From Switzerland to the Sandhills

Nina Conrad, back, rides the five miles to the branding with other participants.

THEDFORD — “You can take the girl out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of the girl.”

For 25-year-old Nina Conrad from Lucerne, Switzerland — a city girl all her life — her three weeks in the heart of the Nebraska Sandhills will bring back great memories and always be a part of her.

Nina is not your typical exchange student. She is finishing up her college education at University of Lucerne and had to decline staying in Nebraska longer due to the requirements and studying for her June finals.

Lucerne’ s population is over 400,000 — which is a shade more than the number of cows that live in Cherry and Thomas counties where she was “headquartered” at the Steven and Shalee (Paxton) Morrison ranch east of Thedford, in Thomas County. The ranch was bought by Shalee’s parents, Leland and LeeAnn, after they sold their other ranch, which was in the southwest corner of Thomas County.

Conrad explained how she came to be at the Morrisons.

“I want to be a fifth or sixth grade teacher of English,” she said. “One of the requirements for my degree is going 10 weeks to another country to learn the culture and language. Last year, I spent seven weeks in Ireland. This year, I chose to come to Nebraska to see what the country life has to offer. I could have easily laid on the beach in Hawaii for three weeks, but I like to get involved and work wherever I go.”

She contacted Agroverde Agency, an agency in Switzerland specializing in sending students to other countries to learn. That agency got in touch with Worldwide International Student Exchange and their Farm and Ranchstay Program. One of the directors who connects students with the families is a friend of Shalee’s on Facebook and suggested that Shalee and Steven get a student.

Conrad got to the ranch the day after the April blizzard and immediately pitched in to help.

Conrad was not new to horseback riding, just another style.

“We had two horses at a stable in Lucerne, so I learned how to ride English style and did dressage, but just for the fun of it, not to show or anything like that. The saddles are much lighter, and you use your legs more to communicate with the horse.”

“She caught on easily to western riding,” Shalee Morrison explained. “We put her on one of our old horses, but she soon needed something with more get-up-and-go.”

The Morrisons usually brand all their calves in one day, but they had sent their young cow/calf pairs, the oldest of their calves, to fresh pastures farther from the house. Conrad really wanted to see a branding before she left. On May 2, she got her wish when family and friends congregated in the afternoon to brand this bunch of calves.

She, along with all the other helpers on horseback, made the five-mile trek to the pasture, returning the same way about three hours later when the last branded calf left to find his mom. The horseless workers took two pickups with the branding equipment on one, and the vaccines and cold refreshments for the crew on the other.

After rounding them up and putting all the animals in the pen, the cows were cut out, leaving only the calves. A calf or two escaped with the cows, but riders on the outside of the pen had their ropes ready. The escapees were soon roped and dragged back to the pen.

Conrad watched this segment of the process from a safe distance away as to not get in the road. The calves were then roped by four of the riders and dragged closer to the iron pot that held the branding fire and the family’s irons. Those not roping wrestled, branded or vaccinated every calf, and the bull calves were castrated by another individual. Several times ropers would trade and become wrestlers or castrators, which allowed all who wanted to rope the opportunity to do so.

Conrad did not shrink from learning the fine art of wrestling the calves. Her experienced partners gave her plenty of tips, and by the end of the day, she could help flip the calf by pulling on the rope or the calf’s tail. She and her partner were wrestling even some of the bigger calves by the end of the day.

One thing she shied away from was the opportunity to try a fried “sandhill oyster,” a bull’s testicle cooked on the top of the branding pot.

“That’s OK, Nina, there are several of us ladies who do not like the taste of them,” Shalee told her.

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