REGINA — Lee Wirgau has attended every Canadian Western Agribition since 1994.
When he and his wife Cynthia married 16 years ago, they kept up the tradition of packing up children, homework, tack boxes and a string of cattle to participate in the week-long event at Regina.
They are like many family teams at Agribition where everyone works together to prepare cattle, enter the sales and show rings and talk to guests.
This year, they won the Gelbvieh people’s choice award for one of their heifers in an event called the Sweetheart Classic. It sold for $8,000.
The also showed a Gelbvieh pair in the Supreme champion finale.
The Wirgaus live at Narcisse, Man., where their lives revolve around raising purebred Gelbviehs and supporting community activities as well as showing cattle to promote the breed.
Cynthia works part time off the farm as a licensed practical nurse, is secretary-treasurer for the Manitoba-Saskatchewan Gelbvieh Association and local agriculture society as well as a 4-H leader.
“It takes some organization to get your days figured out,” said Cynthia.
Lee became president of the Canadian Gelbvieh Association earlier this year.
Their children, Ryley, 14, Brooklyn, 12, and Brady, 10, are all active in 4-H and junior programs.
Ryley plays right wing at the AAA Bantam level. Next summer, he and Lee are travelling to Finland, Estonia and Sweden on a hockey tour but Lee wants to fit in some time to visit local cattle operations.
“There could be farming hockey parents there too,” he said.
The family has been in the Gelbvieh business since 1986. Lee farmed with his parents and brother where they had commercial cattle based on Charolais and Simmental genetics.
“We just wanted to change up our herd. At the time, tan calves were in demand and our cows were white. We needed tan calves,” he said.
He started to research different breeds.
“This was before the internet and the only way you could find out anything was talking with people who had different breeds,” he said.
Today they have about 140 commercial cattle and 60 purebred Gelbvieh. They market their bulls off the farm and are partners in the Prairie Gelbvieh Alliance that holds a sale in Moose Jaw each year.
“We have 30 years of selling bulls and we have a lot of repeat customers,” he said.
Most of their cattle are the traditional red-brown colour but they do have a black herd sire because some customers were looking for that. Most are polled.
“One of the first things guys look at when they buy bulls, is, are they polled?” Cynthia said.
They also try to offer hardy cattle.
They live in a harsh environment where the winter temperature dips to -40 C and summers are hot. The land is swampy where the grass can be lush, but in early summer that forage does not contain much nutrition.
“The environment has sorted those cattle out that don’t work. They have to have good feet and get around,” Lee said.
They also look for docile cattle.
“They have to be quiet and manageable with the kids,” he said.
They grow their own feed and added corn to the silage mix about 10 years ago. It grows tall and there was a bumper crop this year.
There are also challenges with wildlife, including bears, elk and sandhill cranes that eat the corn at seeding time.
The region is also home to the Narcisse Snake Dens where thousands of garter snakes overwinter in limestone caverns and come out to mate in the spring.
The farm weathered market collapses following the announcement Canada had BSE in 2003.
“It was pretty tough. Government did a little bit but we have a loan we are still paying off,” Lee said.
The situation has improved in the last few years since the commercial market hit record prices and the purebred market started to turn around last year.
The Gelbvieh association has applied to the federal government to distribute orange coloured electronic ear tags to differentiate the cattle for buyers. This is similar to the green tag program used by Angus breeders or pink tags to indicate Limousin breeding.
“The tan calves get lumped in and people say they are Char-cross calves but they might be from a Gelbvieh bull-Charolais cow,” he said.
The breed is also involved in genomic research and is among the first to offer genomically enhanced expected progeny differences (EPD).