Perfection and quality key to champion breeder’s success
A visit to Orvis Schneider’s home in Fort Saskatchewan says much about his life as a breeder of champion Hereford and Saler cattle. Although he has given almost all of the ribbons and trophies that he won over his 30 years of showing his cattle to his two sons, he has kept a few that are special to him. There is the 1978 banner from the Edmonton Farm Fair when one of his cows won the grand championship, another banner from the Provincial Exhibition in Armstrong, B.C. when one of his Hereford bulls won that grand championship, and another from the Edmonton Farm Fair of 1990 for a grand champion Saler cow, to name only three of the many awards for which Schneider’s Elk Island Polled Hereford ranch was famous.
It all began in the early 1960s when Orvis was living with his parents on the family farm on SW30-55-20-W4 in northern Strathcona County, near Bruderheim. His father, Adolph, had a small herd of 18 purebred Holsteins, bred from seed stock that he purchased from other breeders of purebreds, like the Bailey and Hosford families who lived in the vicinity of Sherwood Park. He sold his milk to the Northern Alberta Dairy Pool cheese factory in Bruderheim and was doing rather well until the NADP decided to close the Bruderheim factory. Rather than undertake the expense, time and trouble to ship his milk all the way into Edmonton, Adolph chose to sell his herd and to raise only grain.
Even before Orvis took over the farm in the early 1970s, he heeded his father’s wisdom of having only purebred stock. However, instead to Holsteins, Orvis decided to go into Herefords. “I saw how the carcass grades of Herefords were coming in a lot better than other breeds. If you are going to get into this, you might as well get the right stock.” He began to buy purebred cows from Arnold Milsap and Joe Campbell of Lamont and herd bulls from the Pohl brothers near Wetaskiwin. It was from the latter that Schneider purchased, in 1966, a two year-old bull that he named Canadian Constructor. It was the progeny of Canadian Constructor that won Orvis so many championships.
Orvis built up a small, but select, herd of 60 or 70 head on his six-quarter-section ranch. He always kept his herd at 50 percent or better of production, selling a third of his calves to commercial herds, keeping a third for himself and selling a third at select sales like the Western Classic. “As a select purebred breeder I didn’t want volume. I wanted quality. Every animal in my herd had a pedigree as long as your arm.”
Using semen from Canadian Constructor or that was purchased from champions that were shown at the better bull sales such as those in Denver, Edmonton and Calgary, he built up his “little herd of perfection.” “You would have to choose bloodlines that would suit your bloodlines – you have to absolutely know what you are doing. I was very strict on that. Hence, I won a lot of championships.”
He showed his cattle—a couple of bulls, a cow, a calf and some yearlings—at all the big sales, the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver, the Provincial Exhibition in Armstrong, B.C., the Lloydminster bull sale, the Edmonton Farm Fair, and at the biggest in North America - the National Polled Hereford Show in Denver, Colorado. “I showed against people who had 1,000 cows and I beat them. The judges look for quality in shows. The only reason I took the cattle on the road was to market and show the breeders what I have to offer for sale. I targeted only the places where there were prospective buyers for my bloodlines.” Savvy marketing resulted in sales across Canada, in 20 American states and even overseas, to Russia, Ukraine, New Zealand and Australia. The overseas sales were negotiated through the Canadian Hereford Association that contacted the Alberta Hereford Association when foreign buyers expressed interest in buying Canadian cattle. The Alberta association, then, contacted breeders like Orvis to set up meetings with the prospective buyers, or informed the buyers of which sales to attend. “You know they are packing cash, otherwise they wouldn’t bother to travel all the way to Canada and Alberta. They always want your best to take back to start their herds.” Selling mostly bred cows, Orvis would then join others to make up a liner load in Los Angeles for shipment overseas after the regulatory three-week quarantine.
After 25 years of raising champion Herefords, Orvis figured he had gone as far as he could with that breed. He became interested in a French breed, Saler. “There were some rough looking critters” among this new breed, but Orvis looked upon this as a challenge, and sure enough, by 1990 one of his Saler cows won the Edmonton Farm Fair Grand Champion. Traveling to the various shows and sales, though, is a young man’s game and shortly afterwards Orvis sold his herd and went strictly into grain farming. Even here, he could not be content with just any crop, but aimed for the best. In 2000 he beat some 1,200 competitors to win the Alberta Malting Barley Quality Competition.
A century of farming in northern Strathcona County
Alongside his championship awards is his bronze Alberta Century Farm and Ranch Award. It was Orvis’ grandfather, Johan Schneider Jr. who settled on the land in 1896, land that Orvis still owns. The Schneider family was attracted to the Bruderheim district because a small group of Germans of the Lutheran and Moravian faiths had already taken homesteads here. Like Orvis decades later, Johan Jr. was interested in learning about and practicing new agricultural methods. Born in 1869 in Heidelberg, Germany, Johan and his parents moved to Russia where they instructed Russian farmers on modern farming techniques and millworking. Interestingly, not only did Johan Jr. keep abreast of innovations in farming, he was also a medical practitioner, having received his training in Heidelberg.
After moving to Canada, Johan Jr. continued to practice medicine as well as farm. “They called him Doc Schneider. He didn’t have any papers from the Alberta Medical Association or anything like that. Someone would come in on horseback saying “we need you over here”, and away he’d go and fix them up. And he always had his medicine with him, which was pretty strong moonshine. It wasn’t made from potatoes and scraps like that; it was the good stuff made from wheat. And he always administered pain relief from his jug, whether it was extracting teeth or delivering babies; it was his magic potion that he made himself.” Family lore tells of one of Johan Jr.’s medical exploits. A young boy in the Tofield district was born with one foot backwards. Johan Jr. broke the leg and turned around the foot. Within five years, the boy was playing baseball, a nod to Johan’s medical expertise.
Involvement in community affairs also ran in the Schneider family. Orvis’ father, Adolph, served as Secretary of the Deville school board, was many times the Secretary and President of the Elk Island Mutual Telephone Company, and was President of the Rural Electrification Association in Alberta, that he helped to organize. He also served as President of the Strathcona School Trustees Association before quitting the farm and retiring to Fort Saskatchewan. For his part, Orvis was involved in the Bruderheim agricultural society and in the Alberta Hereford Association. The biggest project that he was involved in was the building of the skating arena in Bruderheim in the early 1970s. In order to access a government matching grant, each member of the board of the agricultural society signed a promissory note for $25,000, for a total of $300,000. “We didn’t have 25 cents, but we signed it and presented it to the government. If the grant money didn’t come in, we would have been on the hook for it. I would have had to sell my land to pay it off. Until we got the grant and had a note burning ceremony, I was nervous!” The gamble paid off and residents of Bruderheim today still enjoy the use of the arena.
Orvis muses about the community spirit of smaller towns. “In Bruderheim everyone had to get involved to get things done.” He sees much of that spirit being eroded in larger centres where too many people simply live in places like Sherwood Park or Fort Saskatchewan and do not involve themselves in the community.
As for the century farm families in the northeast part of Strathcona County, Orvis is one of the only families who still retain their family’s land. It is this changing demographic that has inspired Strathcona County to initiate its Century Families Project, an endeavour to promote the County’s history and the stories of those whose ties to the land remain strong.