A Sandhills Cattle Drive

January 7, 2016

The roads were dark, the truck was full of gear, and the Platte Basin Timelapse team was headed to the Nebraska Sandhills. We were on our way to the Switzer Ranch, 16 miles northwest of Burwell, Nebraska, to film a cattle drive for our forthcoming documentary. This would be my first time experiencing a cattle drive and being immersed in the Nebraska Sandhills. I could not have been more excited.

Upon arriving at the headquarters of the Switzer Ranch, I met Bruce Switzer, his daughter and son, Sarah Sortum and Adam Switzer, Sarah’s son Emmett and Adam’s son David. We chatted a bit about the next few days, grabbed our gear, hopped on ATVs and headed off. It was late October, so the air was crisp against our faces, and the landscape was cast in shades of red and orange. After about ten minutes driving on the county road, Bruce, Adam, Sarah, Emmett and David hopped on their horses and headed for the hills. We followed close behind and watched the road quickly disappear. In minutes we were surrounded by amber waves of grass. It was breathtaking.

The Switzer family rides their horses through the Sandhills toward the herd of cattle.

The Switzers have owned this land for more than 100 years, and three generations live on it today. Their 12,000 acres not only support raising cattle but also provide habitat for many grassland birds and other wildlife species. They are also owners and operators of Calamus Outfitters, an outdoor ecotourism business that offers activities like guided hunting and river tubing to people of all ages. The Switzers have a strong love for the Sandhills and recognize its ecological importance. Despite their property being a hot spot for developers, they choose to keep the land and protect it fiercely.

A profile shot of Bruce Switzer. 

The day could not have been more beautiful. The skies were clear, the winds were calm, and the grass sparkled in the sunlight. After some time riding through the hills, we reached the herd of cattle. On horseback, Bruce, Adam, Sarah, Emmett and David surrounded the cattle to round them up, then moved to the rear of the herd and gingerly nudged the cows to start moving. Once the cattle started going, the drive began.

The Switzer family moving cattle through the Sandhills.

After a long day of driving ATVs up and down the giant, grass-covered dunes, we headed back to our cabin. When the sun set the rising moon gave the landscape a whole new look; I was impressed with the endurance of the young boys, neither of whom made one complaint during the long day.

Guided by moonlight, Sarah, and her family head back to their homes after a long day moving cattle. 

The next day we visited the corrals where the cattle would be loaded into a truck and sent to a feedlot. With the help of the truck drivers, Sarah and Bruce moved through the process efficiently, loading the cows onto the trucks in less than an hour. As the cattle were being loading into the truck, I felt slightly melancholic knowing where they were going, but then thought about where they had spent their summer, and I smiled because it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world, the Nebraska Sandhills.

Cattle wait in a corral to board the truck that will transport them to a feedlot.

Coming from the “big city” of Omaha, I had trouble imagining growing up in such an isolated place. Living miles away from a neighbor was such a foreign concept to me; I did not understand how people could enjoy being so alone. That was until I saw Nebraska Sandhills for the first time. The overwhelming feelings of tranquility and serenity are difficult to describe. Being out in the hills for several hours among the elements and watching the Switzers drive the cattle gave me much more appreciation for this lifestyle. I now understand why they love this land; if I grew up here, I don’t think I would ever want to leave.

A grassy hillside, deep in the Sandhills on the Switzer Ranch at sunset. 


PBT team photo. Summer 2023

About PBT

We are a group of storytellers using timelapse photography and multimedia storytelling to explore watersheds. PBT has been in motion since 2011.

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