By Lura Roti, South Dakota Farmers Union

Thumbing through a recent Wienk Charolais sale catalogue, Arnold Wienk, 78, recalls what it was like in the early years. “When I first sold bulls, the only number we gave buyers was the birthdate.” The glossy flyer is filled with photos of breeding stock and several columns of numbers representing EPD data – genetic information which today’s cattle producers count on to make breeding decisions. EPD data is standard issue with the sale of all purebred cattle, thanks to the efforts of breeders like Arnold and Carol Wienk who, a generation ago, understood the value of genetic data.

The Wienks are among the breed association pioneers who encouraged the collection and catalogue of genetic data. They understood the role it would play in improving commercial cattle herd genetics – and ultimately in enabling the cattle industry to quickly respond to consumer demands.

“We do what we can to promote the industry and the product,” says Arnold, a third generation Kingsbury County farmer. “This herd has more records on file with the association than any herd in the U.S. – or is one of the herds with the most records – because we were keeping records with the South Dakota Beef Improvement Association before the Charolais Association kept members’ performance records.” The Wienks transferred their performance records to the Charolais Association once the association began processing and maintaining members’ performance records.

A commercial cattleman when Arnold purchased his first Charolais bull, Wienk had been looking to improve his herd’s genetics. He read a Farm Journal article about the breed and decided to try it out.

After seeing the benefits crossbreeding yielded in his herd, the Lake Preston cattleman knew he couldn’t keep the breed a secret.

“We converted our herd from commercial to purebred because we saw the benefits of the Charolais breed and thought they could really help the future of the beef industry,” Arnold says. “Our focus has always been to produce breeding stock that the commercial man wanted and an end product that the public wants to buy.” Looking out for the commercial cattleman hasn’t always been easy in an industry where the show ring doesn’t always reward the same way the market does. However, that didn’t faze Arnold. In fact, he says, maintaining customer service and breeding stock that improved the commercial cattleman’s bottom line has kept Wienk Charolais in business for three generations.

“The average purebred operation only lasts seven years. There was one time when we were pretty close to the bottom of the class in the show ring; we ended up selling a truckload of cattle to a purebred operation who saw us at the fair and liked what they saw,” says Arnold, who together with his wife, Carol, recently handed over the reins of Wienk Charolais to his daughter and son-in-law, Jody and Jeff Eschenbaum, and four grandsons, Sterling, 29; Ty, 28; Calder, 22; and Stetson, 17.

“When you focus on performance, the numbers come with it,” explains Jeff, a third generation cattleman from Miller.

Sterling adds that a cow’s disposition determines whether she is kept or culled. “We also have a no-tolerance policy,” Sterling says. “We’ve sold some awfully good cows over the years; if they get ornery, we sell them.”

Known for performance on the open range and a gentle disposition, Wienk Charolais has developed a loyal following of both commercial and purebred cattle producers who turn out for the family’s annual bull sale, either in person or online. The bull sale is held the last Saturday in April.

Going on 58 years in the business, Arnold adds that customer loyalty also stems from a strong commitment to doing what is right by their customers.

“We stand behind our cattle. I learned early on that if your customer has a problem with your bull, you need to fix it for them. Guys that didn’t do that didn’t stay in business.”

Jeff explains that there have been times a commercial cattle producer had issues with a bull, so Jeff would find him a suitable replacement, even if it meant sending him one of Wienk Charolais’ herd bulls.

All in the family

Sitting around the dinner table with the three generations involved in Wienk Charolais, conversation flows easily, interrupted by family jokes, laughter, and Sterling’s young son, Ryker, 2, who chimes in from his highchair.

“He is like his dad and loves helping feed cows,” says Jody, who enjoys her role as grandma and childcare provider for Ryker and his baby sister, Landry. “From the time Sterling was 4, all he wanted to do was be outside with the cows.”

Today, Jody is among four of Arnold and Carol’s five daughters who remains involved in the cattle industry. Although Jody is the only one still connected to Wienk Charolais, she and two of her sisters live within 2 miles of the farm where they grew up.

“When the girls were growing up, I’d joke that I was a supporter of Women’s Liberation because I let them work on the farm,” says Arnold, of his now grown daughters – in addition to Jody, they include Deb Vedvei, Kim Jensen, Peggy Nolz and Amy Bailey.

An enthusiasm for cattle is deep-rooted in this family. Arnold says he attended South Dakota State University for only two weeks when he couldn’t stand to be away from his cattle and quit just in time to have his tuition reimbursed. When Jeff was 14, he was calving on his own and, after only a few weeks of training, he was getting better AI conception rates than professionals. Jeff and Jody met when they were both showing at the South Dakota State Fair.

“I think if we look at all options available to each of us, the reason we choose to stay involved in our family’s operation is because the cattle industry is in our blood. And we truly believe in the breed of cattle we have and the philosophies that Wienk Charolais is built on,” explains Ty, 28, who splits his time between taking care of marketing and customer relations for Wienk Charolais and serving as an agriculture development representative for the South Dakota Department of Agriculture.

Along with working with the cattle, the family all agrees that their customers are pretty great to work with as well. “We get to deal with some of the best people in the world,” Jeff says.

“Some of our customers have become our closest family friends,” Carol adds.

Giving back to agriculture & community

While he and his family were busy growing their seedstock business, Arnold also invested his time in promoting the Charolais breed. In the early years, he and two other breeders had to petition the State Fair Board for three years before they would allow the breed to even have an exhibit. After two years of exhibiting, the fair board finally allowed for a Charolais breed show.

