The Shadbolt Cattle Company values family, landscape and animals.
Story and photos by Melissa Hemken
The Nebraska Sandhills absorb history. Names of homesteading families linger as place names. Land ownership may transfer because one rancher expands his operation and his neighbor retires, but place names stick.
Land deals over the decades placed the 1885 homestead of Quentin Shadbolt’s great-grandfather George Shadbolt as a pasture on a neighboring ranch. The Shadbolt Cattle Company near Merriman, Nebraska (pop. 131) engulfs about 20 former homestead claims of other families. The names of the pioneer families — Noble, Leach, and Jameison, etc. — live on as pasture titles.
“My great-granddad came over from Wisconsin where he milked cows,” Quentin says. “An old-timer’s written account says that my grandma should have just opened a restaurant because she fed so many people travelling through their homestead. Riding a horse to get around back then, you had to stop somewhere, and it was probably somebody’s house.”
Today’s machines ease the hard work of ranching and quicken the pace of travel. Quentin lauds his 1958 Piper Pacer airplane as the most beneficial for his ranch; most neighboring ranchers also hold pilot licenses and keep planes.
“It’s 54 miles to town [Gordon],” says Quentin, listing the first of several reasons to have a plane. “It’s really nice to fetch parts if you’re broken down in the middle of a hay field or you’re going to go work cows and you forgot to buy pour-on.”
“Flying to town takes 15 minutes as opposed to an hour’s drive,” adds Angela Shadbolt, Quentin’s wife. She prefers to drive to buy groceries, but she has flown the plane on pizza runs before. Often when Quentin takes the plane up to check windmills, he comes back with a list of sick cattle and downed fences that need fixed.
The ranch is a family effort: Quentin and his wife Angela, their daughter Jordan Sanders and her husband Caleb Sanders, and their daughter Josie and son Garrett when they aren’t attending high school and college, respectively.
Each family member pitches in to work as a team on the ranch, while following personal interests within the operation. Quentin’s dad Butch Shadbolt manages most of the business affairs and the feedlot near Gordon. Quentin described his and Angela’s roles as the “posthole diggers,” and he takes care of his buffalo herd. He and Jordan also train horses for clients.
To meet the needs of the Shadbolt Horse Training venture, the family built an indoor arena. The sandy soil of the Sandhill region required clay to stabilize the arena footing. The new building’s roof provides space for a 25-kW solar array to power ranch headquarters. While the arena roof could support more solar panels, the local electrical company only allows 25 kW of solar energy on a meter. When the sun shines, the energy not used by the ranch feeds the broader electrical grid. Depending on the season’s day length, the Shadbolts estimate the solar panels offset up to $500 per month on their electrical bill.
The cost-saving change Quentin now mulls over is how to bale and feed less hay. “I got the idea in my head to get out of calving in blizzards,” he declares. “I don’t like the machinery all that much. I prefer to work with livestock. I’d like to go to June calving and just forget about fighting blizzards.”
Instead of baling hay on the ranch’s irrigated meadows, the Shadbolts could rotationally graze their cattle on the irrigated meadows. Steadily rising groundwater levels of the shallow Ogallala aquifer has decreased the need for irrigation. This is also turning meadows into soggy marshes.
Tired of digging his hay baler out of the mud, Quentin already grazes one meadow that is now a marsh. He plans to do more spring grazing, and switch to June calving, on these fields.
“By calving in June, the feed requirements of the cows won’t be as high as in the winter when they calve in March and April,” Quentin continues. “During our spring blizzards we check the cows every hour, keep them locked up in the barn overnight, and feed them hay with an expensive tractor. This causes a lot of work for us and confusion for the cattle.”
This year the Shadbolts synchronized their cows and will turn out their bulls in August to begin calving in the warm month of June. Their new grazing plan is to graze their meadows early instead of haying them, then breed their cows as they graze the second growth of grass. Baled hay is still necessary to supplement winter grazing when needed, so the family will continue to bale their alfalfa fields.
Quentin brought bison to the ranch first as a hobby, and the herd generates enough profit to stay. “We had to sell every one of them at one time,” Quentin recalls, “because they got used to going wherever they wanted. All over the place. So we sold the whole works and started over.”
Buffalo bulls rival, if not totally beat, bovine bulls in their ability to trample fences. When the weather cools in autumn and the calves are grown, bison want to roam. Quentin uses select hay feeding to tempt them to stay home.
“If we didn’t have an airplane, we wouldn’t have buffalo,” Quentin says. “When we lose the buffalo we go find them with the plane. It’s the only thing that can catch them to herd them home. The only problem is that you can’t open gates from a plane.
“You see those pictures of Indians just loping along side buffalo and shooting them. I don’t believe that at all. Buffalo can easily outrun a horse. Maybe if you ran into a couple million of them and got them all confused, but just a flat race, you can’t catch one.
The bison are harvested by rifle by hunters hosted at ranch headquarters. To keep their bison herd numbers manageable, the Shadbolts sell some animals at the Fort Robinson bison sale in Crawford, Nebraska too. Last year, the 300-to-400 live weight bison calves sold for $3.15 per pound.
“Ground bison [meat] costs $10 a pound in the store,” Angela says. “Consumer demand for it is increasing.”
For bison to become a larger part of the ranch business, the family would have to invest in sturdy corral infrastructure to sort and process the livestock. Because of this, the Shadbolts rarely corral the flighty animals and don’t plan to increase their herd size.
Lifecycle of Food
Beef is the business and lifeblood of the Shadbolt family. They may prefer the quiet of the Sandhills and avoid town, but they’ve noted market trends of plant-based protein products and consumers’ desires to eat meat-flavored food without eating actual meat. There are arguments and studies to support every diet, but as ranchers the Shadbolts go right to ground level.
“If all food is made out of plants,” Angela says, “there will need to be more crops raised, which takes more water, tractors, fuel and fertilizer. All of it can’t be grown organically, because yields won’t be high enough without
plants and fertilizers to grow enough food.
“And if everyone ate plants, what would we do with all this land?” Angela continues waving her hand at the Sandhills rising outside her kitchen window. “You can’t grow crops up here in these fields. So we would get rid of all the food — the beef — that we produce here? I think people just don’t realize that we’re using a resource to graze livestock that would be unusable for anything else.”
Besides buffalo hunters, the Shadbolts host deer hunters that hail from Pennsylvania to Alaska. “Most do not understand how food is produced,” Quentin says. “They learn here that this ground can support deer and other wildlife, and be used to raise beef.”
Angela points out that people without direct connections to agriculture are disadvantaged in learning about food. “Perhaps we should make a documentary on how beef is raised in the Sandhills,” she suggests.
“I ranch because I love it,” Quentin says. “I’d like to tell more people about our ranch and how we raise beef. Like what I did today: I went out to saddle my horse, and said to Jordan and the guys, ‘Can you all believe we get paid to do this?’ We rode out on our horses to move some cows, and there was no wind. The sun was shining. What could be better?”