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Long-time Charolais breeders dispersing purebred herd

Commercial cattle still part of Neilson's plan
WILLOWBROOK - A long-time Charolais producer; Neilson Charolais of Willowbrook, is having a dispersal sale in December. 

When the gavel falls on the last lot it will end years of herd building by Mike and Joanne Neilson, a herd they started in Ontario years before making the decision to move west. 

“Mike and I have been in the Charolais bull business since we moved to Northwestern Ontario in 1980,” explained Joanne.  

“Back then we were in a yearling bull program. With January/February calving, most of the cows went through the barn, getting hand fed and watered.   

“The switch to a two-year-old bull program shifted calving to April/May and the cows calved on pasture. With a couple of little kids around and Mike logging full-time away from home, this was a good choice.” 

And the farm had history. 

Mike's grandfather Neils homesteaded the farm he and Joanne had operated for 28 years, keeping the land in the family for 98 years.

But, even with that family tie to the land, Neilson said he didn't see a future on the farm near Stratton, Ont.

The opportunities to grow the farm and herd in Ontario were limited, so the Neilsons began looking at options. 

“After not being able to secure farmland in Ontario and BSE, (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) strangling our main bull sales to the U.S., Mike came home one day with a proposition - ‘would I move to Saskatchewan’.  I asked him ‘with or without you?’.   OK, with you.   

“That day we started looking at possibilities in a province I had no previous knowledge of.” 

The search was on

While the Stratton. ON, area might suit cattle production, the small area of farmland meant a small number of producers, and that limited the potential sales for a purebred producer looking to sell bulls.

In the past that wasn't such a problem for Neilsons, but times change.

“In the past our market was in the United States; North Dakota and Minnesota,” said Mike in a 2008 article, adding, that was prior to the discovery of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in Canada. “Ninety per cent of our bulls went there. Once the border closed we lost our market for bulls.” 

Part of the American market had been an annual production sale Neilson held in the United States to market bulls each spring. Again when BSE caused the border to close that avenue to sales was lost, which forced him to look for a new place for his sale.

That search initially led Neilson to Yorkton. In 2007, Neilson held his production sale at Heartland Livestock in the city.

While it might seem unusual to use an auction facility in Yorkton, when raising cattle in Ontario, Mike pointed out “we're a lot closer to here than people realize.”

Joanne said the family was supportive of their planned move. 

“Our kids gave us the thumbs up - both were attending University of Waterloo at the time and not very involved with the cattle operation,” she said. 

The key to the planned move was the Charolais cattle. 

“We had to make a decision if we wanted to continue in the purebred business, and we decided we wanted too,” said Mike in 2008, adding that meant looking for a new place to raise cattle. “We had to find a different area.”

The first place they looked was Manitoba, since it was right next door, but Mike said there was less farmland available there than even in northwest Ontario.

So they kept looking.  

Again in 2008, Mike said it was important not only to find land, but more importantly the land had to be in a place where he could market his purebred cattle.
“The first place we had to look for was a place to sell the bulls, regardless of the land,” he said. 

“With a pros and cons list in front of us, we were still sitting on the fence.  So we asked our consultant Tracy (the dog). ‘Wag your tail, yes, if we should move to Saskatchewan’.  A dog tail wag later, we were tramping the roads of Saskatchewan looking for a new home,” recalled Joanne. 

That was when a local area promotion caught their attention.  

“An ad for the ‘Last Cattle Frontier brought us to the Yorkton area,” said Joanne. 

The Last Cattle Frontier was an area initiative by then regional economic development authorities to actively seek out cattle producers to move to the area because land locally was lower valued than land in other cattle producing areas, primarily Alberta, but in the case of the Neilsons, intriguing an Ontario producer too. 

“Jodie Horvath was working in the Yorkton Ag Office and after talking with her over lunch we were immediately struck by the opportunities available,” recalled Joanne. “We settled on a farm close to Willowbrook, a community that has been very friendly and helpful. A year after we purchased the land, our cows came.” 

Area a good fit

Mike said he immediately saw east central Saskatchewan as a good fit in 2008.

“This area has a lot of black and red cows ,” he said. “Our experience selling into the U.S., (they held 13 sales stateside), it's kind of a perfect fit for the Charolais business.”

Mike said the two bull sales he had held in Yorkton, before the move, had been strong enough that he believed they would be a foundation for his future business.

With a local area cow herd that held the promise of bull sales, Mike said he was looking for land in Saskatchewan even before his first production sale in Yorkton in 2007. Initially he looked in the Assiniboia area.

“But, it seemed harder to buy land in the south part of the province than here,” he said.

When Neilson started looking in the Yorkton area, he said everything fell into place, the local cow herd, availability of land, and the community.

