There is no doubt John Nikkel loves cattle. He was one of those folks born with a real connection to livestock. But it took some searching to find the right match for the type of cattle he wanted to raise on his ranch, located just outside Coaldale. “In the days of the exotic boom, I tried every breed,” Nikkel explains. “But none of them really appealed to us. When I tried Salers, I decided to stay in them. I bought three good cows and did embryo transfer with them, so that gave us a boost from the start.”
That was 26 years ago, and those three foundation cows were the backbone of what’s become a ‘go-to’ Salers herd in the western Canadian cattle industry. For his efforts and dedication to good breeding, John Nikkel has been named the Performance Breeder of the Year by the Salers Association of Canada.
The reasons Nikkel was initially drawn to the breed are the same ones he uses to sell his bulls today. “They looked rugged to me, with a good haircoat,” recalled Nikkel. “Their calving ease is the strongest reason for the demand for bulls. Their pigmentation is good, and they have lots of milk. In my mind, they were head and shoulders over all the other breeds.” But while the eye appeal and common sense characteristics are strong, it’s the performance Nikkel likes to track and highlight on his Salers herd, which today is around 120 head in size. “Statistics are not the only tool, but they one tool. It’s information you can hold in front of a buyer, so you can show what the calves will do.” Nikkel started assembling his arsenal of data fifteen years back when he put some of his bulls on test at Cardston. “They did well, and I realized how important it is to get comparisons to know where you’re at with other breeds.” Keeping performance records and doing the extra work associated with raising purebred cattle is no easy task, but it’s one Nikkel takes pride in doing well.
In his early days as a purebred breeder, Nikkel marketed his bulls mainly through the test station sale and by word of mouth. But as he developed some buyers and grew his herd size, he reached the point of hosting his own bull sale. The Co-Alta Salers Cow Booster Bull Sale is held each April in Lethbridge and 2015 will be his sixth edition of the sale. “At least fifty per cent of the bulls go for heifer use because of the calving ease. The buyers are happy with the results and seem to keep coming back.” Most bulls from the Co-Alta Sale go to new homes within a 100 mile radius, which is a complement since the ‘close to home’ market is often considered the toughest to crack!
John and his wife Anne recently celebrated their 56th anniversary and are pleased to have all six of their children in southern Alberta, with two connected to cattle. Son John is raising cattle at his place near Iron Springs, while a daughter and her husband manage a nearby pasture. There are 13 grandchildren, and Anne is proud of the unique fact that they all came in the order of boy-girl, a trend that has continued into their great-grandchildren so far as well!
A man of deep faith, Nikkel feels cattle have been his calling. “It’s born into me,” admitted Nikkel. “I like cattle. When I was young, I’d beg my Dad, who wasn’t a cattleman, to buy cattle so that I could take care of them and watch them. That love for cattle hasn’t diminished.” While Nikkel does have seasonal hired help, and son John is only a phone call away, at nearly 80 he still does primarily all the work, including putting the sale catalogue together. A knee replacement last summer helped his mobility. “As you get older your enthusiasm is not what it used to be,” he smiled. “But I still enjoy it.”
While Nikkel savours every day, there are some special ones in the cattle business. “It used to be seeing newborn calves, and wondering how the calf crop would be from a particular bull. The sale day gives you a certain amount of psyche, but I do get uptight. I’m not a casual observer,” he smiled wryly. “At same time, it’s like playing a game of hockey and when you win, you forget about that, and you look back and say it was a good experience. That’s how it is with bull sales.”
It was also great day when John found out about the 2014 recognition he received from his Salers peers. “It is an honor to be selected as recipient of this award.” While the performance of Co-Alta Salers cattle have been their selling feature, folks in the cattle industry know, the breeder is a big factor in doing business. Go to other rancher’s herds and they’ll be quick to point out their John Nikkel cattle because of their quality, but also because of the personality of the seller – a true cattleman.
by Dianne Finstad