From the top of a sweeping hill on his spread south of Mandan, Chad Berger can see his whole bucking bull operation, including the main house, the house of his hired hand, the barns and pens and three miles of metal pipe surrounding the bull pens.
“One day I’m going to have a house up here so I can see all of the pens,” Berger said. That day is probably coming sooner rather than later.
Stock Contractor of the Year
Berger is the reigning stock contractor of the year in the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) tour and head of a business that involves his entire family; one that he learned from his dad, Joe. And Chad learned well.
There are tributes to Berger’s legendary bulls on the walls of his current house, another mounted high up over a fireplace and a life-sized wood carving of the head of another famous bucker in the corner. Bulls have been good to Berger, and vice versa.
“I’ve always said if there is such a thing as reincarnation, I want to come back as a good bucking bull. Nothing gets better care than that,” Berger says.
Stock contractors walk a fine line between success and failure. On one hand, they want hard-bucking and nearly impossible-to-ride bulls. On the other hand, the want bulls that, when they are ridden, result in 90-point scores for the cowboy.
“I get just as big a thrill when a guy has a 90-point ride or more as I do when they get thrown off,” Berger says. “I cheer for them, but I cheer for my bulls more. When I see one get soft, I rest them.”
Putting North Dakota on the Map
The bull Little Yellow Jacket “put North Dakota on the map” as far as bull riding goes, Berger says. Little Yellow Jacket belonged to Joe Berger and was the world champion bull in the PBR from 2002 to 2004. In 2003, the bull went head-to-head with 2000 PBR champion Cody Shivers with $1 million on the line. Shivers lasted less than two seconds.
“He was like no other,” Berger says of Little Yellow Jacket. “He was almost human. You could see it. He was one of the great ones. These bulls are the Michael Jordan and LeBron James of bucking bulls. They are professionals at their game. They know what they are there for.”
The same could be said for Berger, who knew at a young age he was destined for a life on and around bulls. Joe Berger and his partner in the bucking business, JC Stevenson, introduced Chad to the bull riding world early on.
“Like the bulls, it’s in your blood,” he says. “Back when I was a little kid, dad and JC had bucking bulls and they put me on some bulls. I rode steers and cows when I was six.”
Now he rides along the many pens at his place looking over a cattleman’s empire. In this pen, there are bulls that have yet to buck; in another pen, bulls that just back from the Cody Night Rodeo rest with those waiting to be shipped out; in another pen, the all-stars of the PBR – Smooth Operator and American Sniper; and in another, Beaver Creek Bo, son of the legendary bull Bodacious, a bull so dangerous he was retired in his prime.
“See that bull there? That’s Smooth Operator and he has a good chance of being bull of the year this year. He’s the rankest bull I own,” Berger says. “American Sniper was the bucking bull of the NFR last year.”
The life-sized head of one of Berger’s legendary bulls, Smackdown, is immortalized in a wood carving in his living room, courtesy of a sponsor.
Successful contractors and their bulls are as important to the marketing folks at the PBR as the cowboys themselves. Berger gladly mingles with fans at promotional events and prior to events themselves. He has been known to leave tickets for those who can’t afford to get in the gate, but he chuckles at the thought of being a celebrity.
“It amazes me,” Berger says. “When I get back to Mandan, I’m just me and everybody treats me like me. But when I’m out there, people want pictures and autographs. It’s kind of overwhelming sometimes because you just wonder why. You know?
“One thing I do like about it is spending time with (mentally or physically challenged) people,” Berger says. If I can make somebody feel good, it makes me feel good.” At a recent event in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Berger beat a hasty retreat from an emergency room to make a promotional event. “I met these people and asked if they were going to the event and you could tell they couldn’t (afford it),” Berger recalls. “So I got their names and called them and told them I left them tickets at the box office. I enjoy that more than anything.” That down-to-earth approach to his cattle buying business has created a bucking bull empire in what Berger calls his “hobby.”
“When bulls are young, we try to buck them where they’re not going to embarrass us,” Berger says. “Some buck hard when they are young and never get better. The ones that learn how to buck turn out to be the best.”
The same might be said about Berger’s bloodline. He mentions his dad often in interviews. “My dad has raised more good bulls than anybody in the world,” Berger says. “He had three world champions in a span of five years – Little Yellow Jacket (2002, 2003 and 2004 in the PBR), Yellow Jacket (1999 PRCA) and Moody Blues (1998 PBR). Some of my dad’s great bulls like Coyote, they get better and better.”
The Berger bloodline goes is further back than that. “My grandpa worked with Fred Kist when they started the sale barn in Mandan,” Berger says. “My dad always loved rodeo and wanted to be a cowboy. And my dad had a vision to raise bulls. He’s got to be one of the first guys ever to start a herd, to breed them to buck.”
Despite all he has accomplished, one thing had eluded Berger until this year when he was selected to provide stock for the Mandan Fourth of July Rodeo, perhaps the most iconic professional rodeo in North Dakota.
“I’m a real Mandan guy. I’m proud to be from Mandan,” Berger says. “One of the biggest thrills for me last year was getting picked for the Mandan Rodeo. When it went PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association), I tried to get it and tried to get it. Of all the accolades I’ve won and my bulls have won, I don’t know that they mean any more to me than the Mandan Rodeo.”
That says a lot about the importance Berger puts on his hometown, as he has won a lot of accolades over the years. The Bergers haul bulls to between 50 and 60 rodeos and bull riding events every year. Berger recently shipped 56 bulls to a “Built Ford Tough” series event in Albany, New York, with one of the two drivers he employees. They often take 50 or so bulls to a single event and have taken as many as 60 to Cheyenne Frontier Days. They have entered bulls in events as far away as Hawaii.
Berger’s daughter, Lacey, even trucked bulls to Los Angeles and flew to Hawaii where she met the bulls’ ship and accompanied them by boat to Maui and back to Honolulu for events.
Lacey’s involvement in the business – as well as that of her husband, JR Scott – Chad’s wife, Sarah; his son, John; and daughter, Sadie, is a source of pride for a man whose livelihood is built on bloodlines an lineage.
“Lacey wasn’t very old when she trucked them bulls to Los Angeles and spent three weeks over there in Hawaii. She was out there three weeks by herself and my wife went out the second week and my son flew out the last week. I never did get to go. I had to stay home and work.”
All in the Family
It’s the work and family that Berger takes the most pride in.
“I’m most proud of my family. Everyone plays a part,” Berger points out. “JR and Lacey are raising cows and bulls, Sadie does my Internet and Twitter and Facebook and my merchandise and my wife does travel planning and books. I’m most proud that my whole family can play a part. It’s all gonna be passed down. They just have to buy my meals when I get old.”
When and if the time ever comes, Berger will pass down a solid legacy that will include at least four and, more than likely, more PBR contractor of the year awards. Berger won that award three straight years between 2007 and 2009 and again in 2014. There is a strong chance he could get the award again this year. “When you’re on a roll, you’re on a roll,” he says. “I think I’m on a roll. Nobody has a set of bulls like this.”
Berger and 15-20 of his bulls will be at the Professional Bull Riders World Finals in Las Vegas on October 21.
Scooter Pursley is a Bismarck-based freelance writer and the information specialist for North Dakota Tourism. He is also a former sports editor for The Bismarck Tribune.