By Cheryl Kepes
Photos courtesy Nelson Family
Nelson Family Farms remains tireless in its pursuit of excellence in multiple facets of the cattle industry.
Perusing Nelson Family Farms (NFF) DreamWorks sale cattle catalog one will find pages graced with perfectly appointed open and bred females. Angus and Simmental beauties bred, developed, and groomed with the dream they’ll make it to the backdrops at shows across the country or produce the next champion. Though competitive show cattle are an integral part of the family operation in Mabel, Minn., there’s far more to NFF than meets the eye. The operation includes a seedstock operation, feedlot, and two sale barns.
Family members work together to ensure the success of each segment of the operation. “From a business standpoint being a little more diversified all pays off over time. The goal is always to make the most of every opportunity that we have in front of us,” Gabe Chase with Nelson Family Farms said.
Joe Nelson and his wife, Barb, started Nelson Family Farms in the 1980s. Their children, Kayla and Matt, grew up showing cattle, helping with the seedstock operation, and appreciating the different aspects of cattle industry.
Today, both Kayla and Matt’s families are involved in the cattle operation. Kayla’s husband, Gabe Chase, runs the seedstock operation, while she works in the offices at the sale barns in Lanesboro, Minn., and Decorah, Iowa. Matt Nelson owns and operates the feedlot in Iowa. Joe Nelson focuses on the two sale barns and splits his time between the other operations.
It takes everyone always working together to keep the sectors of the business running. When needed, workers at the sale barns pitch in at the seedstock operation on days there are no auctions. The seedstock program’s one full-time employee, Abe Hauge, works alongside Gabe in the day-to-day management of the cow/calf herd. “Abe has been around registered cattle his entire life and he is a tremendous help. Whether exhibiting at a show or getting ready for a sale I know our cattle will hit the ring looking their very best thanks to Abe’s talent. We are extremely fortunate to have him with us on a daily basis,” Gabe commented.
The family also works with an independent nutritionist who creates the rations for the cattle in the seedstock program as well as for animals in the feedlot. NFF utilizes 1,000 acres of cropland to grow feed for their cattle. They feed corn silage and haylage. Additionally, the seedstock cattle graze on about 650 acres of pasture.
Steers and heifers that fail to make the cut in the seedstock program head to Matt’s feedlot. Eventually those animals make their way to the family’s sale barns during the fat cattle sales. “Another aspect of the program that has expanded in recent years is purchasing feeder cattle from our bull customers to finish at Matt’s feedlot. It has been very rewarding to help add value to the calves produced by our customers and then to monitor the performance data of our genetics in a true commercial setting,” Gabe said.
Angus, Simmental, and SimAngus cattle comprise the seedstock herd. Nelson Family Farms utilizes 250 cows in its registered cow/calf program. Close to two-thirds of the herd is registered Simmentals and a third is registered black Angus. The family markets purebred Angus and Simmental females and bulls. Additionally, through the years NFF has developed an affinity and large customer base for its Simmental and Angus cross genetics.
The SimAngus cattle possess the hybrid vigor desired by many of NFF’s customers, especially commercial buyers looking for cleanup bulls. “The SimAngus hybrid is, for today’s cattle industry, as close to the ideal animal as you can get. Beginning with moderate birthweights and a black hide, then extra performance potential, and when managed correctly the optimum carcass,” Gabe shared.
The consistency and longevity of the SimAngus females as well as their versatility when it comes to matings adds to their appeal. “With a good SimAngus cow you have one that can be steered in any direction when breeding season comes around. The door is simply wide open for mating these highly productive females,” Gabe added.
Building the Future
For the past seven years, Gabe has guided and managed the seedstock sector of NFF. He ponders daily on ways he can make the next calf crop better than the last. He researches herd sires and analyzes their genetics, solicits advice from trusted cattle producers, and discusses strategies with the rest of the family. When making sire selections NFF strikes a balance of using some proven sires that have already worked well in their program with trying a few of the popular sires new to the cattle scene.
“As seedstock producers, in addition to being extra critical of our cattle, we also need to be constantly probing the upper limits of what the cattle and their genetics are capable of,” Gabe said. “Each year is a new opportunity to do an even better job than the year before. Whether that is through sire selection, nutrition, or other aspects of management, each year we must build upon years prior to stay competitive in this ever-changing industry.”
The seedstock operation also sticks with the basics, making sure the genetic selections will produce animals that are efficient, easy-keeping, and highly fertile. Traits such as longevity and structural soundness in feet, legs, and udders are also selection requirements.
NFF relies extensively on embryo transfer (ET) to build its base of elite genetics. Out of its 250 head of momma cows, about 75 of those cows will have an ET calf each year. “We have leaned heavily on ET over the past five or six years to help us crank out those highly valuable individuals in volume. It has been an invaluable tool for us to generate those extra numbers and utilize multiple matings each breeding season on our most proven dams,” Gabe shared. The ET genetics also give NFF additional elite females for its DreamWorks sale as well as herd sire prospects to sell off the farm through private treaty.
All females in the seedstock program are given one chance to settle through AI or an embryo. Then NFF turns out cleanup bulls with the registered herds. Most all the calving takes place in January, February, and March. This year NFF calved about a dozen ET calves in the fall.
Though his daily mindset is to constantly improve and to produce more competitive genetics, Gabe weighs each decision for the seedstock operation with a measured approach. His overarching goal is to generate livestock that do a lot of things really well, not to produce cattle that only do one to two things at the top of the breed. “I’m not particularly caught up in trying to generate those outliers for any given trait or couple of traits,” Gabe explained. “My philosophy is to raise those complete, problem-free cattle, that can go into a variety of different scenarios and just thrive in a variety of different environments, so they are more broadly acceptable to our customer base.”
As passionately as Gabe feels about making the right genetic selections, his conviction to make tough culling decisions is just as strong of a driving force. “I have always felt as seedstock producers we owe it to the industry, and we owe it to our own customers, to be absolutely ruthless when it comes to culling,” Gabe stated. “It shouldn’t matter how good her pedigree is or even how good her mother or grandmother may have been, we must hold ourselves to the highest of standards because if we’re keeping females around that aren’t worthy, we just aren’t doing anybody any favors in the long run.”
The next generation of NFF children are already learning aspects of the business. Gabe and Kayla, and their children, Claire, Lauren, and Walker; along with Matt and his wife, Jordan, and their children, Maverick and Quinn, are setting the course for the future of NFF. Of all the things the next generation will learn growing up amid the cattle industry, the most important lesson just may be that life and work are simply better when done together.
December 1, 2023
7:00 pm - Decorah, Iowa
learn more at www.nelsoncattle.com