Luck of the Irish: Nielsen Irish Black & Red Cattle
October 3, 2018
The Nielsen family, of Fallon, Mont., has been in the cattle business in eastern Montana for four
generations, and like so many modern ranching families, maintaining a profitable and sustainable business that will support a growing family tree can be a challenge.
Ready to pass on the reins to the next generation, Terry and Eileen Nielsen started exploring ways to expand and diversify the family business in order to welcome their sons — Wade and Will — back home to the operation.
Terry, who passed away from a heart attack on Oct. 10, 2017, was described by his family as a lifelong learner and a progressive producer. He was never afraid to try something new, so when his sons discovered the promising Irish Black and Red cattle in 2009, he didn't hesitate to give the breed a try in order to benefit the business and the family he adored.
"We had always run commercial cattle, but we were unhappy with the trailer load of misfits we would sell at the sale barn each year," said Wade Nielsen. "We started looking for ways we could add consistency to our females and our calf crops. That's when we heard about Irish Blacks and met with Maurice Boney at his ranch in Johnston, Colo. First, we tried a bull and eventually went on to purchase embryos to build our herd numbers."
Breed founder Maurice Boney was a prestigious and forward-thinking cattleman who dedicated his life to developing Irish Black and Irish Red cattle. Using genetics derived primarily from proven Angus "Revolution" females crossed with beef Friesian bulls from Ireland, Boney spent 50 years extensively line-breeding this cross in a tightly controlled program to select for carefully selected production parameters and to eliminate future genetic flaws.
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Trademarking his American-bred cattle genetics in the 1990s, Boney fiercely protected his closed-book herd, and today, Irish Black and Irish Red cattle are performing well for the Nielsens and other registered seedstock producers scattered across the United States.
"Working with Maurice, we purchased embryos on shares to build our herd, so he would get all of the bulls while we kept the heifers," said Nielsen. "Once we decided to use Irish Black bulls on our Angus-based commercial cattle, we no longer had any cutbacks at the sale barn. The genetics are so concentrated that you get more consistency in the calves with a more predictable outcome. The benefits were immediate, but we also saw an opportunity to increase our profitability and get everybody back on the ranch by focusing on the seedstock business, as well."
Working alongside Terry Todd, owner of No Creek Ranch — an Irish Black operations located near Twin Bridges, Mont., the Nielsens merchandise their calves together each year. Additionally, Nielsen Irish Blacks and Reds started selling purebred two-year old bulls in 2013 through private treaty sales.
"Maurice was a firm believer in selling older, more mature bulls; he believed that too many producers push yearling bulls too fast before sale day, and it's better to give them time to grow to make sure they last," said Nielsen. "We just sold a nine-year old bull this year who had been working in our herd. I think in addition to letting these bulls mature, the Irish Black breed has the longevity to stay in production. We have purebred cows that are 18 years old and going strong."
One thing that surprises many ranchers when they learn about the Irish Black and Red cattle is their fertility.
"The stocking ratio is one Irish Black bull can cover 50-70 cows," said Lisa Hendrickson, owner of Diamond H Livestock in Saint Ignatius, Mont. and secretary of the Irish Black Cattle Association (IBCA). "That's a really hard concept for producers to grasp; they think it sounds crazy, but it's a proven fact that these cattle are highly fertile. One Irish Black bull can typically replace two or three other types of bulls. One of our customers is a veterinarian who runs a very strict 60-day breeding window. He replaced 56 Angus bulls with just 18 Irish Black bulls and increased his conception rate from 89 percent the previous year to 92 percent using Irish Black bulls. Not only did he end up with more pregnant cows at the end of the breeding season, but he no longer has to maintain 56 bulls over the winter months. In that first year, his average ratio was 63 cows per bull, and he had 1,100+ head of cattle bred using 18 Irish Black bulls."
"It's really hard to get people to switch to that mentality," added Nielsen. "This breed being so small and relatively new, it takes a lot of education to reach customers and show them what this breed can do. We not only appreciate the fertility and longevity of these cattle, but the added feed efficiency, great dispositions, consistency and carcass traits, as well."
The Nielsens are such believers in the Irish Black genetics that they are slowly transitioning their commercial herd to half- and three-quarter bloods.
