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A lifetime with purebred cattle

Ernie Esau built a successful career by breeding the cattle commercial producers wanted and valuing honesty

Ernie Esau’s outstanding career in the purebred industry started with two Shorthorn heifers in 1952.

Ernie Esau.
photo: Supplied by Esau family

Esau, who was inducted earlier this year into the Manitoba Agricultural Hall of Fame for his contribution to the beef industry, operated Ernmore Farms in Elm Creek, Man. He and his wife Irma were married in 1955 and he began showing cattle in 1957.

Esau developed his Shorthorn herd for 25 years and in 1971 received the Builder of the Breed award from the American Shorthorn Association. He had the champion pen of five Shorthorn bulls in Denver for two consecutive years. Esau travelled frequently and gave talks in the U.S. about dual-purpose Polled Shorthorn cattle, and served on the Manitoba Shorthorn board of directors for 15 years. But a lack of demand in the Canadian market ultimately pushed Esau to disperse his Shorthorn herd.

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“Our main market was in the U.S. At our dispersal sale, our top-selling bull went for $20,000, and that was a lot of money at that time,” Esau says.

After selling the Shorthorns, the Esaus raised exotics for a while.

“We imported some Maine-Anjou and started breeding them. Irma liked the Maine-Anjou because they looked a lot like Shorthorns. We took two Maine-Anjou bulls to Denver but didn’t have anyone inquire about them at all, so I decided there was no future in them.”

Esau then switched to Charolais after realizing there was a big demand for them among commercial ranchers.

“When I went to Agribition, sat in the stands and watched all the shows, the Char­olais cattle had the most commercial folks interested in them. We bought our first Charolais in 1978 and raised Charolais for 25 years,” Esau says.

Champion Female, Heart of Canada, Killarney 1984. Ernie is showing 26M and son David is showing Solomon.
photo: Supplied by Esau family

He started with polled genetics, bringing cows from the U.S. to use on his Manitoba operation.

“We used some Full French bulls on those cows, which worked very well. The females we got in the States were a bit fine-boned, but deeply polled. We bred them to the Full French bulls and got polled offspring with more substance,” explains Esau.

Calving ease was not a concern. Esau says having the right genetics and using measurements to help select cattle prevented calving problems.

“There was a gentleman, Karney Redman, whose methods were popular at that time. He did linear measurements. We followed a lot of his rules and guidelines and didn’t run into any calving trouble. The width of the shoulders in the Full French bulls was not an issue; wide shoulders are simply a typical male characteristic. Hip width is a bigger issue for calving problems. If a calf gets stuck at the hips you are in big trouble.”

Gestation length is another thing a person needs to pay attention to.

“A week to 14 days over can make quite a difference in calf size. We carefully selected for gestation length,” says Esau. Gestation length is heritable, and breeders can select for cattle with shorter gestation length.

“Some people in the purebred business don’t think about some of these things; they just breed. We spent a lot of time going around looking at a lot of different cattle, talking to many different breeders. Some breeders are very smart and others are just multipliers — and that doesn’t help the breed at all.”

Esau says they learned as they went along. He found that while some people have ideas that seem radical at first, sometimes those ideas are valid.

“Karney Redman was laughed at by many people but he had a lot of good ideas, especially his measurement system. It worked, and that’s what counts. There is always someone out there who is a little bit smarter than the average guy,” says Esau.

Learning the business

While the Esau family enjoyed breeding cattle, they always had to treat it like a business.

“We had six kids to feed and I had to make a living. I was the first generation purebred breeder in our family and I did it without any money to start up.”

Esau’s eye for cattle was a key factor in his success. One time they were looking at a bull in a pasture, and Esau recognized it as a “tremendous bull.”

“The owner thought the bull was just ordinary but we could see his good qualities. We tied into that bull and he became a tremendous breeder and produced excellent females. He was outstanding and did us a lot of good. Sometimes you just need to be lucky.”

But, like anyone, Esau also made mistakes. He says they were once tied into a bull early on that didn’t pan out. “His progeny didn’t have very big testicles so we had to bail out of that partnership.”

If you make a mistake, bail out quickly, he says.

“Some people buy a bull and keep that bull no matter what, but that just perpetuates a bad deal. If you make a mistake, bail out. Take your losses before you have a whole lot of females that aren’t what you want,” Esau says.

He adds that they learned early on to find out as much as they could about a bull, then decide whether to go further with him or bail.

Ernie showing the Grand Champion at Heart of Canada Charolais Show in 1980.
photo: Supplied by Esau family

Esau had some very influential females and did some embryo transplants. “This is a field of its own. You can certainly extend the genetics of a good cow that way. You won’t ‘click’ every time, but if you keep your eyes open and see what’s available, this can be a great tool,” Esau says.

People buying bulls need to be able to trust the breeder. Honest breeders are always up front and don’t have anything to hide, but some are not so trustworthy. For example, some breeders weren’t honest about the age of their animals.

“We’d make a trip around certain ranches before the New Year to see if they had calves on the ground. We never said anything, but kept our eyes open. If we saw them calving the beginning of December and putting them down as January calves, that’s not proper.”

He was always trying to promote the breed, and served as a Canadian Charolais Association director from 1991 to 1996. He also served his community through 4-H leadership and as a director on several co-op boards. Irma, who has passed away, wasn’t too involved with the cattle, but she was an important part of the team.

“When people came to look at cattle, she would invite them in for lunch and was a wonderful hostess. People really appreciated her hospitality. They would bypass a restaurant to come to our place for meals. At one time she said something to me about wishing she could help me more with the cattle and I said, ‘Don’t worry about that. Your role in this operation is very important.’ She was wonderful at meeting people and making them feel at home.

“She looked after our six kids while I was busy with the cattle, and that was a big job in itself,” says Esau, adding that the kids turned out really well.

The Esau kids did well in 4-H and showed cattle while they were growing up. They were interested in cattle but none of them made it a career.

“I had back surgery early on and some health problems and we were not in a position financially to expand in our purebred business,” he explains.

Esau’s own operation kept him too busy to show much, but over the years, some of his cattle were used by other people as 4-H calves. They also sold quite a few Shorthorns into the U.S. for showing.

He is humble about the recent honour of being inducted into the Manitoba Agricultural Hall of Fame. “Most of the time a person gets an honour like this after they are gone. I got this honour while I was still alive and the kids are alive to appreciate it.”

Success, says Esau, is probably a combination of luck and what a person does with the luck.

“We worked hard at what we were doing. We had people we worked with in the industry who helped us. We also had a lot of people who put their faith in us, bought cattle from us, and had success, too.”

Watching other people succeed with those cattle is part of the enjoyment, he adds, and helps build reputation. And you learn a lot about people, as well as cattle, Esau says.

“It’s been quite a journey, with many great memories. That’s been the most satisfying part — the people that you meet along the road.” c

Heather Smith Thomas raises beef cattle with her husband on their ranch in Idaho. She also writes articles for ag publications as well as books on horse care and cattle management.

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