Marlin and Kelly Scott, their son Sam, daughter Abby Ropers and son-in-law AJ Ropers run a cattle operation near Belgrade, Nebraska. They have always felt a strong connection to God, family and their land. In March 2019, their trust in God was needed more than ever.
The Scott’s house sits about 100 yards west of the Cedar River. The river bends around their property almost like a horseshoe. The 200-acre area where they calve out their cows lies inside the horseshoe bend. A railroad track bisects their land.
On the day of the flood, there was a forecast for heavy rains — a big worry since the river was frozen. At 7 a.m., the river was already rising rapidly. The ice started breaking up. Kelly hurried and saddled her horse, June, and called Marlin to get AJ, Sam and Abby. Marlin’s brother, Mark, also came to help move the cattle to safety.
When Sam and AJ arrived to saddle their horses, the river was remarkably loud. The sounds of ice chunks colliding and water raging spooked one of their horses too much to be saddled. Sam was able to saddle his horse, Rimrock. AJ grabbed a four-wheeler.
The land around the calving shed, which sits atop the horseshoe curve, is a little higher than the pasture, a fact proven by previous floods. The Scotts’ first idea was to drive all four groups of their cow-calf pairs to the calving shed. Marlin left to check the railroad bridge down river.
“It’s always the bridge that causes the ice jams,” Kelly said. “The posts from the older bridge still stick up through the water. These catch tree trunks and branches, and the bigger chunks of ice.”
As Marlin watched, the ice started to flow. By 1 p.m., the river had even dropped a couple of feet. Just as they thought the worst was over, Tyler Foland, who helps the Scotts during calving season, stopped by to check the bridge situation. He gave Marlin the bad news: The old river bridge upstream was plugged with ice and debris and was acting like a dam.
Meanwhile, at the calving shed, the Scotts were contemplating their next move.
“We had been talking to people upriver at Cedar Rapids,” Kelly said. “They told us the Corps of Engineers said people had about 20 minutes before high water hits.”
Snow melt was pouring into the river, along with rain. The water was going over the highway at Cedar Rapids, and the football field there had six feet of water on it. The river was backed up to northwest of Ericson. Both the Spalding and Ericson dams were threatening to break.
“We realized this flood could be the worse we had ever seen,” Kelly said. “Possibly worse than the 1966 summer flood we had been told about.”
The decision to have most of their cattle pairs at the calving shed might end in tragedy. The Scotts’ house and working facilities with pens is about 30 feet higher. They decided this would be a safer location. They immediately started driving a group of 80 pairs to those pens.
“We pushed them about halfway and the river was already coming across our alley,” Kelly said. “We had to turn them around and head back.”
She said two calves jumped through the fence, but there was no time to stop and save them.
“The cattle were so hard to drive,” Kelly said. “We felt like we were just pounding them every step.”
Kelly said they also had a group of 60 pairs in a pasture to the east and a group of 30 fall cows weaned the day before. Looking across the tracks, they could see what looked like the whole river going through their pen. The cows were standing on piles of trees as the raging flood surrounded them. These groups were beyond their help and in God’s hands.
There were also 105 young pairs, the fall weaned calves, virgin heifers, two-year-old bulls and yearling bulls in pens farther south of the river.
She and Sam decided to head back across the raging waters with the two horses. Praying every step of the way that there was solid ground under the water. As they were almost to high ground, Sam looked back. Eddie, the horse they couldn’t get saddled, was surrounded by churning water.
“I can’t leave him Mom,” Sam said.
So, he trudged through the current and led him out. As Sam and Kelly headed down the road, they saw the ranch was in trouble. The river was coming through the whole area. There were cattle climbing on tree piles and the two-year-old bulls were standing in about three feet of water, trapped inside the electric fence around their pasture.
“Sam and I pushed the pairs off the tree piles and headed them to unflooded areas,” Kelly said. “It seemed hopeless.”
Eventually, the two were able to get about half of them off the piles. Unfortunately, the calves kept swimming to their calf huts. It was a safe place in the calves’ minds. At the time, however, they had about three feet of water in them.
“It was hard to endure all that we saw,” Kelly said.
Mark and Marlin, waded through the current and pushed the pairs through the floodwaters to drier areas. There were about 40 pairs on and around the last tree pile. The water was getting higher by the second.
The cows realized they needed to swim to safety and in turn were leaving their calves behind. One cow was licking and mooing to her calf. She decided to jump in the current and the calf followed, bouncing like a bobber until it could get its footing.
