“It is often said that if you take care of the land, it will take care of you. All of us that derive our livelihood from the land understand this very well,” Homer Buell said. “One of the goals of each generation of Buells has been to pass along a heritage that runs deep with love for the Nebraska Sandhills, its gently rolling tall grass prairies, and its landscape bubbling with life. For 128 years, that has happened, and we hope that it will continue for a long time to come,” he said.
Earlier this year, the Buell family was named the 2012 Nebraska recipients of the prestigious Leopold Award. The ranch located south of Bassett in the heart of the Nebraska Sandhills, is home to the fourth and fifth generations of the Buell family. Larry and his wife, Nickie, and Homer and his wife, Darla, still make their homes on the ranch, although they have divided the ranch between them. The fifth generation of Buells have taken over the day-to-day management of the operation.
Homer has no doubts that the ranch is in good hands. His son, Chad and wife, Tricia, are overseeing Homer’s portion of the ranch, known as the Shovel Dot Ranch, and Larry’s daughter, Devon, and her husband, Kelby Nelson, are overseeing Larry’s portion, now known as the Twin Creek Ranch. “Each generation takes the ideas and technology available to them to continue to improve and move forward,” Homer explained. “I am sure the next generation will do a better job than we did. You have to adapt to change to keep going forward,” he said.
Change and willingness to adapt is what has kept the ranch progressive since Homer and Larry’s great-grandparents first settled in the area in 1882. Benjamin Franklin Buell, a cigar-maker and school teacher from Michigan, was 21-years-old when he first laid eyes on the Sandhills. He was on his way to Washington state to be a timekeeper and bookkeeper in a Washington lumberyard, but the land called him back, Homer explained. When he returned a short time later, Benjamin settled in the Duff community south of Long Pine in 1882. A year later, he and his future bride each filed claims for parcels of land, and the legacy of the Buell family began.
“Benjamin was known as a keen businessman, and he and his wife, Harriet, envisioned the development of the cattle industry in Nebraska,” Homer said. “However, Benjamin’s vision went beyond the business aspects of the cattle industry. He strove to preserve the unique landscape of the Nebraska Sandhills.”
Benjamin and Harriet’s son, Homer, and Homer’s son, Barney, continued work preserving and improving the land, as did Barney’s sons, Homer and Larry. Homer said the Buell family has always made a point to stay up-to-date on the latest research available, and have lead the way in trying new ideas. On their operation, they raised Hereford cattle since Benjamin homesteaded, but have raised the cattle in an environmentally-friendly way. Although Homer likes the red-hided cattle, when he and Larry came into the operation as the fourth generation, they started to breed some of their heifers to black Angus. “For economic reasons, it just made sense,” he explained. “Now, our herd is primarily black, but we have a lot of baldies,” he said.
The cattle on the operation are carefully managed to take care of the land. “My dad and grandfather were very good caretakers of the grass,” he explained. “They rotated the winter grass, and always made sure pastures were not overgrazed when cattle moved on.”
Larry attended a holistic ranch management school, and Homer also took some ranch management training. In different years, both Larry and Homer attended Alan Savory’s Holistic Ranch Management School. “We worked with the NRCS to develop more water sources on the ranch, and we learned how to better rotate through our pastures.”
One of the first changes Homer and Larry made when it was their turn to manage the operation was dividing the pastures into smaller parcels to get better grass utilization. With some of the pastures as big as two sections, it was difficult to get the cattle to utilize the grass in some areas, even with good water distribution and salt placement.
Water development started on the ranch in the 70s when they added more windmills to allow the cattle to better utilize the pastures. In the 80s, pipelines and electric power were added to generate more water sources. By 2009, the Buell ranch had over 50 miles of water pipeline watering close to 100 pastures, ranging from 200 to 400 acres. “The present water system allows flexibility in running the number of cattle deemed appropriate for a certain pasture grouping,” Homer explained. “Combined with timed movements and better cattle distribution, this gives the pastures more rest between grazing periods, and thus better recovery, ground cover, and increased production,” he added.
Once many of these changes were in place, the brothers were still concerned about the affect the cattle were having on the land. “We wanted to be able to determine how many AUMs the land would carry, and then continue to trace and monitor that over time,” Homer said. “We wanted to do a better job of monitoring the health and vigor of the plants, and not just eyeball it,” he explained.
In the 1990s, they heard about a computer program developed by Texas A&M that was referred to as the Grazing Manager. Although it was originally a DOS program, it was later converted to more user-friendly windows. Information on pasture size, carrying capacity, using demand days, forage growth curves, rainfall, and other information was entered into the program, followed by various cattle groups, such as numbers, weight, and stage of lactation. From this information, the program could develop a grazing plan.
“During the first three years,” Homer noted, “we adjusted the pasture input numbers, carrying capacity, and growth curves to the point that we felt we had those critical inputs correct. Since then, we have not changed that information, knowing that changes in grass that could be harvested, either up or down, were due to our forage harvesting techniques. This was and is a good way to monitor what effect our grazing management strategies are having,” he added.
In the last few years, the Buell family has partnered with the NRCS by joining their Conservation Stewardship program. They have added a monitoring system to their management scheme that allows them to set up picture points in pastures. This system monitors plant composition, height and density over time to measure how their grazing practices affect the land.
“Some ranches get into maximizing grass usage, but we feel that animal performance can suffer,” Homer said. To preserve their grass, the Buell’s have built flexibility into their operation by having a yearling business, in addition to their cow/calf enterprise. “It has been a good management tool for us, especially during a year like this when there is a drought,” Homer said. “We can put yearlings out in the early summer to graze, and we keep rotating them through the pastures to maximize gains. We move them pretty quickly and leave grass behind that we can follow up with cows.”
As the next generation become caretakers of the ranch, Larry and Homer encourage their children to continue their education. “We believe education is a life-long pursuit,” Homer said. “Hosting tours for people from Nebraska and surrounding states and as far away as France, Australia, and Russia has been one way of doing this. Speaking at field days, to UNL classes, at grazing conferences, and at cattlemen’s colleges and being part of mentoring programs are other ways that the family has tried to pass along what it has learned. Educating others about the importance and benefits of a land ethic will, (our) family hopes, translate into more families adopting an ecological viewpoint toward ranching,” he said.
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n\t “It is often said that if you take care of the land, it will take care of you. All of us that derive our livelihood from the land understand this very well,” Homer Buell said. “One of the goals of each generation of Buells has been to pass along a heritage that runs deep with love for the Nebraska Sandhills, its gently rolling tall grass prairies, and its landscape bubbling with life. For 128 years, that has happened, and we hope that it will continue for a long time to come,” he said.