What helps a family ranch to survive and thrive from one generation to the next? In the rolling Pine Ridge area of Northwest Nebraska, the Dale Anderson family has earned their stripes as a multi-generational ranch and credit their staying power to having a strong work ethic, while also being committed to caring for and improving their land.
Dale and his wife Pamela are fourth generation ranchers. Their operation includes land that was homesteaded by his great-grandfather in the mid-1880’s. Today, they are in the process of transitioning the ranch to the fifth – and sixth – generation on the ranch. Their daughter Laura and her husband Brad Beguin and their three young children, Hazel (11), Bennett (7), and William (3), are actively involved in the family cow-calf operation.
The home place was settled by John Anderson (Dale’s great grandfather) who emigrated from northern Germany in the 1880’s. After stopping in Iowa, John and his family followed the railroad when it came to western Nebraska. John’s railroad section foreman income helped them through the drought in the 1890’s, when others had to sell their property.
John’s son, Harvey, expanded the operation during the early 1900s by homesteading land adjacent to his fathers. He was a blacksmith and raised Percheron draft horses. “My grandfather Harvey was on the farm during the Depression. Farming was providing very little income. He went to the Black Hills, purchased and moved a small sawmill to sell pine lumber and firewood off the place. That allowed them to pay land taxes during the 1930’s.”
When Harvey’s son – William – took over the operation, he worked hard to further develop the family business. Dale tells, “Dad enjoyed Herefords and brought in registered bulls to upgrade and expand his herd. Purdue University purchased his calves for several years, the heifers were used in early synchronization trials. The premium price he received was a boost to the family’s income. Dad bought more pasture land and seeded dryland fields back to grass or alfalfa.”
“The older, managing generation always had the help of the next generation and each generation has had a strong supportive spouse,” notes Dale. While Dale has few stories about his great grandmother, he says, “She obviously worked hard to support her family.” Likewise his grandmother Anna raised a family of four, had a huge garden, was a noted cook and was a caregiver to others. Additionally, Dale’s mom was an innovator; he shares, “Mom was college-trained at what was then known as Chadron State Teacher’s College. She entered a government cadet flight program at college and became one of the first licensed pilots in Cherry County, Neb.” After graduating with a teaching degree, she returned to Cody, Neb. serving as principal; later as superintendent. When the men returned after the war, they filled the administration positions. After marriage and raising three sons, she continued teaching.
Pamela Bowen married Dale in l972. They worked at an archaeological site their first summer together. Dale joined the Army, serving in Germany from 1973 to 1975. Returning from overseas, they worked with his parents on the ranch, while raising a family of three girls. Each of their daughter’s earned Master’s degrees, one continued for a doctorate. Two are teachers; all are married. Pam trained as a Parish Ministry Associate and currently serves a rural ELCA Lutheran congregation near Hay Springs, Neb.
Their goal was – and continues to be – to provide high-quality beef to consumers, while improving their land. Their family raises commercial Black Angus cattle, along with a few horses. They developed the herd for easy calving, fleshing ability, conformation, and good disposition. They calve late March through April. Pasture calving lessens disease risk.
Dale and son-in-law Brad, who is also a Chadron State graduate and a skilled heavy equipment operator, tend to the daily ranch work, with Brad overseeing the haying and cow/calf enterprise. Pam keeps the ranch’s financial records. Daughter Laura, with a Master’s- degree in range science, helps with ranch projects including the cow herd and pasture management computer records.
Through the years, the family has worked hard to improve their property, through conservation and sustainable agricultural practices. After purchasing additional land north of Chadron from Pam’s parents, one of their first priorities was to drill a new well to develop a reliable water supply for their gumbo pastures.
After numerous drought years in the early 2000s, hauling water in July and August, they sought additional water sources for ranch pastures. With the help of the Chadron Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office, they secured an Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) contract, and over the years improved water distribution, added cross-fences and planted shelterbelts for livestock protection and wildlife habitat.
Water management projects have included rebuilding one of the large gumbo dams, dredging silted in dams (with private funds) which trap spring runoff, drilling wells and putting in pipeline projects, adding water tanks and watering sites, and more recently, adding solar wells.
In addition to water management, cross-fencing was another management change that has improved their operation. The cross-fencing along with infrastructure to provide water in the pastures across the ranch has been “an absolute God-send,” says Dale. The Anderson’s utilize the cross-fencing for pasture rotation and deferred grazing of selected pastures.
Dale continues, “Cross-fences allow a controlled grazing season, as well as smaller breeding pastures in our rough hills. Flexible fiberglass posts lessen deer damage to the cross-fence. A new well and gravity flow pipeline stopped the daily trailing that led to dust pneumonia for calves as they followed cows to the original water source in one corner of a large pasture. A stand of ponderosa pine was fenced out in another pasture to prevent pine needle abortion during winter grazing use.”
Throughout the generations, the Anderson family has also included timber management in their ranch focus. Most recently, working with Nebraska State Forester Doak Nickerson from Chadron, they developed a forest thinning program to remove old, scrub and diseased pine trees from their land. A commercial logging crew from the Black Hills used large feller/buncher machines and big skidders to cut and deck the trees. The trees were chipped, then sold to be used as biofuel for the power plant at Chadron State College.
As a result, Dale shares, “The logging roads allow better access for fire suppression, pasture monitoring and weed control. Opening the forest canopy and removing ladder fuel (small trees) has lowered the chance of a large timber fire. Eliminating the pine needle duff layer by tree thinning has allowed native grasses & forbs to return”
Looking ahead, as the fifth generation on the Anderson ranch, Laura and Brad are continuing the family tradition of bringing new practices and conservation efforts to its operations. They have introduced A.I. (artificial insemination) to bring enhanced genetics to the cowherd. The cow herd has also benefited from low stress handling. Working with NRCS programs they are adding several thousand shelterbelt tree plantings, more cross-fencing, additional pipeline and water tanks. One project includes a solar powered pump that will be installed on a float in a large, renovated dam in a gumbo pasture north of Chadron. It will be a back-up water source to the propane powered generator that supplies the existing pipeline.
Advice to others
Of their partnership with NRCS, Dale says, “I can’t speak highly enough of the help we’ve received through government programs to improve our land and develop a better grazing system. Our operation is a work-in-progress, but we are clearly seeing the benefits of these programs. Cattle now graze remote areas that have pipeline water or solar wells, renovated dams are a mecca for waterfowl and shore birds, as well as a water source for fire suppression. The pine timber stands on the home place are healthy and now provide improved summer grazing.
As a member of the Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition Board of Directors, Dale also credits the organization for helping landowners gain new perspective. “I would encourage producers to investigate the various conservation programs to develop water, fencing, and grazing resources on their operations. Also, take advantage of the various grazing organizations, workshops, tours and knowledgeable producers in your area.”
An important part of conservation is adapting to your situation, he adds, “Our area is different from other spots in Nebraska. We are different from the Sandhills or the corn-growing areas. We don’t have their rainfall, aquifers, growing season or soil type. Our area is well-suited for grazing and we are working to develop an improved grazing plan and to improve the land we manage.”