"It's a work in progress, and it takes time to not only build up a breeding program but to start selling bulls and getting the word out, as well," said Nielsen. "Yet, we have already built a client base of good repeat customers, and we've sold cattle in Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Missouri and Arizona, with interest from Canada, as well."
In 2015, Will came back to the ranch full-time after previously working as an engineer for Halliburton in Casper, Wyo. and Dickinson, N.D. Meanwhile, Nielsen sisters Christa VanDyke owns a design company and Sharla Sackman is an extension agent in Prairie County; both continue to help on the ranch in their spare time.
Wade continues to work as a land agent for WBI Energy Transmission in Glendive, Mont., but his proximity to the ranch allows him to focus his nights and weekends on developing the seedstock business further, where his passion for the Irish Black cattle has expanded from the cow-calf sector to the finishing phase.
"We just purchased a feedlot by Fallon, and it works well for developing bulls and finishing our steer calves," said Nielsen. "By retaining ownership, we are able to collect carcass data, and the cattle have done really well. They have excellent feed efficiency and consistently grade, as well."
"Maurice always told me that we need to get our customers to retain ownership on their calves because they are passing on their profits to the guy at the feedlot," added Hendrickson. "In 2011-12, we purchased calves from three of our bull customers who had been using 100 percent Irish Black bulls on their Angus cows. We sent the cattle to Beef Northwest at an average weight of 542 pounds. The group harvested at an average weight of 1,346 pounds at 13 months of age. The best and most exciting thing was the calves' feed conversion rates. The calves consumed 4.79 pounds of feed per 1 pound of gain (the average for most cattle is 6.09 pounds per 1 pound of gain. This made the cost of finishing these cattle 23 percent cheaper. If the feedlot fed to capacity half-blood Irish Black cattle, they would save over $21 million in annual feed costs to produce the same product. Maurice never focused on feed conversion, but we have discovered the cattle convert incredibly well. Our cost was just $.83 per lb. of gain compared to the average $1.08 per pound of gain. The cattle graded 60 percent USDA Choice and 40 percent Select. We didn't get a lot of Primes, but that is hard when they are being harvested at just over one-year old. You could develop the cattle further but would need more time to mature and add marbling."
These producer testimonies may be anecdotal, but Boney's methodology in creating this "ideal" breed of cattle was tightly controlled and very precise.
"Maurice was an American beef producer through and through; he knew what U.S. ranchers needed to be profitable and survive, and more and more producers are discovering the benefits of the breed," said Hendrickson.
As the breed grows, so did the need for a breed association. Today, the IBCA represents 3,000 head of cattle and 30 registered purebred breeders currently merchandising bulls and females with a number of additional seedstock producers developing their herds, as well.
Nielsen sits on the board of directors and is excited about the future of the breed.
"All good things take time, and growing our numbers will take education and commercial producers giving Irish Black cattle a try," said Nielsen. "I tell my customers, I won't sell them what doesn't work for me personally, but it takes a lot to make the switch to try a new breed. I'm so glad our family bought those first bulls from Maurice; it has changed our program for the better. At this point, our association is really at a grassroots level to grow the breed, but when you look at what these cattle can do, it's hard to deny the attributes they bring to the table."
"Wade is one of those enthusiastic young producers who really gives a voice to the Irish Black breed," said Deb Brown, owner of Long Pines Land and Livestock in Buffalo, S.D., and the IBCA president. "As an association, we are in the phase where we are working on supporting our seedstock producers and getting a good foundation for registrations. We continue to stick to the standards that Maurice incorporated, because without those, we are not the same breed. It is imperative that we stick to the principles of the breed to maintain the attributes that make Irish Black cattle so unique. Word-of-mouth is going to be our best advertisement; it's amazing what these cattle can do to change an operation in just a few generations."
Without a doubt, the Nielsens may be charting new territory their great-grandfather could have never envisioned when he started ranching in the early 1900s; however, this hard-working, progressive family is committed to the long-term sustainability of the ranch, and the Irish Blacks may be the way to ensure the business is around for generations to come.
To learn more about Nielsen Irish Blacks & Reds, visit http://www.irishblackbeef.com.