Farming has never been far from mind for rancher Eric Neilson.
Neilson grew up on a farm in the area of Fleet, Alta., an area where he continues to ranch; however, due to the financial challenges of farming he wasn’t always sure that would be the case.
After university, Neilson took an agricultural adjacent job off the farm working for Masterfeeds. Ultimately, he ended up going back to school and becoming a teacher.
Still, the farming bug never quite went away and in the early 2010s, during a break from teaching, Neilson was working for the Battle River Research Group as an extension coordinator training farmers on new and innovative equipment and techniques, something which renewed his interest in getting back to the farming lifestyle.
“I got the bug to get some cattle,” said Neilson, with a laugh.
“I soon found out having small herd does not have a good return on investment. You can’t compete against the guys with 200-400 head of cattle.”
Neilson, and his wife Josie, got their first cattle in 2014. Since then, the herd had grown to nearly 60 head before they began downsizing again with a goal to get down to around 40, including some breeding heiffers.
According to Neilson, the land base just isn’t large enough to support a larger herd.
Two things set Neilson’s cattle, and the beef that comes from it, apart from the rest.
The first is that the cattle are mainly finished with hay and grass and are only grain fed for around the last 12 weeks before slaughter in what Neilson calls a “hybrid model.” Neilson says that the animals take a little longer to finish, around six months longer on average, but he personally finds the meat tastes better.
The second thing that differentiates Neilson’s cattle from the others is he direct sells as many of the animals off the farm as he can. Using butchers in Provost or near Hanna, Neilson makes regular runs to Calgary, Red Deer, and Edmonton with fresh meat for clients with most of the advertising done on social media or on the Cabin on the Coulee website.
“This would be impossible to do without social media,” said Neilson.
Some animals that are ready, but he hasn’t been able to sell, Neilson will take to major operators like Cargill, but he does prefer to direct market and sell his animals.
Neilson says that the last few months have been a challenge with prices escalating the way they have. Due to ground-beef being a “higher end protein” that has raised in price along with everything else, people have been cutting back and sales have dropped.
Still, Neilson remains optimistic saying that he is looking at ways of expanding the marketing and awareness of all aspects of his operation, including the agri-tourism.
Starting as a pandemic project, Neilson has been renting the Cabin on the Coulee, the namesake for his ranch, on Airbnb. The cabin has been on the land since the early 2000s and in 2019 the family began discussing what to do with it as it sat mainly unused.
After some discussion, the family decided to renovate it and turn it into a place to rent. Updates to the cabin include a shower, an upstairs half-bath, and some sealing on the exterior to help keep the heat in. For those wanting to be away from the city and still work, the cabin is fully connected to the internet.
“It’s been good the last two summers,” said Neilson.
According to Neilson, the cabin has been mainly sold out the last two summers, though he mentioned that it does have openings in the fall, perfect for the start of hunting season.
The cabin, open for spring, summer, and fall, usually opens at the end of April or beginning of May before being closed again at the beginning of December.
For those wanting the full agri-tourism experience, patrons of the cabin can book a farm tour of Neilson’s farm operation on the website Farmzy.
In addition to ranching, Neilson also works an off-farm job as a teacher on a nearby Hutterite colony.