Ten miles from the tiny town of Johnstown, Nebraska, is another community of sorts, one born of generations of family, livestock, wildlife and 22,000 acres of "borrowed" land known as the Beel Ranch.
"The land is only ours to borrow from God, and we want to give back and make the most of it," said co-owner Frank Beel, whose grandfather, Henry O. Beel, started the ranch in 1937. "We give thanks every day for this place and the opportunity to live and work here."
The attitude of giving back was handed down from grandfather to his son, Henry C., who passed it on to his sons Frank, Henry and Adam.
Their commitment to land stewardship earned the Beel family the 2013 Leopold Conservation Award for Nebraska, which recognizes management of natural resources and is sponsored by the Nebraska Cattlemen, the Wisconsin-based Sand County Foundation and Cargill.
"Privately owned ranches managed by families with thoughtful reverence for the landscape is the best of our country," said Jim Van Winkle, rancher and retired Sandhills Task Force coordinator, who has worked with the Beels on their conservation efforts.
The ranch spreads out on either side of the Cherry and Brown county lines in north-central Nebraska's Sandhills. The population of nearby Johnstown is 60, and the population of the Beel Ranch is 17 humans and 1,200 cow/calf pairs.
Frank, 43, and his wife, Jennifer, have four daughters, including 12-year-old triplets; Frank's twin brother, Henry, and his wife, Mary, have two sons and a daughter; and younger brother, Adam, 37, and his wife, Jenny, have a girl and a boy. The brothers' mother, Becky, is married to Kenny Schelm.
Henry C. Beel passed away in 2003, and today, the third generation operates the ranch. "We want to preserve what we have without splitting it up. It works best as one unit because of how well-balanced the place is," Frank explained.
Most of the ranch is nonirrigated grassland. There are 3,500 acres of subirrigated meadows and 260 acres of pivot irrigation.
Long before the Beels settled in this area after the Great Depression, the Sandhills were forming. Some 5,000 to 8,000 years ago, wind whooshed across the lonesome Plains lifting and sifting grains of primarily quartz sand into ridges.
Sand piled on the upwind side of the ridges forming the dunes known as the Sandhills, while finer particles of silt and clay were flung aloft to eventually settle in low spots where lush meadows formed.
"In the meadows, the water comes up from below," Frank said. "When we're out deer hunting in the fall, we're usually walking in water."
But in the driest years, the irrigated ground creates something of an "insurance plan" for the cow herd, Frank said.
"We take corn in to the local Farmers Ranchers Co-op and do some grain banking, and they bring out feed every two weeks. [Or,] we can also go in and chop for silage if we need to," he added.
The Beels have both spring-calving and fall-calving Angus-based herds, with about 800 spring cows calving around March 1 and about 400 fall cows that begin calving Sept. 1.
Caring for land and cattle in the Sandhills means maintaining the grass cover that anchors the sandy soil. Both warm- and cool-season native grasses flourish throughout the ranch. "We will come back to a pasture no more than three times a year," Franks explained.
To make the pastures more productive, the brothers have installed more than 30 miles of pipeline. They've also planted miles of shelterbelts to stymie wind erosion and preserve wildlife.
Frank said he and his brothers have been "planting trees for as long as we can remember," another conservation practice learned from their father, who received the tree planter of the year award in 2001 from the Middle Niobrara Natural Resources District (MNNRD). Mainly cedar trees were planted during the years, but more recently, Ponderosa pine, chokecherry, white oak, willow, elderberry, snowberry, plum and Midwest crabapple have been planted for diversity to guard against disease.
In cooperation with the MNNRD, the generations of Beels have planted more than 9,500 trees in about 31 shelterbelts over four decades.
Another resource the family is careful to preserve is a 4-mile section of the south branch of Plum Creek that runs through the ranch.
Fifteen years ago, the Beels partnered with the Sandhills Task Force to build five dams to stem further erosion.
"Water is a very valuable commodity, and we need to be good stewards of the water as well as the land," Frank said. Five L-shaped tubes were installed along the creek. They are engineered to sustain a 100-year flood and vary in size from 2 to 5 feet in diameter. "When the water reaches a certain point, it flows through the tube," Frank explained.
Not one spot on the ranch is Frank's favorite but rather several -- the knobs of the Sandhills where he was raised.
"On top of the hills, I can look out over the ranch and the meadows, and see God's beauty in the land. It's truly a remarkable place to raise a family."
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