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Passion for beef production on a 121-year-old Sandhills ranch

Wallace Baskin was a successful North Platte, Nebraska, butcher in the late 1800s with a customer list that included Buffalo Bill Cody, whose Scout’s Rest Ranch was on the edge of town.

However, the business wasn’t Baskin’s passion.

“His love for the horses and other animals on the hoof was far exceeding what he liked about the meat market,” says Robert Jones, Baskin’s great-grandson.

That was clear during the eight springs Baskin and two uncles packed their saddles on trains and stagecoaches during trips to northeast Oregon. They bought horses to take them the rest of the way, on a journey to buy 350 to 400 horses from Native Americans at the Umatilla Reservation.

Robert says the horses were “chased” to Nebraska to sell, mostly at the Missouri River town of Nebraska City.

In 1901, Baskin and his wife, Mary Josephine, bought two homesteads owned by Danish brothers as the foundation for their Diamond Bar Ranch. One property was 30 miles north of North Platte in Logan County, Nebraska, just north of present-day Stapleton. The other was 50 miles west in McPherson County, Nebraska.

Now, 121 years later, the ranch is home to the family’s fourth and fifth generations. Jones and his wife Susanne are the owners and operators, and their four children pitch in full-time or part-time.

Natalie, 25, is a University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources communications specialist who primarily works remotely from the ranch.

Shaylee, 23, graduated from UNL in May with an agribusiness degree and works at the Diamond Bar Ranch full time.

Grant, 21, is a junior animal science major at UNL.

Lance, 18, is a senior at Arnold High School, 20 miles southeast of Stapleton.

The crew also includes cousin Robert “Harv” Harvey, 79, who has worked on the ranch since he was a child. “It doesn’t seem like he’ll be slowing down anytime soon,” Natalie says.

Generations of Change

Most of the original ranch headquarters buildings remain, including two barns and a two-story house built in 1882.

The headquarters were surrounded by empty prairie in 1901 but soon had a next-door neighbor. The town of Stapleton was founded in 1912 when the Kearney & Black Hills Railway was extended from Arnold.

Baskin land was donated for the railroad tracks and town, including a calving lot that became the park.

That’s as close as the rails got to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Trains came to Stapleton daily until 1976, says Robert Jones. The Arnold-Stapleton section was abandoned a year later and most of the remaining line was abandoned by 1986.

After World War I broke out, the Baskins’ two sons left for military service in 1917. There was no longer enough help to move Diamond Bar cattle the 50 miles between the ranch headquarters and far west pastures, so the McPherson County land was sold.

Over the decades, those grazing acres were replaced by buying rangeland closer to the Logan County headquarters. Some neighbors sold out during the Great Depression. A site three miles north of the headquarters that included a house became available in 1948.

Robert P. and Thelma Baskin were the ranch’s second generation. Their oldest daughter and son-in-law, Virginia (Baskin) and David L. Jones, were the third.

Cattle, horses, and feed crops such as corn, oats, and hay have always been part of the ranch, says Robert, the son of Virginia and David. Before the 1950s, the family raised sheep, hogs, and chickens. Great-grandfather Wallace Baskin butchered them in the backyard to keep his family and neighbors supplied with meat.

The Jones family used to check ranch cattle by air. “Mom and Dad both flew, and my grandpa did too, but probably not legally,” Robert says with a smile. The 1,700-foot landing strip remains, but the airplane and hanger were destroyed by a 1991 storm.

In 2006, Robert and Susanne built a brick home next to the 1882 house where all five generations had lived. The old house is being renovated to include an office and more space for a business selling Diamond Bar beef directly to consumers.

Today’s Diamond Bar

The Jones family now manages the Diamond Bar’s crop and pasture lands in the Nebraska Sandhills north and northwest of Stapleton.

The ranch footprint is a relatively small area within the largest sand dune formation in the Western Hemisphere that covers 19,300 square miles in the heart of Nebraska. About 95% of the Sandhills — 12.75 million acres — is rangeland.

The Diamond Bar’s irrigated corn and alfalfa along with wet meadow hay are fed to ranch livestock. Irrigation and livestock water comes from the Ogallala Aquifer, which is near or at the surface throughout the Sandhills.

Beef is produced by Red Angus and Black Angus cows that mostly calve in the spring. The ranch is Beef Quality Assurance certified. 

29519_horses
Photo by Dan Videtich.

