Best Young Farmers/Ranchers-1

First-Generation Rancher Shapes Her Future in the Nebraska Sandhills

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Shelly Kelly blends a growing cattle operation with a professional life as executive director of the Sandhills Task Force. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Joel Reichenberger)

It takes a few minutes to climb the wind-blown, sandy knob near Brewster, Nebraska, where Shelly Kelly keeps some of her cattle. But it is effort well invested. A spitting rain barely wets waist-high, warm-season grasses and forbs. From that prominence, the rolls and folds of the Nebraska Sandhills stretch out as far as the farthest horizon, its famous dunes brushed by late-summer golds and greens of Indiangrass, prairie sandreed, switchgrass and sand bluestem.

To see a video of Kelly and the rest of the 2022 America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers winners and to watch for an application for next year, see….

"This has always been a challenging place to live and it still is a challenging place to make a living," says Kelly, rancher, single mom to 4-year-old Conley and executive director of the Sandhills Task Force. "But these hills are some of the most mesmerizing, beautiful hills you'll ever see, like ripples on a beach with their waving grasses. Sun rising and sun setting. Clouds rolling in with intense thunderstorms. I'll never get tired of watching it."

This is a special place. Blanketing 20,000 square miles in north-central Nebraska, some of the 670 native species root as far as 10 feet down into sandy soils all but void of organic matter. Trees are rare. Sparse stands of cottonwoods, green ash, boxelder and hackberry populate the Sandhills' river bottoms, lakes and around homesteads.

Another, the cantankerous Eastern red cedar, is a plague in the Sandhills' degrading rangeland. These are best attacked -- attack is the correct word -- by prescribed burns, skid steers with shearing and mulching attachments, and chain saws.


This land is not suitable for growing crops. "But it is very good for wildlife and cattle," Kelly explains. "We have healthy and thriving bird populations. We have deer and elk and turkeys. And they all get along very well with cattle. Cattle are key. If we weren't managing the Sandhills with cattle, it would not be near as healthy as it is today."

Kelly is a fourth-generation rancher. She recently purchased a homestead at Westerville, Nebraska, not too far from Broken Bow. "I'm a fourth-generation rancher, or you could say that I'm a first-generation rancher," she says, working cows and mending fences largely on her own. "I grew up on a ranch. My folks grew up on ranches, but their operation was not big enough for me to go back to. So, I've started my own."

Kelly holds a degree in range science with minors in animal science and ag finance from South Dakota State University. "I learned a ton there that I could take back to my own operation," she says. "But I also found professions that support ranchers as I built my cattle operation."

Kelly worked for USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) before moving to the Sandhills Task Force seven years ago. The task force was organized in the 1993 by a coalition of ranchers and state and federal government representatives. Of the 16-member board, nine by rule must make a living from ranching in the Sandhills. The task force promotes private, profitable ranching, and it promotes conservation and stewardship.

"The Sandhills is a landscape where we can literally take sunshine and turn it into some of the highest-quality protein in the world," she says. "By cattle ranching and the ranching industry, we're able to manage this landscape for wildlife and for water, and for clean air and carbon sequestration."

For two years now -- still working for ranchers at the Sandhills Task Force -- Kelly has been building her cattle herd on two pieces of leased land, 960 leased acres in all. One piece borders her homestead. The second is 50 miles away, near Brewster and her parents -- land that lays in the Sandhills proper.


Kelly has negotiated leases that give her some operational breathing room. In return for grass, she clears cedars and has committed to improving the land's water resources. "I've been working with the local NRCS to upgrade the water system so that we will be able to better do rotational grazing."

In her rotational-grazing system, cattle graze each grass resource only a single time per season. The management strategy strengthens the overall health and resiliency of rangeland that, in years before, had often been grazed for the entire growing season. Season-long grazing reduces root mass and damages the ability of the plant to withstand droughty summers. Invasive species thrive in the gaps among depleted natives. Erosion is an increasing threat. "With rotation, I'm able to give the plants a break. Roots grow deeper and plant vigor improves," Kelly says. "(The ground) produces more forage in the future."

Her Sandhills' pasture is largely warm-season, native grasses and forbs. Her homeplace pastures are dominated by introduced species, mostly smooth brome, with some warm-season native remnants.

"If I'm able to graze a little bit better, I'll be able to improve the amount of native warm-season grasses and native forbs," she says. "The changes that we'll be able to make on this place are going to be really exciting to watch."

Today, her leases support a combined herd of 60 cow-calf pairs. The herd is founded on animals bred to calve a bit later than on most operations. "I have continued to buy cattle when they are undervalued and sell them when they are worth more," she says. The trick is to discover which animals are discounted and buy those that best complement her pasture resources. Of late, buying discounted summer calving cows provides her with a low-input calf crop.


"You've got to be fairly creative to find opportunities. It takes a lot of networking," she says. "I've been able to take advantage of my work with the task force. There are a lot of mentors there who have helped me find opportunities."

Being a single mom while ranching is a challenge -- and a blessing wrapped into the high-energy antics of a young boy who catches frogs in a water tank and is already riding a horse.

"I love that I get to have Conley with me as I go about my daily life," she says, wondering aloud what knowledge her son is accumulating from the many Sandhills Task Force Zoom meetings he sits through with his mother.

"He occasionally takes naps in the pickup, and we have picnics out in the pasture while we're fixing fence or hauling water. But raising Conley out here has been one of my greatest joys, watching him to be able to run and play and learn and explore is so important. He gets to see nature at its best, he gets to see nature at its worst. And he is learning about life a little bit more deeply than I think he would be able to if we weren't afforded this opportunity."


Kelly and Conley are carving out that first-generation ranch supported by deep, fourth-generation roots. Theirs is a rich life with a "good tribe," she says, supported well by her parents, John and Laura Taylor, and her brother, Ray, and his wife, Laura.

"My heart definitely resides in the Sandhills. I feel at peace when I'm out here," she says looking out over a future built in endless hills, "listening to the crickets and the birds, the cows. I feel calm. I feel like I know what I'm doing, even as I wonder why everything works the way that it does. But this is my home, this is where I have my own cows. Ranching is just the best achievement in my life."


Editor's Note:

This is the first of five profiles of our 12th class of America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers sponsored by DTN/ Progressive Farmer. They are among the best of their generation. The annual award recognizes five farmers and ranchers who best represent the pioneering promises of American agriculture: Farmers and ranchers who are innovative, imaginative and who work to improve their communities.

To see the announcement about all the winners, go to….

Dan Miller can be reached at

Follow him on Twitter @DMillerPF

Dan Miller