America’s farmers and ranchers are enjoying record, or near record prices for their cattle, due largely to a drought-reduced herd. While that’s not a welcome development for consumers, it presents its own set of challenges for producers. And the Agriculture Department estimates that production in America’s $85 billion beef industry will decline in 2014 to a 20-year low.
Rebuilding the herd will take time, money and favorable genetics. Market to Market revisited one of the largest seedstock operations in the nation recently and discovered Nichols Farms continues to embrace innovative technologies to produce better beef more efficiently. Laurel Bower Burgmaier explains.
Dave Nichols, Bridgewater, Iowa: “Well, I can't remember a time when we weren't in the cattle business. My mom and dad were married and were tenant farmers in Nebraska. And they made a down payment on a farm in Adair County, Iowa when I, moved to Adair County when I was about a year and a half old. And I always remember dad was a cattle feeder.”
Twenty years ago Market to Market introduced viewers to Nichols Farms in west central Iowa. A lot has changed over the past two decades, but one thing hasn’t. Dave Nichols of Bridgewater, Iowa, still has the wisdom of a cattle feeder and the spirit of an entrepreneur.
Dave Nichols, Bridgewater, Iowa: “Well, I think if you were to characterize Dave Nichols and Nichols Farms, as my dad once told me, he says, Dave, no more people see if you're a mile ahead of the parade than if you're a mile behind it. And I said, dad, that's true, but I'm a mile ahead, I get to see the drum majorettes in the band and the flag. If you're a mile behind you get to see a bunch of old guys picking up horse manure from the local saddle club. So, I have always wanted to be a mile ahead of the parade.”
Nichols Farms is known internationally for its innovative techniques in using genetic and production data from cattle to produce beef more efficiently.
Dave Nichols, Bridgewater, Iowa: “It's a seed stock operation that our core business is seed stock. And so we raise and sell lots of bulls and we're currently the fifth largest seed stock operation in the country that has grown from very, very modest beginnings. And my dad's motto, I remember my dad has grown wiser every year as I've gotten older, and his motto was raise all you can, feed all you raise. So, we are a sustainable operation.”
What was once a 240 acre farm has now grown into a 5,300 acre family seedstock operation. Nichols attributes his success to rigorous production standards, a willingness to embrace innovations and aggressive marketing.
Dave Nichols, Bridgewater, Iowa: “We're currently ranked 5th in the nation and the largest one in the Midwest. And we're really unique in the large seed stock operations because all of our capital has been earned from within, we don't own four dealerships or anything like that. We've had to generate all our capital from within.”
All Nichols bulls have complete performance records, Expected Progeny Differences, or EPDs, ultrasound data and DNA profiles.
Ross Havens, Nichols Farms: “When I scan what that does is pull that individual bull up in our database. He’s already pre-entered in there from weaning time by the EID that gives us his visual number, his whole pedigree, his birthdate, all the different data that we keep. We keep about 85 different fields of individual data on each individual animal.”
Today, nearly 85 percent of all U.S. Simmental genetics are traced to Nichols bulls and all bulls in the top one percent of the All Purpose Index, or API, contain Nichols genetics. Dave credits that track record to a commitment to keep the commercial producer and cattle feeder as a top priority.
Dave Nichols, Bridgewater, Iowa: “We're known in the bull business as, first of all we're known as our bulls are raised under the same environments that their cattle are. We don't show cattle, we don't fit cattle, we don't clip heads, we don't trim feet, we expect our cattle to work just as hard as we and our employees do. And so our cattle are known as, these cattle are also known as cattle that have a lot of performance and grow because in the beef business it's weight times the money.”
In 2013, Nichols Farms sold over 400 bulls and is on track to do the same this year including farmer Nick Price of Earlham, Iowa.
Nick Price, Earlham, Iowa: “What brings me to Nichols now is I believe I was looking for consistency in genetics and like a solid cow herd that provides those genetics along with the sires that they put on the cows. So, I’m looking for consistent genetics from my bulls.”
Nichols Farms procedures include artificial insemination of approximately 80 percent of purebred cows and heifers one time with seedstock from high accuracy sires. The remaining wet two year olds are bred naturally. To shorten generation interval and make maximum progress, Nichols Farms cleans up with a large number of yearling sires, except for the two-year olds which are bred with a combination of proven and yearling bulls.
Nichols sires are determined by an in-house index emphasizing carcass merit per day of age. As for females, all open heifers and cows are culled after a 63 day breeding season. Dry cows never go to pasture, and all females that lose a calf for any reason are culled from the herd. Other culling criteria include soundness of feet, legs and udders; as well as disposition and performance.
Nichols Farms computerized its system as soon as the technology became available. Today, its database contains more than 70 fields of data on each animal.
To meet its production protocols, Nichols embraces virtually every technology available including ultrasound and genomics, and the operation has participated in over 20 research projects with Land Grant Universities.
Nancy Degner, Iowa Beef Industry Council: “I've known Dave, he's a leader in adapting new things and trying new DNA, genetics. The techniques and the technology that I see them do are really creative and on the cutting edge in the forefront. And I think we're lucky to have such an innovator in Iowa representing the beef industry and see how he impacts the industry throughout the nation.”
With a cattle feeders perspective and a commitment to better beef that benefits not just Nichols Farms but the whole industry, Dave has had a deep- seeded conviction to scientifically identify superior carcass genetics.
Nancy Degner, Iowa Beef Industry Council: “I think what Nichols Farms offers to consumers is a higher quality beef, a leaner product, but still with the marbling that we want for taste. They also offer consistency so that when I go to the grocery store or I go to the restaurant and I order a steak, I get a great tasting steak every time I order it. So, you add that consistency and I think that’s what Nichols Farms is all about.”
Nichols Farms genetics extend well beyond the United States. They’ve exported live cattle, embryos and semen to 30 countries. And after 50 years in the cattle business, Dave has no intention of slowing down.
Dave Nichols, Bridgewater, Iowa: “The reason we expand is part of my DNA and I can't help it. I'm 75 years old and if a farm sold across the road I couldn't keep from bidding on it. Part of the reason, though, the main reason is, is if you really want to make improvement when you're improving cattle or hogs or anything it requires numbers. And if, in our case here, just in our Iowa division here, we have 600 bulls born each year and we are going to pick out the 10 of them that's best. If we had 100 cows we wouldn't have that many to pick out of. So, if you want your son to be a Rhodes Scholar that makes it into the NFL you probably better find out a way to have 1,000 kids.”