January 11, 2013
Meet the man behind those “JMK” American Quarter Horses.
Piano player. Stock trader. Scholarship athlete. Business owner. Philanthropist. Family man.
At some point, all those labels have fit after the initials of J.M.K, aka James Melvin Kifer of Hartselle, Alabama.
Of course, if you’re into American Quarter Horses, you’d add “leading breeder” to that list. Horses with a “JMK” in front of their names have consistently sent James to the top of the list of leading halter horse breeders.
Truth is, it’s difficult to put just one label on James Kifer, and that makes him one interesting horseman to meet.
Man of Many Caps
“I’m not sure who I’m going to be every day until I get up and decide, or I see what the day’s problem is,” James says. “It just depends what kind of cap I’m going to get up and put on, if I’m going to be a farmer or golfer or piano player or horse breeder or trade the stock market or run my machine shop.”
James lives with his wife, Rita, on a 300-acre farm outside of town, about 30 miles south of the Tennessee line. On any given day, you might find him following stocks via the Internet, changing the oil in his tractors, on his bulldozer helping a friend or local church with a landscape project, or foaling out a mare. His breeding, stallion and show barns are just a short walk from the house, and he can see most of the mare pastures from there, too.
Not all the farm is devoted to horses – the Kifers have a driving range, a walking trail through the woods and a pond. James keeps one field mowed for the local Little League baseball players to use for practice.
From where he is now, it’s a long look back to where James grew up in rural southern Missouri.
“It’s hard to explain poor,” James says. “My dad was a truck driver. I had three older brothers, and (my dad) was killed in a brawl when my mother was pregnant with me. We moved in with my grandparents, and they didn’t have anything. We lived on a 40-acre farm, and we picked cotton.”
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James’s mother eventually remarried, but their family of seven children never had much.
“I was pretty much self-sufficient from the time I was about 12,” he says. “I always had jobs and saved my money and bought my own clothes.”
When young James wanted to take piano lessons, he paid for them himself.
“I think everyone was poor then,” he says. “I don’t remember thinking so much that I was poor, it’s just the way things were. It didn’t hold people back then. My mother always said, ‘You boys are going to school because that’s the ticket out,’ which I still think it is for people. Get an education, and you have a chance.”
James ended up at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, on an athletic scholarship – he played football and basketball and ran track – and left with a degree in biochemistry. He worked for corn refiners then got into gas transporting, earned a master’s degree in business and eventually started his own natural gas marketing company.
“We were very successful with it,” he says of the business. “It was my lucky break in life, financially.”
James sold the business in 2000 but hasn’t slowed down. He always has two or three projects going on, many of them involving charities he and Rita believe in. They support a local home for unwed mothers, and they helped a church buy a block of apartments in Romania as a halfway house for girls coming out of the state orphanage system; he’s in the early stages of a similar project for orphans in Brazil, working through his and Rita’s home church.
“I want to try to help them have a chance to have a life and get straightened out,” he says. “There are endless opportunities for that kind of thing, and you can’t do something about everything, but the things that are close, that you hear about, those kinds of things we often try to help with.”
Hooked on Babies
James can’t remember exactly how he ended up with Quarter Horses, except that he had a friend who had them. His first horse was a 1978 mare named Miss Sugar Jony by Sugar Bars Flash and out of Miss Jony Shakem by Johnny Shakem. He earned points in trail and halter with her.
“I bought her as a baby in Missouri, and maybe that got me hooked on babies,” James said. “She was so intelligent and had such a good disposition.”
He has successfully raised and shown Quarter Horses ever since, including multiple world champions, but it wasn’t until he sold his business that he really focused on his halter horse breeding program. That’s when he hired AQHA Professional Horseman Jerri Harmon to manage his operation.
“I’m kind of goal-driven,” James says. “I was always in business, and you’ve got to have a goal. My goal is to be the all-time leading breeder of halter (Registers of Merit).”
James first hit the end-of-year lists in 2003 as the leading halter horse breeder by halter class wins and winners – he has been in the top breeders of those same lists every year since, to date. He appeared on the list of all-time leading breeders of halter ROMs in 2003 in 16th place; at the end of 2007, he was in second place. And he has held that placing ever since. James has bred 251 point earners that have earned 7, 910.5 points (as of 2012) and 18 world championships in all divisions.
