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  • Megan Silveira, associate editor

A Good Ride

Cole Atkinson named 2024 Angus Herdsman of the Year. 

His first National Junior Angus Show (NJAS), Cole Atkinson didn’t step foot in the ring. Though the trip was intended to be in support of his sister, Atkinson remembers spending every second wandering the barns with his jaw dropped. The NJAS was a far cry from the state shows Atkinson had frequented in the past. 

“I was just amazed at the amount of people there and the amount of quality cattle,” he recalls. “I was really young, but it was definitely eye-opening.”

Beyond the scholarship and character-building opportunities that came with being a member of the National Junior Angus Association (NJAA), growing up around The Business Breed showed him just what his purpose in life could be. 

“I think the Angus family is what makes this breed so cool,” Atkinson says. “There are so many different opportunities in this breed, and so many people to help back you. You’ve always got somebody on your team in this breed.” 

In the years since that first show, the now 27-year-old has fallen in love with the role of mentor and herdsman, working at Conley Cattle in Sulphur, Okla. For his relentless motivation and dedication to the current young faces in the NJAA, as well as his work for the Conley family, Atkinson was named the 2024 Angus Herdsman of the Year in January at Cattlemen’s Congress in Oklahoma City, Okla.

In the moments after he was named the winner, Atkinson says all he felt was shock. When he thinks about how far he’s come since that first NJAS, only one word comes to mind.

“Unreal. I mean, I look back at being a kid and not knowing anything and anybody, and getting here today just doesn’t even seem possible. But it’s been a great ride, and I hope it continues.” 

Speeding up

After he graduated from high school and aged out of the NJAA, Atkinson left his home town of Walnut Grove, Mo., behind to head to Oklahoma. He started school at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College (NEO), quickly learning that the livestock judging team wasn’t the perfect fit for him. 

He finished his career at NEO working on a few different cattle operations and continued to work as he transitioned to Oklahoma State University. Through a few mutual friends, Atkinson met Alex Bauer in the red dirt state. 

The two became fast friends, Atkinson says, bonding over a shared love for cattle and a strong work ethic. At the National Western Stock Show, Bauer asked Atkinson for a helping hand. Conley Express was the first of many Conley animals Atkinson would help prepare for a sale. 

“I got tied in with Kyle [owner of Conley Cattle], and next thing you know, I graduate and ended up getting a job offer down here,” Atkinson explains, admitting it was an easy ‘yes’ to stay in Oklahoma. “I fell in love with Oklahoma — just the culture, the people. Everyone loves showing cattle down here, and I fell in love with Kyle’s place and the kind of cattle he was selling. I really got along great with Alex and Kyle and his family, and it just felt like home, so I haven’t left.” 

There’s no “typical” day at Conley Cattle, Atkinson says, but no matter the task at hand, he says he’s happy to be a part of the business. From clipping and working cattle destined for the annual bull sale or semiannual female sale to feeding cow-calf pairs, Atkinson treats the business like his own. 

In fact, his ability to be so deeply involved is one of the reasons he says he enjoys working for Conley. 

“[Kyle] allows everybody that works here to play into the business,” Atkinson adds. “He’ll take anybody’s ideas … and he really makes us feel like we’re part of it. We feel more like owners, like we’ve got stakes in the game, and we’re really involved in the success.”

Additionally, Atkinson says Conley’s taught him a lot about quality. He says the type and cattle the operation runs have imprinted on him. 

“We have a 60 head bull sale every year, and those same cows that are raising our high selling show heifers are raising bulls, too,” the herdsman explains. 

The young cattleman now emphasizes the importance of a strong cow in a herd. In his mind, it’s all about structure, doability, stayability and production. Atkinson says there’s not many producers who can produce bulls and find success with females in the show ring, so he takes a sense of pride in wearing the Conley logo. 

From one race to the next 

Nominations for the Herdsman award come from past recipients, and members of the American Angus Association vote from the names brought forth. The ranks of the 2024 nominating committee include Atkinson’s former coworker and lifelong friend, Bauer, as well as last year’s Herdsman, Chance Meyers, who had previously worked under Atkinson in Oklahoma. 

As he looks down at this year’s Herdsman buckle, Atkinson finds himself smiling — not just at the accomplishment, but at the thought that peers he respects share the same sentiment for him. 

Since that first NJAS, the spirit of comradery has warmed Atkinson’s heart. 

“I don’t think I’d even be in contention for nomination without the great people that helped me,” he admits. “I mean, you can’t do this by yourself.” 

The entire Conley family and Bauer are a few that come to mind, but Atkinson also lists Jacob Tombs and Kristen Lovett as instrumental figures in his career. It’s actually working alongside others that Atkinson lists as the favorite part of his job.

“That’s why I really enjoy getting the show cattle ready … it’s really rewarding just going and getting to meet everybody and try to get the most of all these kids.”

It’s fitting that Atkinson is so passionate about working with young kids, as he’s looking to welcome his first child with wife, Tailor, this summer.

Though the new addition will bring some change, Atkinson is looking forward to fatherhood. 

“I feel like I’ve raised some of these kids that show our cattle, but I don’t know about one of my own,” he jokes. “I’m probably going to slow down a little bit, but I’m not planning on letting off the gas. I just plan to keep doing what I’m doing. I enjoy it … I found something that I enjoy getting up and going and doing.” 

It’s a joy Atkinson hopes to share with that new baby. With as much as the industry’s done for him, he says he hopes his children will want to continue the legacy and show Angus cattle. Atkinson looks forward to the years ahead, when it’ll be the next generation aimlessly walking the barns at the NJAS, thinking about just how far they can go in the industry.  


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