Hanging today above the auction block at Van Newkirk Herefords is an oxbow, commemorating a journey undertaken by Joe Van Newkirk’s great-grandparents just after the Civil War.
In a wagon pulled by oxen, John and Lizzy Van Newkirk left their farm in Pennsylvania and made their way across the Great Plains. They stopped about 1,500 miles later in western Nebraska’s Garden County, taking up residence on a piece of land under the Homestead Act of 1862. That’s where their son L.D.—Joe’s grandfather—was born.
While helping his father raise workhorses, L.D. began working for Bratt & Company, one of the famous sprawling early ranches of Nebraska’s Sand Hills region. “He was a John Bratt cowboy,” Joe says. “But he wanted to raise cattle of his own.”
“It's a great life. There's nothing better”
Joe Van Newkirk, owner
Bratt, an Englishman, kept a massive herd of Longhorn cattle, and L.D. saved his wages to buy a few of his own. But he also wanted to improve the breed’s looks and efficiency, and make it more suitable to the region’s climate. So to cover the trademark speckles and bulk up their lean frames, L.D. began breeding Longhorns with the darkest red Herefords he could find. Unlike Longhorns, Hereford cattle were still relatively new to the United States. But just as L.D. was selecting his first cows in the 1890s, Herefords began to boom across the Midwest. With heavy bones, thick hide, and an ability to put on weight quickly, the efficient and high-yield animal was the perfect improvement to the tough, lean Longhorn.
In the 1940s, with the purchase of five registered Hereford heifers, Joe’s father A.J. launched Van Newkirk Herefords. Joe inherited and continues that legacy, running what is today a renowned seed-stock operation of horned Herefords on 10,000 acres located just south of his great-grandfather’s original tract.
The unique geography of the Sand Hills is a defining feature of Nebraskan cattle country. Van Newkirk Herefords lies on the edge of the Sand Hills near Oshkosh, and its cattle graze there during the summer. “It’s all sand, with tall prairie grasses growing on it,” Joe says. “It’s not real strong or nutritious grass, but there’s a lot of it.” To the west, the North Platte River Valley provides plenty of grass for winter, augmented by crop residue and alfalfa hay, the latter provided only during calving season.
Van Newkirk Herefords is known for its top-quality Hereford bulls with deep bodies, heavy muscles, easy-going dispositions, and good looks. Beef efficiency, eye appeal, and moderate birth weights for easy calving are the qualities Joe looks for. At the ranch’s annual bull and female sale each January, about 40 elite yearling bulls, 120 purebred heifer calves, and 120 two-year-old bulls are auctioned to buyers from all over the country.
The Van Newkirks prize persistence, dependability, and efficiency, and these values have been proven over the years. “In the 1980s we struggled,” Joe says. “Everybody decided to make their cows black, and the Herefords lost a lot of market share. But we knew our cattle were good, and although it would have been pretty easy to change breeds during that time frame, we decided to stick with them and build our cowherd up. We were persistent in making our cattle better and more efficient, and that’s what it took to stay in the business.”
Van Newkirk Herefords is continually striving to improve the operation, using an efficient center-pivot irrigation system that pumps from the plentiful Ogallala Aquifer, which provides groundwater from just 15 to 20 feet down. Joe also embraces new technologies for artificial insemination and carcass testing, including ultrasounds that assess each crop of calves, detecting the marbling of a ribeye without having to wait until slaughter. That information is used in decisions about which calves to keep in the herd, and is also furnished to customers to help them make selections using the same data. Genetic testing is also on the horizon, and Joe expects it will continue to improve and shape the way seed-stock operations assess EPDs.
But the backbone of the ranch is still those highly traditional methods that can’t be distilled down to science, such as cowboys on horseback and old-fashioned intuition. If L.D. were to see the ranch today, “He would just be floored with the quality of the cattle,” Joe says with a laugh. “And the amount of feed raised on the same number of acres that he farmed all those years ago. Things are so much more efficient now. Through technology and bigger machinery, we can do with three of us what he would have needed six hired men to do.”
Joe and his wife, Cyndi, work side-by-side on the business together; and recently, Joe’s youngest son Kolby graduated from the University of Nebraska and returned home. He’ll be the next link in the generations-long chain of this family ranch. Keeping the legacy in the Van Newkirk family “makes everything worth it,” Joe says with a smile. “It’s a great life. There’s nothing better.”