And he really enjoys showing his product. His most recent star was
the 2012 Select World champion 3-year-old stallion JMK Bodacious.
“With babies, if you’re going to do the halter, you can show the product pretty quickly,” he says. “It’s exciting to see that what you’ve planned is working.”
A Yella Touch
James credits much of his success to his timely purchase of the stallion Mr Yella Fella at the 1999 AQHA World Championship Show where the horse was reserve world champion aged stallion.
By Page Impressive and out of Lets Skip Town by Smooth Town, “Yella Fella” was raised by respected breeders Greg and Mary Whalen of Clements, California. At the time, he had already earned a Palomino Horse Breeders of America halter world championship in 1996 and the 2-year-old stallion AQHA world championship in 1997. In 2000, he would earn two more world championships: AQHA’s amateur aged stallion title and another in PHBA.
“I saw him, and I thought he was a beautiful horse,” James says. “When you saw him out at the World Show, he was different in a good way. He was unique with his color. And he was so pretty-backed and -crouped; he was such a pretty horse from the side.
“Fortunately for me, that’s what he bred the strongest.”
When James bought him, the Whalens had the stallion’s first crop of foals on the ground, with another on the way in 2000. According to James, Yella Fella bred mostly Kifer mares that first season in Alabama, but that soon changed. The stallion’s first two small crops (23 total foals) produced several multiple-point earners and two, two-time PHBA halter world champions: Platinum Miss and My Golden Child.
“Then everyone wanted to breed to him,” James says. “There were so many mares you couldn’t bring them all to the place; we preferred that people let us ship.”
James’s homebreds by Yella Fella included: JMK Maximus, 2002 open and amateur world champion weanling stallion; JMK Movin N Shakin, 2005 Select reserve world champion weanling gelding; and JMK Glacier, 2005 Select reserve world champion weanling stallion.
The horse stood in Alabama until James sold a half-interest to Gary and Linda Gordon of Fossil Gate Farms in 2004 and the remaining half in 2006. Yella Fella was AQHA’s leading halter horse sire from 2005 to 2009 and 2012 (he was second in 2010 and 2011). He was also the AQHA leading PHBA sire from 2003 to 2010.
“One reason we did so good with those babies is that they were so good over their backs and croups and so solid-legged,” James said. “They came out and stood up and were ready to go.
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“I think (Yella Fella) surprised everyone,” he added. “He was bred differently, that was another characteristic that I was looking for (in a stallion), and he was also N/N, and I just thought that was the direction the industry was headed. It turned out that I was right about that.”
James’ purchase and promotion of Yella Fella exemplifies his approach to breeding – finding mares to fit his current stallion.
“We have a real strict culling plan,” he says, “and not necessarily because it’s not a great mare, it just didn’t work with what we’re trying to
do. You can breed a mare to a different stallion, and you may get what you’re looking for, but I’m not going to change stallions, so if they don’t fit the horse that I’m promoting, then I sell them.
“We’re always in the process of re-evaluating what we’re raising.”
James is now breeding his Yella Fella daughters to his 2000 reserve world champion 2-year-old stallion Enlightened, a son of Sierra Te out of a Mr Conclusion mare. Enlightened competed at the 2004 AQHA World Championship Show as an aged stallion, as well.
And he has JMK Supernatural, a son of Yella Fella out of Miss Obvious Singer by Obvious Conclusion. The 2003 palomino is a three-time PHBA world champion and a reserve PHBA world champion. He won open and amateur weanling stallions at the 2003 All American Quarter Horse Congress. Own daughters of Obvious Conclusion seemed to be the nick on Yella Fella; James is trying Kid Clu mares on “Supernatural.”
“I’m going with my gut,” he said.
“Family is my No. 1 point in everything,” James says.
He’ll tell you his real lucky break was Rita and their 36-year marriage. They were childhood sweethearts who met when the state consolidated their small schools. They raised two daughters, Shelly and Stephanie. James and Rita enjoy vacationing with their daughters’ families, and they visit often.