Sustainable ranching, Van Nenkirks continue Hereford legacy
Oshkosh, Neb. – Registered Herefords are a way of life for the Van Newkirk family.
It all started in 1892, when Joe Van Newkirk’s grandfather settled in Oshkosh, Neb.
“Back in the day, my granddad LD was a John Bratt cowboy, which was a famous ranch in this area. Then, he started his own herd of Longhorn cows that he kept breeding to Herefords,” states Joe Van Newkirk, owner of Van Newkirk Herefords.
After many years Van Newkirk’s father AJ, the youngest son, paved his own path and decided to start a registered purebred Hereford operation.
“When my parents first started out in 1940, they had Holstein cows for 15 to 20 years and sold the milk to grow their Hereford cowherd. They also had 250 to 300 sheep they raised to help pay the bills,” Van Newkirk says.
He explains his two older brothers helped out on their family’s ranch, but when they graduated from college, they went their own way into the oil field and real estate business. His sister taught elementary school and eventually retired.
“Eventually, the sheep and Holsteins were sold, and the ranch transitioned into a non-diversified, purebred Hereford bull operation,” he adds.
Since he was little, Van Newkirk knew all he wanted to do was ranch.
“This is a great place to raise a family, and a living can be made ranching. There’s nothing better, as far as I’m concerned,” he states.
Van Newkirk and his wife Cyndi have run the ranch since 1985 and, along with long-time ranch hand Travis Kezar and their son Kolby, have expanded their registered Hereford herd.
“Our youngest son Kolby came back to the ranch about four years ago with his wife Meg and children Barrett and Sloan to help out on the ranch,” notes Van Newkirk.
“The ranch has 600 registered Hereford cows, but the main aspect of the ranch is that we sell about 200 to 220 two-year-old purebred Herefords bulls at the annual bull sale in January,” Van Newkirk states. “Usually, 65 of the bulls are sold as yearlings and are the more elite bulls out of the calf crop.”
Every year, the Van Newkirks also sell 20 registered heifer calves and about 125 to 130 commercial heifer calves, which are born from registered cows but are not sold with papers.
Starting around Feb. 1, work starts to pick up on the ranch as calving season begins, according to Van Newkirk.
“We calve the heifers at the same time as the older cows because we might as well calve them all when the females are being watched most of the time anyways,” explains Van Newkirk. “Calving ends by the middle of April, and the calves are branded at about the same time, as well.”
Out of 600 cows, about 120 are heifers, Van Newkirk says, and during calving, the cows and heifers are brought in and fed hay because they are in smaller pastures and don’t have a lot of room graze.
“By the middle of May, the cows are taken out to grass pastures and will graze all summer into the first part of October,” Van Newkirk states. “The calves aren’t fed creep feed because we want the cows to raise their calves without a lot of help. Since there is a rigid culling process, we want to be able to evaluate the cows more accurately.”
The operation also has irrigated alfalfa and cornfields, which are harvested for hay and silage for the cattle to be fed during the winter.
“Overall, the Herefords graze nine months out of the year and are only fed hay for three months during calving season. About 10 miles from the ranch, there is some farm ground where we trail the cattle, which shortens the hay feeding period,” says Van Newkirk.
“None of the cattle have to leave the ranch,” he adds. “In January, we have our annual bull sale, and we start all over again in February.”
Ag in Nebraska
Van Newkirk says their Hereford herd is expanding slowly, which is good news because they want to set a foundation for future generations.
“Our main goal is to be sustainable both environmentally and financially,” he states. “The ranch sits in the Sandhills of Nebraska, which are very sandy, and the ground needs to be taken care of.”
Trying to not overgraze the land and implementing wise farming practices is the way to go, according to Van Newkirk, so more than just grass can survive.
“We are very conscious of the management decisions we make because sustainability is a big concern for most people, including this ranch,” Van Newkirk adds. “Ultimately, we want to keep the ranch sustainable for the environment and our family.”
The good and the bad
Operating in western Nebraska has both challenges and benefits for producers who call it home.
“This area has a very temperate climate where it can get very cold but typically doesn’t last very long,” Van Newkirk notes.
He also says, despite a severe drought in 2011-12, western Nebraska isn’t prone to many prolonged droughts, which is good for producers.
“The drought of 2011-12 was really a challenge but it made everyone a better steward of the land,” he adds.
Another challenges Van Newkirk believes affects western Nebraska is taxes.
“Property taxes are the number one concern in Nebraska,” he states. “I figured out one cow costs about $167 a year just in real estate taxes.”
Water pumping limitations for irrigation are also a drawback, but Van Newkirk believes the limitations to be necessary.
Regardless, he says, “I’ve traveled and visited a lot of cattle operations across the country and wouldn’t trade any of them for this country to raise cattle in.”
Visit vannewkirkherefords.com for more information on the Van Newkirk family and their ranch.
Heather Loraas is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.