The Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway has diversification on its 272-mile route like no other highway in the state. – where land has been adapted by man to fulfill human needs – in the villages and the cities and the fruitful and abundant farm ground that helps feed the world. One can see this on both ends of our byway, from the corn and soybean fields of the east to the wheat, sunflower and sugar beet fields of the west.
In the central area, west of Anselmo to just past Ellsworth, 160 plus miles, begins the ranching sector. Here, man has adapted to the land to raise the beef that helps feed the world. Yes, there are fences, windmills and other man-made objects that help make this the best cattle producing area on earth, but one does not need to go far in these Sandhills to see land that is untouched by human hands. Farming was attempted by the early homesteaders, but the ground is too sandy to sustain crops, so cattle ranchers bought out the homesteaders. Here, it was not the gun that tamed these hills, but the barb wire and the windmill.
Open range was the norm in the early days, where cattle from several owners mingled. The only way to tell them apart was the brand from a hot iron that marked ownership then, and still is one way that marks ownership today.
Ranching, like farming, is hard work, labor intense but a great way to raise a family. Many a ranch here has been in the same family for five or six generations. Ranchers like farmers, are good stewards of the land and the animals they care for. If they weren’t, multi-generational families would not call this area home.
Ranching through the year has many seasons, late winter, early spring is the ‘season’ I share with you here.
As the cranes arrive in March on the Platte River near Grand Island, baby calves have arrived or will arrive for many. This is the product that a cattle producer has worked all year to obtain. Seeing the new babies up on their feet, frisking around with their playmates or getting nourishment from their mama brings great satisfaction to their owners. Now though, the work to raise them from the ‘gate to the plate’ begins in earnest. Vigilant producers save many a calf from deadly diseases, but weather’s wrath cannot be controlled. Single digit temperatures, blizzards with bone chilling winds can cause a newborn calf to freeze in a matter of minutes. These hills offer great protection for mother cows to have their young when it is just windy, but adding moisture and single digit temps, the calf loss is more than one would like to see.
The rancher though, downtrodden through these times, will state “Maybe next year” and continue to do what his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather did before him – carry on the best way they can.
One of the busiest days on a ranch in the spring is branding day, done after most of the calves are over two weeks old. For many, the only additives from a century tradition is portable panels, propane branding pot that heats the irons, and the vaccines that help keep the calves healthy. Neighbor helping neighbor, rope, drag, wrestle, castrate (making steers out of the bull calves) vaccinate – one calf done every 10 seconds or less takes an orchestration seen like no where else. Several producers have gone from this method to less labor intense means – a calf table that the calf is put into to complete all the above tasks. Any way done, branding is a necessity to tell ownership of one black calf versus another. Ranching is not for everyone, but God knew He needed a caretaker for some of His creatures, so he made a rancher.