A legendary cattleman’s insight

Cattle consultant Erwin Church is one of South Africa’s greatest stockmen. In this interview with Heather Dugmore, he shares some of his knowledge gained from a lifetime of working with cattle.

Erwin Church, 85, at home in Hilton in KZN.
Photo: James Meumann

For more than six decades, Erwin Church has advised hundreds of Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Free State cattle farmers on the right way of working with their animals. He has also assisted in building up countless strong registered and commercial herds, and there are few better stockmen. Erwin is a man with a love of cattle running deep in his veins. He can walk onto a farm, look at the cattle and tell exactly what is going on with them.

“I’ve learnt about cattle from studying cattle, reading about cattle and observing cattle for decades,” he says. “I see things that are there for any cattleman to see – if he spends the time with his animals.”

Erwin has no specific preference for any breed.

“I like them all,” he says. “If you asked me what breed I’d choose, the answer would be good, productive and well-adapted cattle.” He farmed for 29 years in the Adelaide district of the Eastern Cape and has run his cattle consultancy since 1989. At 85, he still drives thousands of kilometres monthly, visiting more than 70 clients with a wide range of breeds. He also inspects for several breed societies, selecting weaners, cows and bulls and helping cattlemen and breeders evaluate and improve their herds.

“My approach has always been to try to learn from the animals, as they tell me their story,” he says. “I can see when they’re 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 important in cattle for grazing and access. Upright hocks can also result in a more acute angle of the female’s pelvic opening, which can lead to calving difficulties. Leg and hoof faults are highly heritable and must be guarded against, but they can be eliminated through corrective mating.”

Breeding and selection
According to Erwin, the primary aim in breeding is to breed good, sound females.“A good female is feminine, with a good udder and a long thin tail. This shows that she is adapted and productive, and will produce good calves,” he says.The udder of a cow must sit well and be snugly attached with a good floor, while the teats should be well-placed and not too bulbous, or the calf will have difficulty drinking.

An udder with bulbous teats is also a highly heritable trait. “Guard against using an over-muscled bull with very little fat covering. This risks putting too much muscle on the cow, which will compromise her sexual development. She can become sub-fertile with a smaller pelvic opening and potential calving problems,” he warns.

To achieve desirable body traits in cattle, it is crucial 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. We have to manage and breed with nature. For example, the environment will dictate the optimum size in cattle. If a herd runs in mountainous terrain, the animals tend to be smaller in size to adapt to the terrain.”

Erwin warns against creating an artificial environment such as a small paddock or stall, in which bulls are over-fed and over-supplemented. “A buyer must be wary of paying a high price for a bull from an artificial environment where it has been overfed. Such a bull could have great difficulty in adapting to a natural environment.”

When selecting a bull, he looks for one reared in a natural environment. It must be masculine and well-fleshed with good legs, good secondary sexual characteristics and a loose skin. A tight-skinned bull, he explains, is often sub-fertile. Erwin advocates that when buying a bull, a cattleman should either buy from a herd known to be good or see the bull’s dam in her natural environment. In all selection, the production and breed values of the individual animal are crucial.

“I advocate using 15-month-old bulls,” he says. “We’ve done so successfully in commercial and stud herds. Such a bull can be used again at two and possibly three years, and then it goes. I recommend this for all breeds, as some of the best progeny come from 15-month-old bulls mated to good cows.”

He adds that inbreeding should be avoided at all costs.

“Introducing new genetics by bringing in selected bulls or through artificial insemination is very important.” Synchro Genetics, an enterprise that Erwin runs in conjunction with Ian Cameron, focuses on collecting semen, and synchronising heat and artificial insemination, preferably with fresh semen. Erwin says that fresh semen can be kept in the fridge for four days.

“Freezing it kills half of the sperm. Ian conducts pelvic measurements on females and bulls to ensure calving ease in the herd. The size of the bull doesn’t always indicate the size of the pelvis. Big bulls can have a small pelvis and small bulls can have a large pelvis. This trait is heritable and can be passed on to a bull’s progeny, which can lead to calving difficulties in the female line.

“The foetus doubles in size in the final six to eight weeks of pregnancy. A rise in the nutritional level of the cow during
this period can result in calving problems as the calf can grow too big,” he explains. Breeding a herd that is well-adapted to a specific farming environment takes about seven years from scratch, says Erwin. “In other words, when the first on-farm bred heifers are having their third calves and the herd has been well managed, the cattleman should really see the herd coming together beautifully, with strong, productive and uniform-sized cattle.”

