Cattle consultant Erwin Church is one of South Africa’s greatest stockmen. In this interview with Heather Dugmore, Erwin, now 85, shares some of the knowledge he has gained over a lifetime of cattle.

Erwin Church has advised hundreds of Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Free State cattle farmers on farming cattle the right way over six decades. He assists in the breeding of strong registered and commercial herds, and there are few better stockmen.

This is a man whose love of cattle runs deep in his veins. He can walk onto a farm, look at your cattle and tell you exactly what is going on with them. “I have learnt about them from studying them, reading about them and observing them for decades. I see things that are there for every farmer to see if you spend time with your cattle,” says Erwin who does not have a preference for any particular breed.

“I like all breeds. If you asked me what breed I would personally choose, the answer would be good, productive, well-adapted cattle,” says Erwin who farmed for 29 years in the Adelaide district of the Eastern Cape and who has run his cattle consultancy since 1989.

At 85 he still drives thousands of kilometres each month, visiting over 70 clients with a wide range of breeds. He also inspects for several breed societies. He does weaner, cow and bull selection and helps farmers and breeders with herd evaluations and improvements.

“My approach has always been to try and learn from the animals themselves as they tell you their story,” he says. “You can see when they are doing well, or not doing well, whether they are adapted or not, whether their legs, hocks and hooves are well shaped for walking because walking ability is so important in animals, not only for grazing and access but also because upright can result in the narrowing of the female’s pelvic opening.

Leg and hoof faults are highly heritable, must be guarded against and can be corrected through corrective mating.

“The primary aim in breeding is to breed good, sound females. Good females are feminine, have good udders and long thin tails, which show the animal is adapted and productive, and will produce good bulls,” he says.

Udders in both dairy and beef cows must sit well and be snugly attached with a good floor, and the teats must be well placed and not too bulbous or the calf will have difficulty drinking. Bulbous udders are a highly heritable trait.

“Guard against using an over-muscled bull with very little fat covering. You risk putting too much muscle on the cow, which compromises her sexual development. She can become sub-fertile and the pelvic opening becomes smaller, with potential calving problems,” he explains.

To achieve desirable body traits in our cattle, he says, it is paramount to breed well-adapted cattle on well-managed veld, with good hands-on management.

“Breeding for adaptability is a compromise between what we want and what nature will allow us,” he says.

“We have to manage and breed with nature. The environment, for example, will dictate the size of your cattle. If your herd runs in mountainous terrain, the animals tend to be smaller in size to adapt to the terrain.”

He warns against creating artificial environments like small paddocks or stalls where bulls (or rams) are over-fed and over-supplemented.

“Buyers should be wary of paying big prices for bulls that have come from artificial environments where they have been overfed as the bulls could have great difficulty adapting to a natural environment,” he explains.

When selecting bulls he looks at animals reared in a natural environment that are masculine and well-fleshed with good legs, good sexual development and loose skin. He explains that tight-skinned animals are often sub-fertile.

He advocates that when buying a bull you should either buy from a herd you know to be good or make sure you see the mother of the bull in her natural environment.

In all selection, the production and breed values of the individual animal are of cardinal importance.

“I advocate using 15-month-old bulls and we have done it successfully in both commercial and stud herds. The bulls can be used again at two and possibly at three years, and then they go.

“I recommend this for all breeds as some of the best progeny come from 15-month-old bulls mated to good cows,” he adds.

Inbreeding must be avoided at all costs. The introduction of new genetics is very important by bringing in selected bulls or making use of artificial insemination.

Another business that Erwin runs with Ian Cameron, called Synchro Genetics, focuses on semen collection, synchronising and artificial insemination, preferably with fresh semen.

“Fresh semen can be kept in the fridge for four days. When you freeze it you kill half of the semen,” Erwin explains. Ian also does pelvic measurements on females and males to ensure ease of calving in the herd.

“It’s important to remember that the foetus doubles in size in the final six to eight weeks of pregnancy and a rise in the nutritional level during this period can result in calving problems.”

Breeding a herd from scratch that is well adapted to your specific farming environment takes about seven years, says Erwin. “In other words, when your first group of on-farm bred heifers are having their third calf, if you have managed the herd well, then you should really see your herd coming together beautifully, with strong, productive uniform-size animals.”

When Erwin went farming

Born in Beaufort West to a dental mechanic father, Ernest Church, and photographer mother, Winnie Church, Erwin had no farming background as a boy.

“I just had this deep love of livestock – sheep and cattle – and I knew that more than anything I wanted to work with them,” he says.

After matriculating from Queens College in Queenstown he considered his prospects. World War II had just ended, jobs were scarce and his father had passed away in his matric year.

“I managed to get a job at the reserve bank in Cape Town, but after a few months there I knew this was definitely not for me,” he explains. “Fortunately I had friends from school whose families farmed and who had introduced me to a farmer named Neil Painter in the Adelaide district of the Eastern Cape who had a very good reputation.”

