Ag Pride 2023 | Agriculture is Life: The Mackaben Sisters

Even before she could walk, Laney Mackaben was out in the barn.  

Laney, Dex and Corky make a good crew. Laney enjoys daywork and getting to see how different people run their operations. “I learn something everywhere I go,” she said.

“My parents, Chad and Shawnie, worked on a purebred operation when I was a baby,” she said. “They made me my own calving pen and took me to the barn with them while they worked. When I wasn’t in school I was with my dad every day. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” 

Laney and her sister Morgan have both worked hard on the family ranch near Belle Fourche, South Dakota, and they have a broad range of experiences with different aspects of agriculture and the livestock industry. Both girls see the value in the hard work, the long hours and physically demanding days that they invest.  

“Agriculture is life,” Laney said. “We can’t live without it. And I wouldn’t want to live any other way.”  

Currently Laney is working several ag-related jobs, helping on the family ranch, and taking online classes for a major in Agricultural Business through Fort Hays State University in Kansas.  

Morgan started a sheep project for 4-H with two bottle lambs and worked her way up to a flock of sixty-three ewes. She will graduate from high school this spring, and plans to attend SDSU to pursue a nursing degree. 

“I just sold my sheep a couple of days ago to get ready to go to college,” she said. “I knew that was the plan when I started it so it was not too hard to see them go. I was able to sell them privately and I was just happy that it was my own project.”  

Ranching is in their blood. Grandparents Ron and Ann Mackaben are still actively ranching on the Powder River south of Broadus, Montana, and the girls spend plenty of time helping out on the original home ranch near Union Center, where their father, Chad, grew up. Shawnie’s parents, Ron and Lou Nenaber owned a feed store in Belle Fourche for years and Shawnie grew up showing livestock in 4-H. 

Morgan Mackaben used her flock of sheep as a management tool to spot graze specific areas to reduce old growth and weeds. “We need to keep finding ways to make agriculture more sustainable for years to come,” she said.  

“My family has had a cow/calf operation forever,” Morgan said. “I’ve been on the ranch my whole life. We still have big family get togethers for brandings and at shipping time. It’s awesome.”  

Chad and Shawnie got their girls directly involved with livestock at a very early age. 

“I was about five and Morgan was three when dad got us started with goats,” Laney said. “Dad thought we shouldn’t be out in the cows and he convinced mom we should get some smaller animals so it would be a little safer for us to do our own thing. We learned to feed and take care of our goats, raised bum lambs on them, and learned to market our own lambs.” 

“When dad had bum calves, we raised them on our goats too,” Morgan said. “I remember getting off the bus after school and the first thing we did was change our clothes and run to the barn to get our baby lambs nursed. When we were old enough we jumped into 4-H, and we showed goats, lambs, and bucket calves. Eventually we sold the goats and focused on our cattle. I also had my sheep.” 

Laney and Morgan each received a heifer calf as a gift after the Atlas storm in 2013. Both of these cows are still in their herds. Both girls wrote essays about their experiences helping to gather up surviving cattle after the blizzard that killed thousands of cattle in the area and were chosen to receive a heifer calf from the Dockery family in Wyoming.  

Laney said that she thought she would outgrow the memories of the devastation after Atlas, but that many things are still vivid in her mind. 

Chad, Morgan, Shawnie: Chad, Morgan and Shawnie Mackaben. Morgan was a finalist for the Star Farmer award in FFA. 

“I never wish to ever see anything like that again in my life,” she said. “When we left the house the morning after the storm, Dad said, ‘don’t be surprised if you see a lot of dead cattle today.'” 

After waiting for a snowplow to clear the road to their summer pasture, they topped a hill and Laney recalls that the gravel road was covered with cows both dead and alive. She and Morgan spent days horseback, helping find cattle scattered across pastures, moving cows off the road, and cutting ear tags out of dead stock. 

“They had drifted for miles,” Laney said. “My little brother Clay was four that year, and he had just gotten his first calf that spring. He always pointed it out when we were checking pastures. He knew it was his calf and he made sure we all knew. The second day when we were riding through one of the neighbors’ pastures, we saw his calf out in the middle of a dam. The whole experience was so surreal. It will still catch up to you.”   

The positive aspects of ranching have outweighed the tragedy of Atlas. The heifers given to Morgan and Laney are both still in their herds. 

“Sage is ten years old now, and she just had a bull calf last week; she’s quite the girl,” Morgan said. 

Laney showed her heifer, Macey, till she was a three-year-old. 

“She has an attitude like no other,” Laney said. “In the winter I’ll be shoveling cake out of the back of the pickup, and she’ll follow and beller until I’m done scooping. She wants the last big pile.” 

The heifers were the inspiration for the Mackaben family to start a heifer donation project of their own.  

