From Switzerland to the Sandhills:

Terri Licking
Nina Conrad (in the gray sweater) helped Nebraska ranchers calve and wrestled calves at branding before going home to Switzerland.

Thedford – “You can take the girl out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of the girl.” For 24-year-old Nina Conrad from Lucerne, Switzerland, a city girl all her life, her three weeks in the heart of the Nebraska Sandhills will always bring back great memories and always be a part of her.

Nina is not your typical ‘exchange’ student. She is finishing up her college education at University of Lucerne, where studies by the students are done with no computers, just pen and paper, that is why when invited to stay longer and finish her studies online, she had to decline.

Lucerne’s population is over 400,000 – which is a shade more than the number of cows that live in Cherry and Thomas counties where she was ‘headquartered’ at the Steven and Shalee (Paxton) Morrison ranch east of Thedford, in Thomas county. Cherry County has more cows than any other in the nation, and lies to the north of Thomas County.

To complete her schooling, Congrad is required to spend 10 weeks in another country to learn the culture and the language. She is hoping to teach fifth or sixth grade English. “

Last year I spent seven weeks in Ireland. This year I chose to come to Nebraska to see what the country life has to offer. I could have easily laid on the beach in Hawaii for three weeks, but I like to get involved and work where ever I go,” she said.

She contacted Agroverde Agency, an agency in Switzerland specializing in sending students to other countries to learn. That agency got in touch with Worldwide International Student Exchange (WISE) and their Farm and RanchStay Program. One of the directors who connects students with the families is a friend of Shalee on Facebook and suggested Shalee and Steven get a student. “All that is required of the host family is offering room and board and three meals a day,” explained Morrison.

Conrad explained her trip from her home to the Morrisons. “I took the train from Lucerne to Zurich, (Switzerland) then a plane to America, flying into Denver, (Colorado) then caught the flight from Denver to North Platte.” LeeAnn, Shalee’s mom, who lives in North Platte picked her up and brought me to the ranch. Conrad stayed in the house LeeAnn uses when she overnights on the ranch. As Shalee explained, “She had the house to herself, as we were still doing night checks of the cows and our son CoBurn, does not yet sleep all night, so she was the only one getting a good night’s sleep,” Morrison laughingly explained. Conrad got to the ranch the day after the April blizzard and immediately pitched in to help.

Conrad was not a stranger to horseback riding, but was comfortable with a different style. “We had two horses at a stable in Lucerne, so I learned how to ride English style and did dressage, but just for the fun of it, not to show or anything like that. The saddles are much lighter, and you use your legs more to communicate with the horse. “She caught on easily to western riding,” Morrison explained. “We put her on one of our old horses, but she soon needed something with more get up and go.”

The Morrisons usually brand all their calves in one day, but they had sent their young cow/calf pairs, the oldest of their calves, to fresh pastures farther from the house, and Conrad really wanted to see a branding before she left so on May 2nd, she got her wish when family and friends congregated in the afternoon to brand this bunch of calves. She, along with all the other helpers on horseback, made the five-mile trek to the pasture, returning the same way about three hours later when the last branded calf left to find his mom. The horseless workers took the two pick-ups that had the branding equipment on one, and the vaccines and cold refreshments for the crew on the other.

After rounding them up and putting all the animals in the pen, the cows were cut out, leaving only the calves. A calf or two escaped with the cows, but riders on the outside of the pen, had their ropes ready and the escapees were soon convinced to return to the pen. Conrad watched this segment of the process from a safe distance away as to not get in the road. The calves were then roped by four of the riders and drug closer to the iron pot that held the branding fire and the family’s irons which marked the calves for ownership. Those not roping wrestled, branded, or vaccinated every calf, with the bull calves getting castrated. Several times ropers would trade and become wrestlers or castrators, which allowed all that wanted to rope the opportunity to do so.

Conrad did not shirk at learning the fine art of wrestling the calves. Her experienced partners gave her plenty of tips, and by the end of the day, she could help flip the calf by pulling on the rope or the calf’s tail, which ever one she needed to grab to get the calf to the ground. She and her partner were wrestling even some of the bigger calves by the end of the day. One thing she shied away from, was the opportunity to try a fried ‘sandhill oyster,’ cooked on the top of the branding pot – the by-product of the castration process. “That’s ok, Nina, there are several of us ladies who do not like the taste of them,” Morrison told her.

The last chore of the day before all the crew left was to load up the portable panels that made up the branding pen. Portable panels, an iron pot to hold the irons, propane for the fire instead of an open wood burning pit, and the vaccines are the only improvements over two centuries of branding for many ranchers in the Sandhills and elsewhere. Due to lack of help, some producers are going to a calf-table, but that is not the case yet for most ranchers.

Brandings in this neck of the woods serve also as social events for the crew, as the long winter during calving season never allows for time away. Morrison’s branding was the first of many the workers will attend, enjoying swapping stories with each other every time they get together. Another aspect all enjoy, is a good feast after the work, Shalee and Steven’s moms and other wives saw that was provided.

Conrad was totally in awe of the branding process. She was very appreciative when another crew member used her phone to film her wrestling a calf. She could not wait to send it to her fiancé’ back in Switzerland. “Shalee has already invited us after we get married to come back to the ranch for our honeymoon, I may take her up on the offer,” smiling, Conrad said. She did try to learn to rope, “I tried roping a chair or two, but seeing it done like this, I could never do.”

Asked what else she got to experience while on the ranch. “I saw Steven pull a calf, (several times) and put a prolapse back in (prolapse is when the calf bed comes out after the birth). She did not get to see a C-Section, “which is a good thing, ranchers do not want that, but I still would have liked to have seen one.” She did not get in on fixing of building any fence, and it was not haying season so no learning how to drive tractors was required this visit. “I was here the best time of the year, seeing the new babies being born and fully realizing the work needed to care for the animals, what an amazing experience I had! This was not my first trip to America, as I got to experience New York City five years ago, I would not go back there at all, but here, I will be back – I do not know when, but I will be back.” Conrad proved once again, no matter how small the time spent in the country is, it grabs one’s soul if you truly let it.

The ranch Conrad visited was bought by Shalee’s parents, Leland and LeeAnn after they sold their other ranch which was in the southwest corner of Thomas county.

Shalee works part-time at Prairie Feed supply in town, and trains working cattle dogs, mostly for herself and her family. Shalee’s dad Leland taught her to train dogs. Leland was killed in a tractor accident only two months after they bought their current ranch. After his death, Shalee and her mom managed the ranch, with the help of her dogs, and assistance from family and friends at branding, weaning and other times. Now, son CoBurn, fourteen months, ‘helps’ Shalee and husband Steven from the seat of their pick-up or their enclosed side by side Kubota and goes with Shalee when she works at the feed store.