Marlin looked at his brother and said, “Throw them.” The men proceeded to push the calves into the current, forcing them to swim to safety.
One calf remained. Before they could grab it, it ran around to the other side of the tree pile. Mark chased it down, carried it back and let it go into the current. Just in those few seconds, the current had grown stronger and the calf was swept away.
With no regard for his own wellbeing, Mark jumped in and rescued the calf. Now, Mark was unable to get back across the threatening water. Suddenly, Sam and Rimrock plunged across the flood. They reached Mark and had him hold tight to the saddle horn.
“Courageous Rimrock brought them all back safely,” Kelly said. “Praise God for His hand in keeping them safe.”
With barely any daylight remaining, the family moved the virgin heifers to the house, so they could utilize their pen for other groups.
“I will never forgive myself if I don’t try to save the 2-year-old bulls,” Marlin had said.
Marlin fired up his John Deere 4455 big loader with duals and a prairie hay bale on back. Sam and AJ got in the bucket of the loader tractor. Their job would be to be to cut overhead electric fencing and ground-level cross fences. The plan being, with the fence removed the bulls would follow the tractor.
“The bulls came running, bunted the bale trying to eat it and followed them to a pen on higher ground,” Kelly said. “Another pure miracle!”
Mark headed back to the calving shed by walking up the tracks to check things out. He suggested opening all the gates and letting the cattle get on the railroad tracks.
So, they did. Astoundingly, most of the cattle climbed the 20-foot incline to the tracks and stayed there. By then, it was pitch dark and there was nothing else they could do. Standing in the driveway, they looked at each other and listened to cows and calves bawling, water raging, trees and ice slamming. AJ said the sound reminded him of shotgun blasts. A silhouette of a cow came walking up the lane.
“Ole 026, a fall cow, had swam the deepest, worst raging part of the flood to get back to her calf,” Kelly said. “A miracle from God.”
Sam was not able to make it to his wife and son, Stephanie and Simon, in Belgrade. As it turned out, Stephanie and Simon were stuck in Central City.
“Even though we received sporadic phone calls throughout the day, it was one of the longest days of my life,” Abby said.
When they walked in the door, Abby said she praised God that they had made it through the day alive.
“They were in so many life-threatening situations,” she said. “They were completely exhausted when they got to the house.”
No one could sleep. The wind was wicked, the storm grew worse, rain turned to sleet and the temperature dropped.
“You could hear the cows and calves bawling for each other,” Kelly said. “The thought of hypothermia and cattle getting washed away was so hard to take.”
They gathered the next morning to weigh their options. The first responsibility of the day was to feed the cattle. With no roads, a tractor with bales was the only possible way.
“With the uncertainty of if there was dirt under the water or a large hole, we were lucky we didn’t lose a tractor,” Kelly said. “But we got the bales to most of the cattle.”
The third day, the water had receded noticeably. They were able to feed the groups they couldn’t reach earlier. Neighbors, friends and family brought food and offered to help any way they could.
Tim O’Brien and his sons, James, Mark and Michael, from Akron, offered their help. They brought panels, installing them where the fence was washed away, and hauled cattle. Byron Moseman, a close neighbor, allowed the Scotts to take their virgin heifers to a pen he made available.
Kelly’s sister Susan and her son Tyler from Omaha, AJ’s dad Louie from Sargent, Chandra Bitterman from Broken Bow, Scott Gonsior and his son Tres from Fullerton offered their help sorting, mating up cattle and treating calves.
Nick Kayton from Albion brought a Bobcat over and cleared trails and filled in holes the river had formed. Dan Jarosz offered to get to Central City to bring Stephanie and Simon home. Mark and his sons, Cory and Joel, and Joel’s friend, Greg, put up temporary fences.
“Each one of these people went out of their way to offer their help,” Kelly said.
The family also got a call from a cherished longtime friend, Bucky Deflinger from Faith, South Dakota. He’d been through Winter Storm Atlas and new what the Scotts were going through.
“He told us to take it one day at a time for as long as it takes and never think past one day or you’ll go crazy,” Kelly said. “He came to help, brought a trailer with three horses and left his ranch in the capable hands of his wife Marti Jo.”
He stayed a week, helping the family. Every time they felt they couldn’t possibly make it through the day, someone else offered to help, Kelly said.
“Praise God for all the wonderful people sent to us to help,” she said.
In the summer, Sam gave a sermon at his church, Psalm 46 was his reference: “God is our strength and our refuge.”
The message resonated with the congregation who had also suffered the effects of the flood.
Jon Burleson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.