Exploration of the Sandhills by white men began in the late 1700s. James MacKay was probably the first white man to see the Sandhills and described it as "a great desert of drifting sand, without trees, soil, rock, water, or animals of any kind…." US Army Engineer G.K. Warren concluded in 1855, "…continuous settlements cannot be made in Nebraska west of the 97th Meridian, both on account of the unfavorable climate and want to fertility in the soil." Other negative reports came in from various explorers and military expeditions throughout history, which likely contributed to the slow settlement of the area. Ranching was not a common practice in the Sandhills until the late-1800s
Several events led to the cattle industry's expansion into the northern plains. Mining in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Montanna increased populations, resulting in an increased military presence and Native American reservations. As a result, there was a need for beef and other food supplies near these population centers. Also, the industrialization and growing populations in the east increased the demand for meat. Cattlemen discovered they could breed cattle on the southern plains, drive them to the northern plains to be fed out, and ship them by railway to the eastern markets. Early ranching operations were "open range." Cowboys, working for ranchers, rounded up the free-roaming cattle and separated them for shipment to different markets. Unfortunately, much of the industry was speculative and operated with sloppy records. Actual counts of the head of livestock were unknown, leading to overgrazing. The winters of 1886 and 1887 hit the cattle industry hard, and by the late 1800s, "open range" grazing was over.
Cattle were trailed from the southern plains to the Sandhills in the earliest days of settlement. Photo by: Sandhills Task Force
Ranchers learned from the "open range" years and developed ranches as a professional business. Advancements in livestock water development (windmills), fencing, hay harvesting, and limited crop production allowed better control of cattle. The growing railroad system provided more accessible access to markets. These improvements encouraged changes in breeding and more accurate record keeping. Cattle still tended to comingle on the open range in the summertime and were brought into fenced areas for winter and fed supplemental hay. Branding was still used to identify cattle and became formalized with brand registration and inspections. The Nebraska Stock Growers Association was organized in 1888, and in 1941 the Nebraska Brand Committee was created by the Nebraska State Legislature. Today, there are more than 35.000 brands registered in Nebraska.
The Homestead and Kinkaid Acts played a leading role in settlement of the Sandhills. The Homestead act of 1862 provided free government land in 160-acre tracts, and even by stretching the rules, it wasn't easy to acquire more than 480 acres. These acreages were too small to operate a successful ranch. In 1904 the Kinkaid Act increased homestead claims to 640 acres in 37 western Nebraska counties, including most of the Sandhills.
The 37 Western counties included in the Kinkaid Act of 1904.
Many of today's Sandhills ranchers are 2nd and 3rd-generation family-owned ranches that were homesteaded under the Kinkaid Act. Technology advancements have changed how ranchers use cattle to harvest native forage. Solar wells, pipelines, bottomless tanks, salt and mineral use, and fencing play a role in how ranchers move their cattle across the landscape—providing periods of grazing and periods of rest and recovery for Sandhill rangelands. Much like in the early days, ranchers turn cattle onto upland Sandhills prairie in the summer and confine cattle to areas closer to headquarters in the winter, feeding them supplemental harvested feeds. Today the mixing of cattle from different ranches does not occur, and fencing is used year-round to control cattle distribution. Cow are bred to calve in the spring or fall, and weaned calves are retained or shipped to other markets by truck. Most cattle are finished in a feedlot using harvested feed such as corn and soybeans, but grass-finished beef is becoming more popular as market changes occur.
A newly installed solar well pumps water into a steel bottomless tank for cattle in McPherson County. Photo by: Ashley Garrelts, STF
Proper grazing strategies have improved the Sandhills vegetation over time. Early accounts of the Sandhills describe large areas of blowing sand and actively moving dunes. Today blowouts are less common, and dunes maintain vegetation with minimal disturbance. Today's Sandhill rancher is probably more concerned with Eastern Red Cedar encroachment than blowouts. The decreased use of prescribed fire and increased suppression of wildfires in combination with the planting of Eastern Red Cedar trees as windbreaks has allowed this native species to invade at an alarming rate. Left unchecked, the Eastern Red Cedar will continue to overtake the Sandhills, decreasing the useable forage available to grazing animals.
Eastern Red Cedar invades the Sandhills prairie, outcompeting the grazable forage. Photo by: Ashley Garrelts, STF.
Ranching in the Sandhills has been integral to Nebraska's cattle industry. Total cattle numbers in Nebraska grew from about 2.5 million in 1920 to approximately 6.5 million in 1980 to about 6.8 million today. The top beef-producing county in the United States is located in the Sandhills—Cherry County, with nearly 166,000 cows. Half of the State's 23 million acres of range and pastureland is in the Sandhills, making it the prime location for beef production. The ability of Nebraska to provide beef to the United States and the World is dependent upon the Sandhills Ranching Communities.
A story of how cattle ranching was started in the Sandhills
According to rancher Jim Dahlman, in 1878, cattle from the N-bar Ranch grazed along the Niobrara River with riders preventing them from straying into the Sandhills. In March 1879, more than 6000 cattle drifted into the hills during a severe blizzard. Dalman was a search party member that ventured into the hills to search for the cattle. The cowboys found not only their lost animals but large herds of cattle that had been there for years. The cattle had survived on the native grasses and many small lakes. They were observed to be in excellent condition. After bearing witness to this, cowboys began utilizing the Sandhills region instead of trying to keep the cattle out.
--Atlas of the Sandhills