A view of agriculture from Nebraska's sandhills
The landscape was green everywhere from the ample spring rains in Nebraska's Sandhills. Cattle — mostly black — would soon be up to their bellies in grass when my wife Marilyn and I, our son, his wife, and their two young daughters visited western Nebraska two weeks ago. As new members of a fishing and hunting association, we spent three nights at one of their cabins on a fine trout stream in a favorite region that also has good hunting for prairie chickens, sharp-tail grouse, turkeys and mule deer.
Because of a long waiting list, it took us 12 years to get accepted into the association, so I'm not telling anything more except to say that in spite of being Hawkeye football fans, its president, who is a graduate from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, invited us to join the organization. When I asked him why the association voted to accept Iowans, he commented, "Our border security isn't what it used to be, and glad you could join!"
I really like the Sandhills. It's still a mostly unspoiled region of the U.S. where cattlemen and cattlewomen who truly know how to raise some of the best beef in the world. I say "still mostly unspoiled" because the region is being looked at for exploitation by profiteers and very wealthy people who are mostly unwanted by the local residents.
I already witnessed the acquisition of a superb trout stream 60 miles eastward, which was my family's favorite place to visit in Nebraska until recently when a well-to-do Easterner purchased much of the streamside property that wasn't public and immediately forbad everyone else from setting foot there. This won't happen to our new favorite locale in Nebraska, because the association owns the property and grants access, with appropriate permission.
Whenever we visit the area, we feel like we are "in the West," which suits my wife who grew up in Idaho, and me. I became fond of the West when I attended the University of Colorado as an undergraduate, and when she and I attended graduate school in Utah and liked its mountains, fishing, and camping in wilderness areas.
Most of the calves produced in the Sandhills are shipped to cattle-feeders elsewhere because their soil is too fragile for growing corn to fatten livestock except when grass-fed. The region should remain covered with native grasses and prairie plants like the Blowout Penstemon, which is found nowhere else.
The bluffs and hills are populated with Ponderosa and Bull pines, Western Red Cedars, eastern junipers, Black Hills spruce, and various ash, oak and aspen, as well as cottonwood and willow trees in the many sloughs and along creek banks.
The trees that grow in the Sandhills also grow in western Iowa, including our farm, because more than a hundred centuries ago as the last continental glacier receded, winds swooping eastward from the Rocky Mountains picked up the tiniest pieces of dirt in what is now western Nebraska and transported the dust eastward. The larger and heavier particles remained behind to form the sand hills.
The wind-borne dust remained aloft until it encountered bands of trees along longitudinally-running rivers like the Missouri River. Wherever trees restrained the wind, the minute yellow dust accumulated over many centuries to form the Loess Hills.
The highest and steepest hills are just east of the Missouri River; the amount of wind-blown deposits tapers off farther eastward, like on our farm some 40 miles east of the Big Muddy. Our land has a mixture of black loam in the bottoms and yellow loess on the rolling hills.
The rock-free soil on our farm is 30 to 100-ft. deep and acts like a gigantic sponge. It holds moisture so that the water table in nearly as high on the tops of hills as in the bottoms, yet the surface dries quickly after rains.
However, our land is highly vulnerable to water and wind erosion and must be farmed with minimum tillage. Strips of small grains, hay and pasture interspersed with row crops work well as farming practices. Herbicides reduce the ground cover.
Many would say this farmland is among the best and most uniquely formed soils in the world, shared only by a few regions elsewhere on our continent and in China.
The waterways should have wide grass strips to hold the runoff of water and to curtail flowage of nutrients and any pesticides that farmers use into the waterways. The soil is best farmed with livestock as part of the operation, so that their manure can be recycled back into the soil like it was when bison predominated as grazers here.
Our respite helped restore my perspective after many months of nearly overwhelming requests for assistance from farmers, ranchers, elected officials, students and all sorts of media. I felt rejuvenated when I spotted a sign next to a ranch entrance that said "All salesmen will be neutered."