Uncertainty looms for Nebraska ranchers as icebergs melt

PC: Crystal Olson 4th Generation rancher Billy Kepler surveys the damage of the flood and ice on his ranch near Mills, Nebr.

Ann Marie Kepler, from Mills, Nebr. describes the aftermath of the “Bombcyclone” storm of March 13. “We really are just thankful that we have cattle to rebuild fence for because there’s a lot of people that don’t. There’s nothing that you care about more than taking care of your livestock, you put your heart and soul into their care. It was just a punch in the gut too, after such a brutal winter and then to have something like this happen. It was just the perfect storm,” describes Ann Marie, of conditions leading up to the storm, “Coming off weeks of brutal cold, the ground was frozen, with six to eight inches of snow on the ice, there was nowhere for the water go.”

The part of Nebraska where the Keplers are located called for rain to the East and snow to the West, with the Keplers unsure what the storm would actually bring. Kepler and her husband Billy, live and work on Billy’s family ranch, with land on both sides of the Niobrara River in Keya Paha County. Their children, Carleen (11), Shelby (9), and Toby (4) are the fifth generation of Billy’s family to live on the ranch. Billy Kepler’s grandmother, who turned 90 years old in March, grew up in the home that Billy and Ann Marie are now raising their family in, approximately four miles off the Niobrara River. Ann Marie continued; “Billy’s grandmother can remember many springs with ice jams and ice coming out of the banks, but nothing to this extent, not even close.”

On the morning of March 13, it had been raining for several hours when Billy crossed the bridge with a load of distiller’s grain, which he hauls to local farmers and ranchers. At this time, the river had risen considerably and the ice neared the edges of the bridge. Billy contacted family members to suggest his nephew feed the fall pairs on the North end of the pasture, in an effort to keep them off the river bottom. As the water levels rose, the ice was already being pushed up against bridges and road ways.

By afternoon, Ann Marie explained, the force of the rising water began to break up the ice and huge ice chunks began to flow outside the river banks. The Spencer Dam, approximately 60 miles to the East of Kepler’s ranch, broke that same afternoon, causing devastation for thousands as water exploded downstream. For those that were upstream, however, the breaking of the dam was their salvation. “When that Dam gave way, the water finally started moving and receding. When the water finally left and went back down into its banks, it left huge icebergs all over our hay meadow ground,” explains Kepler. “Most ice bergs were about the size of a vehicle and about four to five feet thick, but with the water’s force, they all piled on top of each other.” Keplers estimaged the largest jam to be approximately 200 yards wide, a mile long and 20 to 30 feet tall.

“It was so surreal when we walked out and saw the ice. We weren’t even really talking to each other, just walking around and looking at it. It was really humbling, because the power to move all that ice is hard to even think about,” says Kepler.

The Keplers estimate to having lost approximately 155 acres of hay ground due to the flood. The South end of the meadow now has sand bars that are over a foot thick or more. “It’s just buried. Most of the grass on the river bottom is brome grass, which is pretty hardy,” explains Kepler. “Since the storm, it has really started to grow and there are some areas where the sand is only four to five inches thick, the grass is beginning to poke through. Under the larger deposits, it’s not going to be usable in the near future. Then under the ice we have no idea what we will find when it finally melts.” Kepler added that some of the debris they have found out of the melting ice bergs includes whole trees and bridge planks.

This particular hay field is a long-term lease from absentee owners in Wyoming, who signed the ground up for the Emergency Conservation Program through the Farm Service Agency (FSA). Ann Marie explained, “With that came rules that we now have to follow. It’s hard to complain about it, but it really ties your hands. As farmers and ranchers the first thing you want to do is get out there and put things back and get back to work. For those of us that have signed up for this program, there are four steps. The first thing we were told is you can’t move anything that nature has put into place. So you can’t touch anything. We did get the go ahead two weeks ago to begin the first stage of the process which consists of light clean up. What they mean by that is anything that can be moved by hand. We are able to roll up wire, move broken posts, limbs and those sorts of things, but only on the surface and nothing with equipment. We have metal fence posts that were cut off at the ground by the force of the water and ice. Anything we pick up we have to leave in the area so the accessor can see what has been moved and we also document everything with pictures. It’s a slow process and knowing that if we don’t get that sand off of there, it’s just choking off the grass.”

For many farmers and ranchers livings downstream of the Spencer Dam, many decisions on what to do next were made for them. The Keplers know they are blessed and are thankful for being spared from a much worse fate. The flood has changed many things for all operations on the Niobrara River and ranchers upstream of the Spencer Dam are left with hard decisions in the near future. “There are people who absolutely lost everything. They lost their cattle, feed, grain bins full of grain, equipment, out-buildings and home. When I think of that, it’s hard to say we have it tough, but we do have some hard decisions coming up.”

Discussing a timeline of moving forward to getting things back to production, Ann Marie said it was hard to tell. “Even the FSA office, they don’t know, they’ve never dealt with something like this. We are looking at some reseeding projects this fall, to get things back into production by next year. We will have to find more hay ground to get us through next winter. There’s still so much uncertainty for all sorts of people around us. We haven’t found hay ground yet, or even been asking yet. Things are still being assessed for a lot of people.”

The University of Nebraska Lincoln Extension 2016 cash rent prices in Keya Paha County for irrigated crop land averaged $181 per acre, with non-irrigated cropland averaging $47 per acre. Increased land prices, have made a career in agriculture extremely difficult. The effects from the “Bombcyclone” flooding could send those prices even higher as ranchers scramble to find feed in an already competitive market.

“There hasn’t been one family in production agriculture in our state or even bordering states that this storm didn’t affect,” continues Kepler. “Not a lot of people outside the agriculture industry understand what Nebraska brings to ag. as a whole, and I think that is becoming really evident.” While the immediate impact of the storm is evident by those facing it, the nation could soon feel the ripple effects in the increased prices of foods and grains.

With so much uncertainty to come, there is still ranch work to be done. “We are spring calving through all this too, and we are trying to get the fall calves weaned next week,” adds Kepler. Each farm and ranch affected by the storm has their own unique set of circumstances moving forward. The national average age of ranchers is 58 years old, many left with an insurmountable amount of work and cleanup ahead. As the current president of Kepler’s local FFA Alumni chapter, she has been in touch with many FFA organizations pledging help. “We’ve had offers from Newcastle, WY FFA to come help with fencing this summer. Several FFA groups are seeing where the greatest needs are, quite a few elderly people are going to need help, but again, we are going to have to play by the rules. It’s kind of made it a little tricky to work around, but I still think it’s going to happen.”

Kepler mentioned the truckloads of hay they have seen going by on the highway near their ranch. A highway that has increased in traffic dramatically as most other roadways were cut off due to the flood. “That has put tears in my eyes and a frog in my throat numerous times as I’ve seen those hay loads going by. Hay has been coming in for the past three weeks since the storm,” she adds.

Donations of hay, trucks and fuel and offers to help rebuild are nothing new in the agriculture industry. When tragedy strikes, it’s often their fellow farmers and ranchers that are the first to lend a hand. Accolades are never sought, for farmers and ranchers know that each one is doing the best they can and it could easily be them needing help next. “It’s typical of the ag industry and it absolutely brings out the best in people, it’s phenomenal!”



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