Robert says his ancestors started with Shorthorns in the 1920s, then had Herefords, and were raising all Black Angus cattle by the 1980s. He introduced Red Angus as a second breed with better mothering qualities and dispositions than some Black Angus cows. 

Weaned calves are fed silage, hay, and grass until they are sold at 700 to 750 pounds through Superior Livestock Auction, based in Hudson Oaks, Texas. To meet buyers — mostly representatives of large feedlots — family members attend live sales of their calves, including a September sale in Sheridan, Wyoming. 

Spring-calving cows are moved from pastures in the hills down to the headquarters, where windbreaks and portable calving sheds provide weather protection. Fall calves are born in a nearby pasture. 

One of the biggest events every year is spring branding day, usually the first Saturday of May. About 50 family members and neighbors do the roping and branding, Jones says, “and we hire some high school and junior high kids to come wrestle calves.” 

Diamond Bar also has Quarter Horse broodmares divided into four groups, each with a stallion. “We sell them at all age stages,” Robert says. “We keep the best for our own riding. We have 12 to 15 good saddle horses that are our everyday horses for my family.” 

Percheron draft horses, including a mare Jones hopes will deliver a spring foal, are another generations-old ranch tradition. The work horses are used for haying, fun, or whenever they are the best horsepower for a job. 

“Your four-wheel-drive pickup can get stuck in the mud or snow, or you can’t get through a gate,” Jones says. “Heck, when I got draft horses it was like, OK, I’ll just drive into the wet meadow with a wagon.”

Conservation is Critical

The Sandhills are a great place to raise cattle, but land, grass, and water resources, including the South Loup River that flows across the Diamond Bar Ranch, must be carefully managed to ensure sustainability.

Rotational grazing is a critically important practice; one-third of Diamond Bar’s pasture acres are rested each year. Robert calculates that the sustainable stocking rate is 16 acres per year for a cow-calf pair. 

“We’re all super proponents, to some degree, of some type of organic. We don’t do a lot of spraying and most ranches have a low-carbon footprint,” he says. “We are able to produce good protein out of low-quality forage that’s not edible to humans. It’s incredible. 

“Horses hardly leave a footprint,” he adds. Using horses rather than vehicles reduces sandy soil disturbance. 

Limiting wind erosion and providing wildlife habitat are also important. The ranch was selected 2021 Tree Planter of the Year by the Nebraska Association of Resources Districts for planting 31,000 conservation trees and shrubs since 2000.

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From left: Natalie and Shaylee Jones. Photo by Dan Videtich.

Everyone Has a Role

Robert describes himself as ranch president/chief executive officer and Susanne as “like a GPS for the whole family. She keeps us all on track.” 

They met at the 1994 Nebraska State Fair in Lincoln, where he was finishing an animal science degree and she was starting interior design classes at UNL. They married in January 1996 in Ord, Nebraska, where Susanne grew up on a family farm ranch and was 4-H beef showmanship champion at the 1989 state fair.

Their children continue to develop their ranch roles. 

Shaylee is the only one now working full-time on the ranch. “We want her to have her own little place at the ranch and have her own business,” her dad says. 

Natalie is repairing the house 3 miles north of the headquarters as her home and IANR workplace. Her dad grew up there, and it also was a temporary bunkhouse over the years for ranch hands monitoring nearby calving areas.

Horse-related activities, particularly cattle roundups, are on all six family members’ list of favorite jobs. 

Robert’s current favorite horse is Jasper, a 17-year-old gray gelding. Grant loves his home-raised gelding Big Red, an appropriate name for a devoted Husker Nation family. 

Lance, the high school senior, enjoys building fences with his brother. “There’s nothing better than being in the middle of nowhere with a pickup full of posts to set,” he says. 

And Shaylee likes to hang out with the ranch dogs, two that help work cattle and two “porch dogs.” 

“There is no perfect day,” Susanne says. “All days are great and always changing. I enjoy the peacefulness of moving cattle and mowing lush meadow hay.” 

Robert’s nearly perfect day would involve free time to check cattle and windmills in the pasture and to play with colts, followed by a steak supper. 

The Jones siblings embrace being fifth-generation ranchers. 

“It is a huge honor and responsibility to always be thinking of ancestors and how they did things on the ranch to get to where we are,” Shaylee says. “We’re family oriented with everything we do.” 

“I give a lot of heart and effort to keep up the place that has made me who I am today,” Grant adds. 

Natalie says the focus must always be on daily stewardship of the land, natural resources, and livestock. “It takes lots of perseverance, faith in God, and staying innovative,” she says.

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