A boyhood fascination for cattle
Born in Beaufort West to father Ernest, a dental mechanic, and mother Winnie, a photographer, 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 recalls. After matriculating from Queens College in Queenstown, he considered his prospects. The Second World War had just ended, jobs were scarce and his father had died in his matric year.

“I managed to get a job at the Reserve Bank in Cape Town, but after a few months I knew this was not for me,” he says. “Fortunately, I had friends from school whose families farmed. They introduced me to Neil Painter, who farmed in the Adelaide district and was highly thought of.” At 18, Erwin wrote to Neil and asked if he could come and learn farming from him. Neil agreed, but could pay him only five pounds a month, as times were tight.

Erwin leapt at the opportunity and lived with Neil’s family for two years. He made a strong impression on Neil, who paid for him to attend Grootfontein Agricultural College. “The only condition was that I worked for him during the holidays,” recalls Erwin.
He was subsequently offered a job to manage the cattle and sheep farm Waterfall adjacent to Neil’s farm. Waterfall was in a family trust. “I farmed there for 29 years, starting with Merino sheep and Shorthorn cattle, which were very popular in the 1950s,” he recalls.

As part of the rehabilitation of the natural environment on this Adelaide farm, Erwin introduced Boer goats to clear the invasive thorn scrub, thereby improving the grazing for sheep and cattle. “Dr Winston Trollope did some of the practical work for his PhD with me on the farm in the early 1980s. We burned specific camps that were overgrown with thorn scrub. “As the bush started coppicing we’d put the goats into the camp to graze them down until the plants eventually died.”

Simply trends
In the late 1970s, Erwin toured the USA’s cattle country with a group of South African farmers. “We went to the Midwest, Wyoming and Colorado, and to the West, from California to Texas, to look at all sorts of breeds, including Santa Gertrudis, Shorthorn, Hereford and Aberdeen Angus. These were the major beef breeds in the world at the time,” he explains.

“Today in the USA, the dominant commercial female is a cross between the Black Angus and Hereford. Called the Black Baldy, it’s black with a white face. “In South Africa, apart from the Black Angus, Black Brangus and Drakensberger, red is today by far the preferred colour – rooi en mooi.

“Colour and breed trends have deeply influenced the cattleman’s profits, both up and down. But they’re really just that – trends. I’ve seen several come and go. The Shorthorn is one example. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was the biggest breed at the biggest stud bull sale in the world, held annually in Perth, Scotland. It was well attended by the biggest breeders of British breeds in the world, including the Argentinians who favoured the Shorthorn.”

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 Shorthorn market plummeted,” he recalls. To compensate for this, Shorthorn breeders tried to breed smaller animals, doing quite a bit of damage to the breed in the process. “The Angus, in turn, is now far larger than the original Aberdeen Angus, but it has continued to do well and remains a popular breed. Breeds come and go, not because of the breed but because of people.”

Beefmaster pioneer Tom Lasater’s no-nonsense approach to breeding led Erwin to visit the Lasater ranch in Colorado in the 1970s. Tom’s Beefmaster cattle were far from uniform. “He had animals with big white patches on them, brindled animals, all colours,” Erwin recalls.

“As long as they were quality, well-adapted, productive animals, he didn’t care about colour. The tendency among certain breeds to breed uniform colour in animals has not served breeds well. We can lose top genetics by selecting for colour,” he says.

Going it alone
In the early 1980s, after completing 29 years on Waterfall, Erwin left the farm as the heir took it over. He subsequently worked for what was then the Cape Eastern Meat Co-op, based in Grahamstown, for seven years. During this time, he was asked to screen bulls at major sales in KwaZulu-Natal and 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,” he recalls. “I later moved to the stud department. My wife and I moved to KZN and bought a home in Hilton where we lived for 15 years.” He was with Stockowners for 18 months before deciding to go it alone as a cattle consultant in 1989.

“Having helped people with their herds for quite some time, my business grew. I’ve been fortunate in never needing to advertise. All my clients approached me and I’m most fortunate in the base I have. Each one has become a close friend and very special over the years. I also appreciate my family’s support and understanding as I’ve had to be away from home so much of the time.”

Erwin is married to artist Lee Church. Their two children, Cindy and Reid, have children of their own. Grandson Ryan – Cindy and husband James Meumann’s son – shares Erwin’s love for farming. He is currently at Maritzburg College and will be starting at Cedara Agricultural College in 2016.

“Ryan accompanies me when he can and has a very good eye,” says Erwin. Men such as Erwin are a national treasure to South Africa’s cattle community. It is to be hoped that his grandson has inherited some of his extraordinary stockmanship to continue the line.

Phone Erwin Church on 083 654 8886 or email [email protected].

Phone Ian Cameron on 083 456 9999 or email [email protected].