Rancher Ann Marie Kepler never thought that she would be talking about icebergs in Nebraska.
But she says that’s the best way to describe what’s still stretching across about a mile of the property the Kepler family leases next to the Niobrara River in Keya Paha County.
“That meadow is full, absolutely chock-full of ice,’’ she said. “That stuff is all packed together.’’
The 2 inches of rain that fell on the frozen Niobrara earlier this month sparked more than just flooding. On a long stretch of the river, chunks of ice had nowhere to go but up.
Those chunks exploded across the land, Kepler said, scraping away houses, buildings, trees, livestock, topsoil and, in some cases, livelihoods.
One of the many bridges crippled by ice and debris has turned Tana Luth’s 18-mile commute to Spencer to 70 miles one way.
Gerard Keating, who owns the Running Water Ranch, said the weight of the ice as it slid across the ground transformed many of the hay meadows of the Niobrara valley into sand dunes.
“What was beautiful river bottom grassland is now sand,’’ he said. “Tens of thousands of trees are just scraped away. When all the trees and shrubs are gone, you are starting over again.’’
Kepler said when she and her husband, Billy, saw the waters of the Niobrara rising, they moved their fall calving herd to higher ground.
But she said others weren’t so lucky and, with predicted livestock losses of $400 million or more, she predicted a big impact on beef prices at the grocery store.
The crop losses were estimated last week at $440 million.
“People who don’t know what Nebraska does for the nation are about to find out how important this state is to the food sector as a whole,’’ Kepler said.
Once the ice melts, if the silt is just a few inches, grass could come back and still be harvested in the fall, said Charles Wortmann, a professor and soil fertility specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. If the silt is deeper, it would have to be removed or spread around. If movement of ice blocks scraped the land and uprooted the sod, recovery will be further delayed.
“In any case, less than normal production is expected in 2019 and debris will affect hay harvest and quality,’’ he said. “The grass from some flooded fields may have been contaminated by untreated sewage, chemicals and other products in flood water.’’
Unfortunately, he said, crop farmers are on more of a schedule and wet soil might prevent them from putting in a crop.
"People should not be over anxious about getting in the field,'' he said.
Traffic on wet soil causes compaction. He recommends a surface soil test to determine fertilizer needs.
Keating expects other complications. With the flooding, bank erosion and destruction of the Spencer Dam, he expects the Niobrara River to return to its pre-1927 path, changing ownership along its banks.
“There will be winners and losers,’’ he said. “At this juncture, we don’t know who that will be.’’
Fences were flattened, too. Kepler said a roll of wire costs about $80, and some ranchers have miles to replace.
The last time ranchers can remember flooding and ice jams decimating the area anywhere near this bad was in 1960. An old-timer told Kepler that in 1966, they used ice from the river to make homemade ice cream for the Fourth of July.
No one is sure what to expect this time. The land is so muddy it’s hard to assess.
Smaller pieces of ice are starting to melt, but the Keplers aren’t sure when their big stretch will finally disappear. It’s 200 yards wide and as much as 20 feet high.
Keating expects it to take at least 30 to 60 days for the ice to melt. But then will come the cleanup of all the debris in the frozen blocks, as well as the fallen trees in their paths.
Russell Hipke, who ranches with his dad, Wynn, and brother Kyle, said it will take days to clear off their leased property at the White Horse Ranch on the Niobrara. And he’s not sure where they will put all the debris.
That is, once the 200-yard-wide and 700- to 800-yard-long formation of ice there melts. The Stuart-Naper Bridge near their home ranch operation floated away, so it takes them 1½ hours to drive to White Horse Ranch using the Newport Bridge.
“We have cattle, hay/farm equipment, and forage bales we move across the bridge throughout the year, so it greatly increases our travel expenses and changes our ranch operation drastically,’’ he said.
Kepler, Hipke and Keating said they fared much better than others farther down the Niobrara River. The ranchers have lost some pastureland, and feed may be harder to come by next winter. But they didn’t lose everything.
For them, it’s just a waiting game.