Miles and Miles: Sandhills family building a fifth generation ranch |

Miles and Miles: Sandhills family building a fifth generation ranch

Deanna Nelson-Licking, Freelance Contributor

Deep in the heart of the Nebraska Sandhills lies the Miles ranch near Brownlee, Nebraska. The ranch encompasses rough hills, wet meadows and some river bottom along the North Loup River. A "mom and pop outfit," run by fourth-generation ranchers Craig and Joy Miles and their son Caleb, raise Black Angus cattle in the hills and put up hay on the meadows. 

"God's been good to us by allowing us to carry on the family heritage and traditions." Craig Miles said. "My ancestors came to this country from England in 1667 and they were stockmen over there and we still are now." 

Craig's great-grandfather Seth Miles from Goshen County, Connecticut was married in December of 1888. Almost immediately he and his new bride Anna rode the train to the end of the line, which was Alliance, Nebraska. They homesteaded 16 miles southeast of town. The land is now part of the Muleshoe Ranch and the lake nearby still bears the name Miles Lake. A "rolling stone who gathered no moss," Seth was never happy in one place very long. He liked adventure and building something, and once the hard work was done he was ready to start over somewhere else. Over the next few decades Seth and Anna moved all over the Sandhills. The couple had six children, three sons and three daughters, all of whom were sent back to the Miles family in Connecticut for their formal education. The oldest son, Austin, apprenticed to a butcher in Connecticut but decided to come back to the Sandhills. He was the only one of the six to return to the area. Austin took up land north of Stapleton, Nebraska and also played on the Stapleton men's baseball team. Austin married Mae Lester from Arnold in 1916. 

Seth and Anna were living on a place northeast of Stapleton in 1919. He sold his land to his brother and moved north to the Brownlee area. He purchased a homestead and Austin bought an adjoining one. Within a few years Seth was ready to move on, but Austin said he was ready to put down roots and bought his father out. The two homesteads became the core of the ranch as more land was purchased through the years. As the ranch grew, so did the family. Austin and Mae had six children, four boys and two girls. Austin purchased more land in 1938 from the widow of Doc Higgins for $15 dollars an acre. She had a large house filled with antiques, but she just packed a suitcase and left the rest. Austin had a hard time paying for the land and things were tight for many years. The Blizzard of 1949 was hard as was the loss of the house to a fire the following year. 

Austin's son Sam was born in 1931 and he was drafted into the service at the end of the Korean Conflict and spent two years in Germany. Upon his return he married Charlotte Cordis from Thedford and in1959 the young couple came back to the family ranch, living on the land Austin still owned near the Dismal River. In June of 1963 when his brother moved off the ranch, Sam moved back to the home place and took over full operation in 1972 upon the death of his father. Austin's death brought a split to the ranch as the estate was divided among his children, but Sam was able to keep the core of the Higgins' place which is where his son and grandson now live. The Miles family raised Hereford cattle for many years as did almost everyone else in those days. The stretch of country between Thedford and Valentine was called "Hereford Alley." In 1973 Sam brought in Angus bulls to cross on the Herefords. His son Craig Miles came back to the ranch after college and in 1985 he married Joy McCroy. Joy is a registered nurse and works part time at Cherry County Hospital in Valentine.  

They raised a daughter, Charity, and a son, Caleb, on the land. They started improving the bloodlines of the cattle through artificial insemation and have AI'ed the yearling heifers since 1989, changing the herd to Angus genetics. "Dad was usually pretty willing to let me try some new things out," Craig said. 

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Sam and Charlotte retired in 2009 and Craig and Joy took over complete operation. Their daughter is a nurse and lives in Rapid City with her husband. But their son Caleb came back in 2014 after graduating from college and is becoming a partner in the ranch. At his urging they are now trying a little Simmental-Angus cross for hybrid vigor. 

Craig is committed to bettering the cattle and the land. They practice rotational grazing, and wean the calves on the meadows. The Miles' run about 600 head of mother cows, AI'ing 150 to 250 aged cows in addition to the heifers. They lease some bulls for cleanup. “AI gives us the ability to tap into the best bulls in the world and good, solid genetics show in the calves,” Craig said.  

They also believe in a short breeding cycle, 30 days for the heifers and no longer than 55 days on the cows. "We wean early, especially the first calf heifers, which gives the cows ample time to improve body condition score before winter sets in. "We like to get those calves off the two year old heifers early not only to improve BCS, but also to give them the opportunity to finish growing up. When it's cold I feed a lot of hay; thankfully we are able to raise most of it on our meadows. A good nutrition program including vaccinations and mineral helps the overall health of the herd." Craig said. 

"I feel very blessed to be ranching; it's not just a livelihood but a business that we enjoy." 

Craig feels that the cattle industry has vast potential. "We need to give the consumers what they want, quality beef and accountability. Somehow we need to get the stories of the ranchers out there to the public, so they have a personal connection to where their food comes from and to show that we are good stewards of our land and livestock. The American public deserves to know where their food is raised. I support RCALF and their commitment to Country of Origin Labeling." 

The Miles market their steers at the Valentine Livestock Market and keep the top third to half of the heifers for replacements. Bassett Livestock Auction has also been important over the years to the family. Craig said, "The future is bright for beef producers especially with the President rewriting our trade agreements, I believe that the United States produces the best and safest protein in the world and beef is the mainstay of that. We make our living off our steers but they are a byproduct of the cowherd and what we are trying to accomplish there."