He is a founding member of the Upper Midwest Charolais Association, the South Dakota Charolais Association, and Kingsbury County Cattlemen’s Association. He served as president of the American International Charolais Association and was on the National Cattlemen’s Beef Board from 1997 to 2003.

In 1985, Wienk Charolais was named Seedstock Producer of the Year by the South Dakota Beef Cattle Improvement Association and the American International Charolais Association. In 2009, Arnold and his wife, Carol, were inducted into the American International Charolais Association Hall of Fame. In 2011, he was recognized by South Dakota State University as an Eminent Farmer.

The family has been actively involved in 4-H and has supported 4-H, FFA, and collegiate judging teams for several years. 2016 marked 50 years that the Wienk family have shown livestock at the South Dakota State Fair. Recognized for their dedication, in 2008, Wienk and his wife, Carol, received the SDSU Friend of the Beef Industry Award at the SDSU Beef Bowl.

Born and raised in Lake Preston, Arnold continued the tradition of community involvement his grandfathers, Albert Wienk and Arthur Marquardt, began. They were both charter members of local agriculture cooperatives including a creamery, elevator, and Farmers Union Oil Company. Arnold’s grandfathers were among the men who helped dig out South Dakota’s first swimming pool with teams of horses. Arnold’s father LeRoy, served on the Lake Preston Creamery board for many years.

Throughout the years, Arnold has served on several community boards including United Church of Christ, school board, and Lake Preston Co-op Association; he has also hosted numerous SDSU, FFA and 4-H judging schools, 27 Foreign Exchange Students and livestock producers from across the United States and Internationally. “I want to do what I can to keep our community going. Do things that will help make it stronger and improve things,” he says.

Faith, family & friendship

The family says they are rich in friends whom they made not only through their business, but also within their tight-knit community of Lake Preston, which they have called home for more than a century.

In 2003, when Ty, at 15, was diagnosed with leukemia, their friends turned out with meals and donations and even helped with farm chores while Jody was with Ty while he underwent treatments at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

It was a challenging time for the entire family and their community of friends, as Ty battled not only leukemia but also aspergillus fungi, which attacked his lungs. “His pediatric oncologist, who had practiced for 30 years, 25 at Mayo, said Ty was his only patient to survive aspergillus fungi while battling cancer,” explained Jeff. “I tell people that leukemia was the easy part of it.”

After Ty returned home and began to regain strength for the upcoming high school football season, he was faced with yet another discouraging diagnosis related to cancer treatments. This time it was avascular necrosis, a condition which prevents blood from adequately supplying bone tissue.

When he and his parents were unable to find answers through conventional medicine ­- Mayo doctors’ solution was joint transplants -­ Ty began scouring the internet looking for answers. He discovered a hospital in China that specialized in treating the condition through the use of ancient Chinese medicine in cooperation with modern western medical practices.

“We realized there are different ways to do things,” Jody says. “On our first visit to China, they put up x-rays that were black and white. The black portions showed bone that was dead and the white was living bone. Each time we went back for a treatment, there was more and more white showing.”

But more than anything, the family attributes Ty’s will to live and faith to his complete recovery. “Ty is what got us through,” explains Sterling, who was 16 at the time of Ty’s diagnosis.

“That, and the grace of God,” adds Jody.

Although cancer does not define Ty or his family, to honor the journey he and his family traveled together, Ty established a foundation, the Ty Eschenbaum Foundation, which provides post-secondary scholarships to cancer survivors.

“I see this scholarship as a way to recognize all that youth with cancer and their family go through, and what it takes to continue to go to school -­ even though there are a lot of other battles they have to fight at the same time,” Ty explains. “I hope it helps students like me, who, even after cancer, needed additional treatments.”

Next generation of leadership

Always quick to embrace technology that would enhance their customers’ herd genetics, the family was among the first purebred operations in South Dakota to implement AI and embryo transfer technologies. For more than a decade the annual bull sale has been streamed online, allowing customers to participate in the auction remotely. “The industry is changing so fast and our customers expect us to change with it ­ we work to ensure we are delivering the best genetic package possible,” Ty says.

Like his Grandpa Arnold, who continues to serve on American International Charolais Association (AICA) committees, Ty has become actively involved in the AICA and currently serves on the national board. “Attending meetings, working on policy or strategic planning isn’t always fun; it doesn’t always seem like you’re making a difference, but it is necessary for the growth and improvement of the beef industry,” Ty says.

For almost three decades Jeff, Jody, Arnold, and Carol operated Wienk Charolais together. In 2014, Arnold and Carol retired.

Transitioning to the next generation of ownership has not been too difficult, the Wienk’s say – except for all the paperwork. Sterling joined Arnold and Jeff as a full-time employee five years ago, just a year after he graduated from SDSU with a degree in Animal Science. He brought home ideas and enhanced experience from the time he served as a member of the collegiate livestock judging team.

“I learned a lot from judging at a collegiate level. When I first came home, Dad and I had to go through a learning curve, but Dad and Grandpa let me make some changes and weigh in on decisions,” Sterling says.

Sterling and his wife, Courtney, who works as Lead Family Service Specialist for the S.D. Dept. of Social Services Division of Child Protection, live in Arnold’s childhood home, just across the farmyard from where Arnold and Carol raised their girls and continue to live today.

“Our core business practices and traditions of doing business and how we take care of customers remains the same,” Ty explains. “In everything we do, we are building on what Grandpa began, and work to take it to the next level.”

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