It took longer than he expected, but Jake Tollman is finally back home in Dawes County, living out his dream, working the same land homesteaded by his great-grandfather.
After graduating from Crawford High School in 1994, he studied ag economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, saying it was always his goal to return to the family ranch near Marsland.
“My dream, ever since I remember it, was always to come back home. It took me a little over 20 years to figure out how to get back,” he said. He and his wife returned to the area with their two children, Alexa and Garrett, who are in the sixth and third grades, in 2015.
Before the relocation, the Tollmans spent most of their time after college living in Grand Island, where he worked as an environmental regulations consultant for feedlots. But as the year’s went by, he never game up his dream of coming back home, and eventually he and wife Tami decided they had to take the chance.
“You never know what you can do until you have to,” Tollman said. After attending a Ranching for Profit workshop in 2014, he began considering the idea more seriously when he realized he could lease the ranch rather than own it.
“That made a lot more sense to me. The ranch is not at risk.” It took nearly two years to work through the logistics with his parents, Buzz and Rosalene, who were able to retire thanks to the arrangement. Tollman leases the ranch and owns only about 10 of the cattle on the place. Instead, he has custom grazing agreements with several clients.
The Tollmans, with the help of hired man Dave Redden, calved out 500 head this spring, up from 350 last year. The original plan called for the cattle to be grazed on the ranch during the summer, but there has been enough grass that some of Tollman’s partners are now leaving their cattle, some of which come from as far away as 380 miles, on the place much longer.
“We’re pretty full service,” he said.
Tollman’s great-grandfather, James, homestead a little over a mile from Jake and Tami’s current home on Highway 71 in 1898, making Tollman the fourth generation to call it home. He hopes Alexa and Garrett have the opportunity to follow in his footsteps, and eventually see it become an eighth generation ranch.
The only way to make that vision a possibility is to continue to improve the rangeland and the operational success of the ranch. The Tollman Family Ranches is predominantly pastureland, though there is some dryland farmground. That used to be planted to wheat and summer fallow, but as Tollman carries out his vision he is making some changes.
“I want to graze all of my acres. The most efficient way for me to harvest my land is through the mouth of a cow,” he said.
He’s trying out different mixes with the cover crops in a no-till setting, including soybeans, sunflower, radish, turnips, millett, oats, peas, hoping to regenerate the land. He’s also asked Jim O’Rourke to provide him a rangeland health assessment and hopes to someday follow O’Rourke’s lead and use smaller pastures and short duration, high intensity grazing. Right now, all of the pastures on the ranch are pretty large, in part because access to water is a challenge on the ranch.
“That’s the direction I want to get to,” Tollman said. “All of the pieces are like a giant 3D chess game.”
In the meantime, he’ll continue to appreciate walking the same land that three generations before him did and teach the fifth generation about the lifestyle. Both Alexa and Garrett are taking range science in 4-H, and Tollman said it’s been fun to learn about the variety of grasses and wildflowers they have on the ranch with his children. It should serve them well if either one of them someday carry on the family legacy of faith, family, forage and fun.
“I’ve been involved in the beef industry in one aspect or another,” Tollman said. “It’s really been good. There are a lot of easier way ways to make a living but the quality of life … I’m truly living my dream.”