vawnita’s parents, Kurt and Rita Hovet, asked them if they wanted to buy the ranch they had started in 1968.
“At that point it was more than thinking ‘maybe someday,’” Pete said. He and Vawnita decided to accept the Hovets offer and purchase the ranch, and they moved there with their newborn son Kyle.
“It was a big circle,” Pete said.
He and Vawnita have worked full-time stretches at the ranch during the past 13 years. Other times, besides raising their cattle and horses, one or both of them also have worked at off-the-ranch jobs.
In 2022, it’s the latter. Pete has a part-time job as a loan officer at Dakota West Credit Union and Vawnita works full-time for Northern States Fishing, both in Watford City.
The off-ranch income helped them weather the drought of 2021 that resulted in some ranchers drastically reducing herd numbers.
“The off-farm jobs are the risk management,” Vawnita said.
This spring Best Angus and Quarter Horse Ranch received heavy snows during late-April snowstorms that were tough on the humans and cattle who live there, but also provided much-needed moisture.
Besides cattle, the Bests have about 20 head of quarter horses, annually raising a few foals to sell as broke riding horses. The horses are bred to be athletic, trainable and have good “cow sense.”
“The little colts, they've grown up in the Badlands, so they know where to put their feet, know how to cross a creek,” Pete said.
Customers come from across the region, including Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota.
The Bests use their own horses to check and round up cattle, riding for hours in the Badlands.
“A spring like this, there’s not much you don't enjoy,” Vawnita said. “The mares have their babies over here, and the cows have their babies over there.”
Ranching in the Badlands, of course, is not always as idyllic as it is on a late May day when the evening twilight began casting shadows over the grazing cattle and horses.
Last year’s drought burned up their pastures and drew down their winter feed supply. The couple sold about 50 head of cattle because of the reduced amount of grass and uncertainty that the moisture situation would improve in 2022.
Best Angus and Quarter Horse ranch had enough hay on hand to get them through the winter of 2021 because Pete and Vawnita stock up large, round bales during good hay years.
“Hay keeps out here really good because we’re in a drier climate,” Pete said. “It lasts. We were feeding a lot of seven, eight year-old hay, and it’s still pretty good, whereas if you do that in the eastern part of the state it’s mush after two or three years.
“That’s one of our advantages, we can buy hay when it is cheaper and try to save it,” he said.
But over the winter, supply dwindled to an amount that was too close to comfort for the Bests, and they will be buying hay this summer to replenish it.
“It gets a little unnerving to keep counting bales to hope you have enough to finish,” Pete said. ”Running out of hay is not a very good option.”
The couple didn't wipe out their hay supply during the winter of 20221-2022, but they came close enough to cause them some tense moments.
This year, with the return of moisture, the Bests anticipate that hay producers will have good crops, and that they will be able to shore up their supply.
“This is the best spring we’ve had, as far as moisture, for the past 10 years,” Pete said. “It’s been an awful spring for calving, but it’s been a good spring for moisture.”
Ranching in the capricious climate of western North Dakota is tough and the idyllic landscape is far different than the reality of raising livestock in it, but it’s the life that the Bests want to live.
“It was always what I wanted to do,” Pete said. “I like challenges.”
One that he enjoys most is using the grass that is in the Badlands for beef production
“Cattle eat it and turn it into the tastiest thing on earth,” he said.
Meanwhile, ranchers like him use discarded items, such as pipes and railroad ties, and use them for fences.
“We’re the original recyclers,” he said.
For Vawnita, who grew up on the ranch, she and Pete are carrying on her family’s tradition of ranch stewardship and community involvement.
“I like that we get to work side by side as a family and we get to grow good human beings that have appreciation for hard work, God’s creation and the circle of life."