April 17, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nebraska boasts three times more cattle than humans, and Omaha is well-known for holding large philanthropic gatherings. Together, these statistics set the stage for the multi-million dollar fundraiser known as Cattlemen’s Ball—a major out-of-town draw for Omaha’s giving community.

“Part of the beauty of this event is highlighting the beauty of rural Nebraska,” former Governor Dave Heineman said at a preview party for last year’s event at the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center in Omaha. “It really is a weekend of fun in an area of Nebraska that many people don’t get to see.”

But the event is more than just fun. Since 1998, the Cattlemen’s Ball has raised over $13 million for cancer research. The fundraiser is also a social occasion to come together for a common cause. Out of 21 balls, 10 have occupied towns and communities with fewer than 1,000 people.

This June 7 and 8, Wayne and Chris Krausnick will host the 2019 Cattlemen’s Ball at their property near Wauneta, Nebraska. Wauneta has a population of 577 according to the 2010 census. Country music star Clay Walker is headlining the concert on Saturday.

2018 in Review

The 2018 event attracted herds of Nebraskans from across the state to Hergott farm near Hebron, Nebraska. Hebron is the county seat of Thayer County. It is the largest town in the county with a population of 1,579, according to the 2010 census.

“All of our small-town communities in Nebraska need to come together to thrive,” 2018 co-host and local rancher Rob Marsh says. “I thought this might be an awesome experience for my town, for my county, to come together to help keep us viable for the future.”

Each ball takes two years of planning and hundreds of volunteers—250 people and 50 committees organized the Hebron ball, handling everything from horseback parking to meals to decorations.

New to the 2018 ball, organizers introduced a program called “Calf for a Cure.” This fund drive allowed people to purchase a calf for $1,000, or donate $600 to feed a calf. Those calves were fed throughout the winter and sold in the spring before the ball, raising $260,000.

The Hergott farm was chosen for its proximity to a main highway and its size. The 60-acre ranch in southeast Nebraska became a community of 4,500 for two days, with onsite ATMs, air-conditioned portable bathrooms, camping, shopping, and more.

Trail Boss Roundup

The 2018 fete began Friday morning with a golf tournament at the Hebron Country Club that earned $13,000. Friday evening events for “Trail Boss” ticket holders (the premium tickets cost $400 each) included a meal and auction. The first item auctioned was the choice of a top Angus heifer ($7,000); other items included a Memorial Stadium photo signed by Scott Frost ($1,100) and a weeklong trip to a hunting cabin in Wyoming ($5,000).

Following the auction, the Trail Bosses listened and/or danced to a private concert by Grammy-nominated singer Tracy Lawrence. The Glenn H. Korff Foundation, whose namesake was a Hebron native, funded the weekend’s live entertainment.

Saturday kicked off with a new event, the Rawhide Run, in Hebron. Meanwhile, many of the Trail Bosses sat down to a breakfast of frittatas and pastries.

As often happens on a ranch, chores needed to be done before breakfast could commence. A storm on Friday night saturated the event site with more than 1.5 inches of rain, so the Hergotts and 200 volunteers hurried to spread three semi-loads-worth of wood chips around the grounds so visitors would not sink to their knees in mud.

tent at Cattlemen's Ball

Tent at Cattlemen’s Ball

Giddyup, Top Hands

Trail Boss tickets admit entry to all events on Friday and Saturday. “Top Hand” tickets, at $100 each, provided access to the ball starting at 1 p.m. on Saturday.

On Saturday afternoon, the ball became a more casual, community affair. A fashion show (organized by host Natalie Marsh) highlighted cancer survivors. The star of the show was 2-year-old Ellie Pachta, who lost an eye to retinoblastoma shortly after her first birthday. She toddled down the runway smiling at the onlookers.

“Usually, the style show has about 20 to 30 models, and they get a few boutiques to help out,” Marsh says. “My wife and her friends got 50 models, and they got eight or nine boutiques to give clothes to the models. There were about 800 people at that show.”

Other Saturday-afternoon activities included an antique tractor display and blacksmith demonstrations. A wine tasting room offered sips of locally produced wines while an art show highlighted Nebraska artists from jewelry-makers to painters, potters, and more. A new event in 2018 was a history tent focusing on events from 1840-1870 along Nebraska’s portion of the Oregon Trail.

There were more auctions on Saturday, too. A farm auction allowed local agrarians the chance to purchase new field equipment. A silent auction featured nearly 300 items, such as a basket of 1995-1997 Husker Football memorabilia, a branded pallet bench and table, and a John Deere scene puzzle in a barnwood frame. The serenity garden featured a flagstone patio, outdoor furniture, and abundant plants also available to bidders.

A truck raffle was another way to participate. Winning the raffle (each ticket cost $100) was Jackie Novack of Creston, Iowa, who won his choice of three 2018 pickup trucks: a Ford F-150, a Chevrolet Silverado 1500, or a Dodge Ram 1500.

And, of course, there were cattle at the Cattlemen’s Ball. A ranch rodeo showcased teams of cowboys competing in events such as calf-roping and cajoling calves into trailers. A cattle show displayed nearly every form of bovine residing in Nebraska.

But if the odor of livestock did not appeal to guests, they could inhale the scent of roses at the Promise Petals Tent. Individuals contributed the plants as memorials and celebrations of survival.

All Together Now

All 4,500 ticket holders came together for the Saturday evening activities—a meal of prime rib, garlic mashed potatoes, Caesar salad, pasta salad, rolls, and dessert followed by the final high-end auction and a concert by Grammy-nominated country artist Trace Adkins.

Those who stayed awake for the after-party were treated to a second concert by Adkins’ opener, Forgotten Highway, who kept the festive atmosphere going for all the hoofers, and the hooves.

“At the after-party everyone was singing and dancing to the song ‘Save a Horse, Ride A Cowboy,’ and in the center of the dance floor comes a cowboy and a horse,” Marsh says. “That horse was dancing to the song. I had no idea that was going to happen.”

The 2018 event garnered $1,747,961.89, of which 90 percent went to the Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center. The remaining 10 percent went to health and wellness programs in the Hebron-area community. It was the second-highest amount raised at any Cattlemen’s Ball.

Dr. Ken Cowan of the Buffett Cancer Center, who is stepping down as director in late June, says the funds from the Cattlemen’s Ball over the years have allowed UNMC to recruit 200 faculty members while providing significant funding for the Cancer Center.

An Unforgettable Auction

Cowan recalls how past balls have embodied the spirit of community support: “There was one particular ball that a family had lost their young daughter to cancer, and they had donated her two horses to raise money for the ball in her memory,” he says.

Their daughter’s horses went up for auction, and the price kept going up. “As they got to the winning bid of several thousand,” Cowan says, “they asked the bidder which horse he wanted. He said, ‘Just rebid the horses.’ The second high bidder said rebid the horses, and this went on and on until the final round, when the horses went for very little money.”

Cowan soon discovered the reason for the surprising auction item. “The next morning I saw one of the ranchers, and I asked about that auction,” he says. “The ranchers had gotten together, and they wanted to make sure that enough money was raised for the cause, but they wanted the horses to go for a reasonable low price [back] to the family.”

Stories like these are the reasons why Cowan says he has attended all but the first Cattleman’s Ball. He came to Omaha in 1999, and his work with UNMC introduced him to the ball.

“I think it is really an incredible event,” Cowan says. “It is unique to Nebraska. There is no other fundraising event like this.”


Visit cattlemensball.com for more information.

This article was printed in the May edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.