ELK POINT, Alta. – Kevin Wirsta has a talent for turning cud-chewing cows into bovine beauties. So when he and his wife Janice were looking for ways to earn more income, they combined that talent with their love for animals and created a custom fitting, cattle showing business.
“A lot of owners are surprised to see how well the animals look after we’re done with them,” said Kevin, who spends most of each fall travelling to cattle shows clipping, primping and showing livestock.
“Not everyone can do it. It takes a good eye to dress cattle,” said Kevin, who won the Canadian National Herdsman award in 1998, the year he crossed the Prairies with 45 head of show cattle from five different breeds.
Janice helps wash and dry cattle, looks after and shows their own purebred cattle, races between show barns, ties cattle out at night and brings them back into the show barns in the morning.
“They make for long days. It’s hard on the body,” said Janice, who added it’s not unusual to eat supper at 9 p.m. and be back in the barns at 4 a.m. to do it all over again.
“People think you’re going for a holiday. It’s not, it’s a duration,” said Kevin, who has been known to trim cattle until 2 a.m. when a long line of cattle owners want him to clip their show cattle.
Pays the bills
Even though the days are long, it’s a way of making extra money out of a job they like to do, he said.
“With BSE and drought, that’s part of our off-farm source of income,” said Janice, who is on maternity leave from her job at a local bank.
The couple has about 200 cattle on their northeastern Alberta K-Cow Ranch, where they raise purebred Black Angus, Charolais, Polled Hereford and commercial cows.
The separate herds are a combination of a union of animals when the couple married, but also a conscious decision to sell a variety of bulls.
Frugality is part of surviving low beef prices. Kevin will tackle almost any building or repair project except electrical. He built his own cattle barn and one for the neighbours.
“We do more things ourselves or don’t do anything at all,” he said.
The couple also has the ability to turn old soup cans and barn boards into works of art that they sell at local craft shows.
“When money is tight, $60 or $70 here and there starts helping,” Janice said.
She has made rustic looking candle holders from painted soup cans with barbed wire handles. Kevin turns odds and ends from around the farm into beds, coffee tables, picture frames, mirrors and recipe book holders.
He built his oldest daughter, Kailey, a bedroom set using old barn wood, leather straps and horse shoeing rasps. He traded a box of rasps for a homemade coffee table.
“So I didn’t buy material. I had to scrounge around and find material and use what you find,” said Kevin, who uses his artistic eye to turn junk into art.
“We just needed more money and we tried to be creative.”
He made an outdoor stair rail from a stack of old fence posts and plans to build a bed for his youngest daughter, Lexi, using diamond willow.
“I do enjoy building that stuff. If you dream, it you can build it.”
Their eventual goal is to do less custom fitting for others and concentrate on showing and promoting their own livestock.
“You can advertise all you want in the breed books, but you need to get out in the public, and bring your cattle for people to see,” Kevin said.
“That’s a great accomplishment.”