Since settling in western Nebraska in the 1940s, three generations of the Mathewson family have strived to improve the land and environment that has given them so much. Rodney and Arlene Mathewson purchased a small place near Potter, Neb., where they started a cattle and farming operation. “They were both from farm families, and their determination and foresight raised three kids and put them through college. It laid a firm foundation for the family business,” Beau Mathewson said of his grandparents.
The second generation of Mathewsons to manage the ranch is Randy and Gina, Beau’s parents. The ranch was incorporated into RGM Incorporated in 1976, after Randy returned from college. “He is really like no other rancher I know because he is tenacious, innovative, serious and a perfectionist,” Beau said. “He has worked hard to build an efficient, sustainable and environmentally sound business. It is a business that could only be built with determination and hard work.”
Beau came home to join the operation in 2005, after graduating from the University of Wyoming. The family business has come a long way since his grandparents first came to the area, Beau explained. During the 1980s, the family was able to purchase several large pieces of land, some of which were old homesteads. Many of the pieces were overgrazed and poorly managed, needing years of rest and rehabilitation, new fencing and water sources. Most of the grazing land is cool season forages. The ranch also has some irrigation and farmground.
Rehabilitating & resting grazing land
The condition of the land didn’t deter the family, who looked at the purchases as an opportunity to implement a rotational grazing program and improve the rangeland. Since then, the family has installed new pipeline and water sources, added new tanks, built new fencelines, and cross-fenced existing pastures. However, their most important strategy was to allow the overworked pastures some rest. Beau explained: “When I came back into the operation after college, I took the Ranch Practicum. One of the things I learned in the course was from Pat Reece, who said, ‘Never graze the same pasture at the same time of year two years in a row.’ I can’t emphasize enough how important a rotational grazing system is to the health of the plant community. By implementing that system, we have ensured our land will stay productive and viable for decades to come.”
By improving the range, the cattle have not only benefited, but other creatures, as well. “It has created habitat for all inhabitants of the ecosystem from microorganisms, to insects and birds, to cattle, wildlife and large ungulates,” Beau said.
Water development is critical
Rotational grazing is not possible without many water sources, Beau continued. They have developed several good water wells over the years, replacing windmill fed tanks with submersible and pipeline water sources feeding strategically-placed tanks. They have constructed 25-foot bottomless tanks in their pastures that can provide water for 20 percent of the 300 animals in any one pasture at any given time. The Mathewsons have also developed water sources within a half mile of one another to allow for more optimal grazing distribution.
By adding new water sources, the Mathewsons are better able to achieve their management goals. Most of the pastures are between 500-640 acres, with some being larger because of the rugged topography in the area. At first, they established a short season rotation with plenty of rest. “By doing that, we were able to increase the cool season grasses in number and productivity,” Beau explained. “We also started to see more plant diversity. Over time, the result was healthier, stronger and more productive plants that were better able to develop and had longer root systems that could better withstand grazing and drought,” he explained. “We have been able to increase our stocking rate 30 percent, while using less forage. We graze each pasture for 30 days, and let it rest 14 months. We are never in a pasture more than twice in three years.”
Managing in drought
In 2011, Beau said the family decided to switch the operation to yearlings after having a cow/calf, replacement heifer, and bull development operation for many years. With this year being exceptionally dry, the family purchased a little over half the number of yearlings they usually do to preserve their grass. “In some pastures, we only grazed 20 days instead of 30 because we had already taken our allotment of grass from those pastures,” he explained. “In a year like this, you have to be a disciplined manager. It would be easy to just take a little more grass, but in the end, overgrazing will hurt your pastures. It can allow weeds to take over, and it will take much longer to recover.”
“Drought is part of ranching, and the way it is managed is the difference between staying business or not,” he continued. “Our area has drought conditions about once every four years. What we have learned is that a dependable water source is important because windmills can’t keep pace during a drought. Electric water becomes key. This year’s drought will impact cow/calf operators for years. Many ranchers have had to liquidate some of their herd and cull really deep. Even if we purchase new cattle to rebuild the herd, it takes time to breed our genetics back into these cattle.”
Conservation is key
The Mathewson family has worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service with some cost-share programs to improve the land and environment. “What conservation means to us is grazing animals in a responsible way that preserves ground cover, improves habitat, and allows more diversity of plant species,” Beau explained. “We work with natural sources to develop delicious, high quality protein that we, as humans, utilize through beef. We have improved the habitat in our area by taking less forage, improving water sources, and planting trees to not only improve the habitat, but to beautify the environment. We have also worked to feed native grasses and improve poor cropland any way we can.”
The Mathewsons were recognized by Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman in 2011 as the Leopold Conservation winners in Nebraska. This award is presented each year to individuals or families who demonstrate extraordinary natural resource conservation and land management. For more information about the Mathewson’s, they can be reached by email at Beaum756@gmail.com or RGM@PrairieWeb.com. ❖