Dave Nichols of Nichols Farms inducted into Saddle and Sirloin Portrait Gallery

Carrie Stadheim
for Tri-State Livestock News
An artist spent three days taking around 200 photographs of Dave Nichols in order to prepare this portrait that now hangs in teh Saddle and Sirloin Portrait Gallery. Courtesy of Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols says the industry has made three “quantum leaps” in his lifetime:

1. EPDs which allowed us to compare our cattle across herds.

2. Ultrasounding for marbling and ribeye area. “Used to be, a bull was four years old before we could see his offprings’ carcasses. It was very slow.”

3. Genomics. “I can take a strand of hair out of a one-day-old heifer calf and have genomics testing on her that will give me as much information as if she’s had seven calves.”

Ambition, he is full of. Selfish ambition? Not much.

Don’t let Dave Nichols’ lighthearted approach fool you. He might open the conversation with a joke but he’s got some seriously insightful ideas. It is no surprise that Dave Nichols was chosen as the Saddle and Sirloin Portrait Gallery’s 2015 inductee.

The Bridgewater, Iowa, cattlemen, said he has two goals he hopes to achieve– and believes he will – in his lifetime.

“I want to help our cowherd wean 1,000 pound steer calves and 850 pound heifer calves at seven months of age. At 10 mos of age they will weigh 1,350 and they will never leave the farm until they are market-ready.” Secondly, he hopes genomics technology can be used to put a stop to cancer.

“We’ve got the best employees in the nation, and I think my employees are better than my cattle.” Dave Nichols on Nichols Farms

Lofty? Yes. Unachievable? You won’t think so after a visit with Nichols. This year three calves met his goal.

Nichols also hopes and believes genomics technology will someday soon be used to put a stop to cancer.

The gene genius was raised on his father’s small Iowa cattle feeding operation. By the age of eight he owned his own cattle and at the tender age of thirteen, bought into the registered Angus business, at a time when Herefords were “king.”

Nichols Farms now raises and sells Angus, Simmental, SimAngus hybrids and Angus/Simmental/South Devon composites but Angus remains near and dear to Nichols’ heart.

“I think my favorite breed is Angus. That is the one I grew up with at a very young age – when I was out at the tie-outs trying to find an attractive girl. I remember that first show heifer kind of like you remember your first kiss. I like them all, but I grew up with Angus and I kind of see everything with Angus eyes.”

Nichols tells of the fall in 1952 when he convinced his dad to help him buy some purebred heifers to “make the world a better place.” And his dad went along with the concept. “But the truth of the matter was, I noticed the girls showing purebred Angus heifers wore tighter jeans and were a lot better looking than the girls showing market steers or pigs.”

From a very young age, Nichols was interested in evaluating cattle using hard numbers. In 1957 he won the National FFA Public Speaking Contest, discussing the merits of performance testing bulls. At that time, the Shorthorn Association was the only purebred registry in North America carrying out performance testing on their registry. Nichols was able to obtain some information from that group for his speech. “About two year later they stopped testing and went with the ‘belt buckle’ show cattle that were so popular at that time,” he said.

Nichols said that soon after, a group of individual “pioneer performance breeders” created an organization they named Performance Registry International.” Sally Forbes, Carlton and Murray Corbin, Jerry Linton and Jim Lingo are a few of the big names that instigated the registry. By 1961 Nichols had bred some of the early Certified Meat Sires (CMS) registered by that group.

Dave submitted weaning weights the first year the American Angus Association accepted them. He soon helped pioneer the breeding of black, polled Simmental.

Nichols farms now manages 1,500 head of breeding cows and a small feedlot. Another 500 cooperator and franchise cows are also under Nichols’ watch. The business has exported cattle, semen and embryos to 30 countries and has earned five Palermo (an Argentinian livestock exposition) grand champions.

While he got his start in the show ring, Nichols quickly decided he’d rather suit his customers’ interests than the show judge’s.

Nichols Farms hasn’t shown cattle since 1963 or 1964. “The show ring is a great social event but when we got married we quickly decided we didn’t need any more social events,” he chides.

“The show ring’s relationship to commercial cattlemen would be like the relationship between Indy 500 cars and Ford F250 pickup – great entertainment but do you want to take a 1,000 horsepower car that will go 200 miles per hour out to run errands or check cattle in the pasture?”

Visual appraisal of cattle is more of an art than a science, but can include hard data, he said. “I don’t hate the show ring. I judged Denver a couple of times when they were wanting to incorporate EPDs. You can evaluate cattle in the show ring just like in the back of the barn. You can evaluate functional soundness, muscle to fat ratio indicators, and more.”

In the real world, Nichols farm has shown the industry what a successful breeding program looks like.

To date, Nichols Farms has placed 44 bulls in studs. Bulls originating from his farm can be found at Genex, ABS and Select Sires. The last bull was just purchased by ABS. Dec. 9. Nichols and his staff celebrated with coffee and pats on the back. “We’ve got the best employees in the nation and I think my employees are better than my cattle,” he said.

But good cattle with solid numbers are never far from Nichols’ thoughts. Serving as the chairman of the NCBA Product Enhancement Subcommittee, he helped procure $5 million to develop genomic testing. “I was there when it was done the first time,” he said of the genomics test that can be used to predict tenderness. “Using about three million of hard-earned checkoff dollars and a $5 million grant, we mapped the tenderness genome before a human genome was mapped, which cost about $3 billion.”

It is with this technology that Dave believes cancer can be virtually wiped out. “The basic things we are doing now with genomics will help us get to cancer. We’ll find ways we can stimulate the old human’s body to recognize cancer as a foreign body and it will destroy the cancer itself.”

Dave was awarded the 2014 NCBA Regional Environmental Stewardship Award and named the Livestock Publications Council’s Headliner of the Year. He serves on the Beef Cattle Efficiency advisory committee and as chairman of the National Beef Cattle Evaluation Consortium. In the past he served on the American Simmental Association board of directors and currently serves on the American Angus Association board.

Dave was integral in the creation of the Beef Improvement Federation and in 1967 served on its first board of directors, later serving as president.

He received BIF’s Continuous Service Award, Seedstock Breeder of the Year award and Pioneer Breeder Award.

Dave has been invited to speak on approximately one program a month for 40 years.

Nichols Farms has one of the most extensive databases in the industry with more than 70 computer fields on each animal, and this database has been used in recent years for genomic validation and U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC) animal breeding research.

The daughter of a successful cattlemen and a University of Northern Iowa homecoming queen who also became the first female school principal in the state of Iowa, Nichols expected his wife Phyllis (Gibbs) to do great things. And disappointed he was not.

Phyllis has been critical to the farm’s success, he said. “She works her butt off for Nichols Farms. She does all the taxes, bookwork and sells all the grain.” Nichols recalls his farm-girl wife’s first job on the farm – helping calve 200 first-calf heifers. “She learned on the job,” he said.

The couple’s son Fletcher remains on the farm and their daughter Jennifer works as the special features editor for a daily newspaper. While Dave’s brother Lee died at the age of 36, his sister-in-law Lillian has always been an integral part of the farm and today remains a partner.

Nichols believes in the Saddle and Sirloin Portrait Gallery and what it represents. The past. Learning about history is crucial to future success, he said.

“Those people who fail to read about history are doomed to repeat it,” he said in a radio interview. “George Washington was a hero of mine. Phyllis and I visited Valley Forge and his daily log book was there. Each day they turned a page. That day he told about how many people had deserted, how many died, and that the soldiers were boiling their belts for food. That’s when I knew what the Declaration of Independence meant and what those people did for America. I believe in honoring heroes.”