“My family runs heifers for 4-H through the Butte/Lawrence County’s 4-H programs,” Morgan said. “We wanted to give back after what the Dockery family did for us following the Atlas storm. We opened it up for young 4-Hers, asking them to write an essay about their goals for a heifer and their involvement in the beef industry. We read the essays and each candidate also participates in a short interview before a heifer is awarded.  We gave the first four calves out of our herd, then the person who won the heifer the first year brought a calf back to donate in the fifth year. That way it keeps going, and the participants learn about giving back.”  

Laney’s desire to be involved in FFA during high school was the catalyst for Belle Fourche to start an FFA Chapter when she was an eighth grader. Both Laney and Morgan stayed involved in 4-H livestock showing and FFA competitions throughout high school. 

“I was just following my sister’s footsteps when I got involved in FFA my eighth grade year,” Morgan said. “When I started, I was the one being helped by everybody; now the roles are reversed. I have been on the agronomy team for three years; this year I coached the other members and we got second place at state.”  

Morgan has also been an active advocate for the ag industry at local events. 

“I have brought sheep in for downtown festivals several times so that kids who are not actively involved in agriculture can see them,” she said. “It is important to advocate for the industry that keeps us alive.” 

Morgan knows the value of the hard work she does, and she said it always pays off. She’s also grateful for the support of their teachers who understand the long hours they put in on the ranch. 

“When storms come through, we skip school to get cows and calves to shelter,” she said. “It definitely requires us to be on top of our school work. Our teachers are very supportive, and that’s something grateful for. Laney and I were both straight-A students; we knew we were needed at home so we got our school done. When I had sheep lambing, there were times I didn’t make it to bed till four o’clock in the morning; the lambs were coming one after another. I still had school the next day, and I made it.”  

Morgan plans to attend SDSU to pursue a nursing degree, and possibly become a nurse practitioner. She says she has already had a little practice fixing up some of her sister’s cuts. 

“I want to come back and serve in a rural clinic,” she said. “Farmers and ranchers are always caring for livestock before themselves, and I want to help take care of them. I hope to get back into ranching eventually, to keep building my own herd and help dad out with his cows too if possible.”  

Morgan said that managing her flock of sheep gave her a deeper perspective into ranch management.  

“I got to make my own connections with other producers, talk to the vet, manage my own numbers and make it my own learning experience,” she said. “Dad didn’t just grant me his good summer pasture. I used electric fence to graze spots that had never been grazed. The sheep were a management tool; they eliminated old growth along irrigation ditches and grazed weed patches on fields and other less desirable areas.” 

Laney and Morgan have attended several South Dakota Grasslands Coalition soil health seminars and grazing schools. They participated in a Ranching For Profit school in Edgemont as a senior and sophomore in high school. Morgan attended lambing seminars to aid in her sheep venture. Both also learn from hands on experience and responsibilities on the ranch. This summer, Morgan did most of the irrigating and Laney kept busy checking cows, doctoring, and fixing fence. 

“Morgan and I did all of the haying the last couple of summers when dad was busy with his excavating business,” Laney said. “I did ninety percent of the calving for our South Dakota cows last spring; my siblings helped on weekends and dad helped during storms. Last spring I also started training Dex, my parents’ new puppy. We really bonded. All summer he and I did the vast majority of moving pastures by ourselves; I am blest with a good dog that picked up on things really fast.” 

Laney has also helped her grandparents with bigger projects over the past year. 

“They’re still ranching,” she said. “My grandma has more energy than most people my age. Some days we’re trying to convince them to slow down, but they are convinced that ranching is what keeps them going.” 

Morgan is thankful for how ranching has shaped her life. 

“Sitting on the back of a horse with a calf on your lap and trying to find your way back to the barn in a blizzard is not something every teenager will experience,” she said. “It makes us all more grateful. When we’re staying up all night, sleeping in barn, working together to keep claves alive, we get closer as a family. We all have to work together to figure our way through the weather or whatever it may be.”  

Laney is choosing to spread her wings a little, even though she still helps a lot on the family ranch. She is finding the benefits of working different jobs, meeting different people and learning from a wide array of opportunities and experiences. Her side gigs are all ag related, though, she does daywork for many people, works at two local salebarns, and builds chinks and chaps at the local leather shop.  

“At one sale barn I ride in the back; at the other I work in the office,” she said. “I’m learning several aspects of the whole industry this way. In the spring and fall I go to quite a few brandings and help precondition and ship in the fall.” She said that she learns from everyone she works for. 

“Agriculture and ranching have given us a heart and a respect for everyone in the industry,” Morgan said.  

Agriculture is my life, I don’t want to do anything else,” Laney said.  

Ranch work means difficult tasks and long hours, and the Mackaben sisters know the value of hard work. “It’s just kind of a habit, if something needs done you just do it,” Laney said.  
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