“We were also looking for a community we were comfortable with, that we had a good feeling about,” he said, adding Yorkton fit the bill. “... The people made us feel good about the area.” 

The land, purchased in 2007, was a grain farm, but the Neilsons immediately began to convert it into a farm focused on cattle production. 

So what did Mike see as the toughest part of the move back in 2008.

“For now a big challenge was just getting a handle on managing things here, on how to manage cows here,” he said.

Interestingly, the winter is not something he is worried about.

“We're used to a severe winter,” he said, but added northwest Ontario gets eight to 10 inches more precipitation a year, so that will alter how he manages pasture and forage. “That area was noted for its forages.”

Neilson said when it comes to forages he has turned to his new neighbours for advice.

“I've talked to people to find out what works in the area,” he said, noting there is a different mix of forage species used here. “The big difference in there's less clover in this area.”

Still, the decision to move was not an easy one. In a 2008 Yorkton This Week article Mike said he felt it was something he had to do if we wanted to stay in the purebred Charolais business.

Neilson said he sees the Yorkton area as a growing cattle region.

“It's kind of exciting. The cow business is developing in the area, and we can be part of it,” he said in 2008.

Although he sees opportunities in the local area, the decision to leave land that has been in the family for nearly a century was not easy, especially for his parents, Keith and Grace Neilson considering his father operated the farm before him.

“I know it's hard for them, but at the same time they are supportive,” he said.
Neilson explained the area in Ontario he farmed was limiting just based on location. Stratton is in northwest Ontario “right in the corner next to Manitoba and Minnesota,” he said. “It's a small pocket of farmland right up against the American border.” Directly to the north is the rugged Canadian Shield.
“It's a small area, but it's pretty productive. It's good for cattle.” 

Some things in Ontario were easy to leave behind. 

“One thing I really resented in Ontario was sharing my well with the cows,” said Joanne. “I’d be dashing from the upstairs shower to the basement to reset the pump so I could finish my shower.  

“I put my foot down on this, so we drilled a well just for the cows. The feedlot and a handling system west of the yard have a great water system. Happy wife, happy life.” 

Moving west with a purpose

The move west allowed for expansion of the Charolais herd. 

“We grew the operation to where we now calve 250 cows, half Purebred Charolais and the rest commercial,” said Joanne.   

Production sales remained a key marketing tool. 

“Bull sales evolved at Heartland Livestock Service Yorkton as an event along with a cow sale, being the anchor for the Range Ready Bull Sale, to an on the ranch event in our own sale barn,” said Joanne.   

“The move to having our Neilson Cattle Company sale at home came just after Mike was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer. The good news he has responded well to those treatments and is doing well.

“The cattle community came together for processing the herd, hauling cattle to pasture, calving and all kinds of help to put on our first 'on farm' sale while Mike was getting treatments in Saskatoon. The doctors let him out for our bull sale that year, and he was back in Saskatoon the same night. The help we got during this time was so much appreciated. That is what community is all about.” 

The Neilsons have always had a philosophy in terms of how to produce their cattle. 

“The goal for our herd is to produce cattle that will calve on pasture, have a good disposition and can walk and hustle for feed,” explained Joanne.  

“Ryan Hurlburt from Saskatoon Livestock Sales visited our place late one winter and saw our coming two-year-old sale bulls doing really well on winter pasture. They were out on the prairie, bedding down in the cattails and having to walk a good distance for water. Ryan said ‘nobody is doing it this way’. That was a compliment that I will always remember.” 

The core of the cow herd moved west with the Neilsons back in 2009. 

“The cow herd came to Saskatchewan from our Ontario farm,” said Joanne. “Many of our original heifers came from McKay Charolais and there are a lot of bloodlines derived from them.   

“One of our favourite walking bulls, ‘RC True’ from Rambur Charolais, Montana also has stamped his mark on these same pedigrees as he stayed good footed and we used him for many years.   

“Today, every sale bull, calf and purebred female was born and raised by us, so they can be considered a one iron brand herd. This was our way to try to produce a consistent end product-culling the extremes and focusing on what worked. “

Time to sell

But, all things eventually come to an end. 

“Dispersal day, Dec. 1, is fast approaching,” said Joanne.  

“Many ask what we are doing in our ‘retirement’? 

“We would really like to spend some extra time with our kids. Mike is thinking about picking peaches in Georgia, growing onions in Spain or fencing for Wes Olynyk.  

“I wouldn't mind an occasional sand beach thrown in or a remote fishing trip as either would give me time to read a good book. “ 

And, there will still be cattle on the farm at Willowbrook. 

“The commercial herd will probably expand,” said Joanne. “We will continue to use Charolais bulls to grow those nice buckskin and silver calves. After all, in the end, that is what it is all about.”