At the age of 18 Erwin wrote to Neil and asked him if he could come and learn farming from him. Neil agreed but said he could only pay him five pounds a month, as times were tight. Erwin leapt at the opportunity and lived with Neil’s family in their home for two years. He made a strong impression on Neil who paid for him to attend Grootfontein Agricultural College.

“His only condition was that I worked for him during the holidays,” says Erwin who was subsequently offered a job to manage the cattle and sheep farm next door to Neil’s called Waterfall, which was in a family trust.

“I farmed there for 29 years, starting with Merino sheep and Shorthorns, which were very popular in the 1950s,” he explains.

As part of the rehabilitation of the natural environment on the Adelaide farm, Erwin introduced Boergoats to clear the invasive thorn bushes and thereby improve the grazing for the sheep and cattle.

“Dr Winston Trollope did some of the practical for his PhD with me on the farm in the early 1980s. What we did was to burn specific camps that were overgrown with thorn bushes and as they started coppicing we would put in the goats in there to graze them until the plants eventually died.”

Colour and breed trends

In the late 1970s Erwin did a tour of America’s cattle country with a group of South African famers.

“We went to the Midwest – Wyoming and Colorado – and we went to the West – from California to Texas – and looked at all sorts of breeds, including Santa Gertrudis, Shorthorns, Herefords, Aberdeen Angus… these were the biggest breeds in the world at the time,” he explains.

“In the United States today a cross between the Black Angus and Hereford is the dominant commercial female – called the Black Baldy – it is black with a white head. In South Africa today, apart from the Black Angus, Black Brangus and Drakensberger, red is by far the preferred colour – rooi en mooi,” he adds.

“Colour and breed trends can and have deeply affected farmer’s profits, both up and down, but they are really just that – trends. And I have seen several come and go.”

“The Shorthorn is one example of a breed that was hard hit by trends,” he explains. “In the late 1940s and early 1950s it was the biggest breed at the biggest stud bull sale in the world, which was held annually in Perth, Scotland. It was well attended by the biggest breeders of British breeds in the world, including the Argentinians who had favoured Shorthorns,” he explains.

The second biggest breed was the Aberdeen Angus.

“One year, for no obvious reason, the Argentinians started buying Aberdeen Angus, which was smaller than the Shorthorn. From that sale onwards the market for Shorthorns plummeted. To try and compensate for this, Shorthorn breeders started trying to breed smaller animals, and they did quite a bit of damage to this fine breed in the process. The Angus, in turn, is now a far bigger animal than the original Aberdeen Angus, but fortunately it has continued to do well, and remains a popular breed.”

Breeds, he says, come and go, “not because of the breed but because of people,” he emphasises. “You seldom find people who are compatible when it comes to breeding.”

A proponent of Beefmaster pioneer Tom Lasater’s no nonsense approach to breeding, Erwin visited Lasater on his ranch in Colorado in the 1970s where his Beefmasters were far from uniform: “He had animals with big white patches on them, brindled animals, all colours, and as long as they were quality, well-adapted, productive animals, he did not worry about colour,” says Erwin, adding that the tendency amongst certain breeds to breed uniform colour in animals has not served breeds well.

“You can lose top genetics by selecting for colour,” he adds.

Starting his own business

In the early 1980s, after completing 29 years on Waterfall, Erwin left the farm as the heir took it over. Erwin subsequently worked for what was then the Cape Eastern Meat Co-Op for seven years, based in Grahamstown.

During this time he was asked to screen bulls at large sales in KwaZulu-Natal and to judge cattle at the prestigious Royal Natal Show in 1987.

“At the show, Stockowners Co-Operative offered me a position to head their sheep section, and later I moved to the stud department. We moved to KwaZulu-Natal and later bought a home in Hilton where we have lived for 15 years,” he explains.

He was with Stockowners for 18 months and then decided to go it alone as a cattle consultant in 1989.

“Having helped people with their herds for quite some time my business grew from there and I have been fortunate never to have to advertise. All my clients have approached me and I’m most fortunate in the clients I have, all of whom have become close friends over the years which has been very special,” says Erwin who adds that he also appreciates his family’s support and understanding that he needs to be away from home so much of the time.

Erwin is married to an artist, Lee Church, and they have two children, Cindy and Reid, now grown up with children of their own.

One of the grandchildren – Ryan who is the son of Cindy and her husband James Meumann – shares Erwin’s love and farming. He is currently at Maritzburg College and will be starting at Cedara Agricultural College in 2016.

“He accompanies me when he can and he has a very good eye,” says Erwin.

This is good news for South Africa because men like Erwin are national treasures to the cattle community, and while he will hopefully have many more years of visiting his clients across the country; his grandson might have inherited some of Erwin’s extraordinary stockmanship ability to continue the line.