Cattle rancher Dennis Jilg lives and works 30 miles south of the Niobrara River near Newport in Rock County. Even from that distance, he could see the billowing smoke from the fires that raged along the river last week. Heavy smoke from the fire seemed like fog in the air at his place.
He’s grateful to have escaped the wildfire, but like many of his fellow ranchers, Dennis hasn’t escaped the effects of the drought. He’s had just eight inches of rain so far this year – less than half as much as 2011 and far below the typical 18 to 20 inches.
“We’re playing musical chairs with the pastures now and we’re marketing our yearlings sooner than anticipated. We will not have any after growth on the meadows we hay – many years we can harvest a lot, through grazing or haying, but not this year: it’s not coming back at all.”
He does have a good supply of hay from a year ago – enough to see him through 2012. But after that: “If we’re dry next year, we’ll pay for it for sure,” he says.
Dennis lives on the family’s home place, which includes two tree claims his great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother filed in 1885-86. He ranches with his younger brother Mark. They have a predominantly Angus cow-calf herd and stocker operation and run 200 to 300 cows. They retain ownership of their calves and buy additional lightweight calves during the winter. They market the calves the next year as yearlings. A portion of the calves are custom-fed.
Unlike many ranchers, the Jilgs don’t keep their own heifers for their herd. “You can buy a second- or third-calf cow for little more than the cost of keeping a heifer from the time she was born until she drops her first calf,” he explains. That approach enables the Jilgs to run more cattle on their land.
Many people think “farmers” and “ranchers” mean the same thing, but Dennis is clear that he’s a rancher: “We plant no crops and we don’t irrigate. We rely totally on the gifts of God. It kind of rubs the furs the wrong way to be called a farmer,” he says, because their work is very different.
Dennis and his wife Barbara have three children. Barbara is originally from Oregon but graduated from Ord High School. They met through mutual friends in Lincoln after Dennis returned from military service in Vietnam. Older son Kit is the assistant manager at O’Reilly in Columbus, daughter Stephanie manages Sally Beauty Supply in Norfolk and younger son Tad is the parts manager at Green Line John Deere in Norfolk. The kids help on the ranch when they can, but coordinating their schedules isn’t any easier than when they were in high school, Dennis says.
Dennis is a past president of Rock County Farm Bureau. He’s also a county commissioner and past president of the Leafy Spurge Working Task Force. He has a message for consumers:
“Don’t believe everything you’re told by the media. They only pick out the sour apples and try to hold them up as an example, when we who work with livestock – we truly care about their well-being.”
Continue to check back to the blog each Thursday to get to know more farmers and ranchers from across Nebraska as they share their everyday stories. And to read past farmer and rancher profiles, click here.