PARKERSBURG — A six-decade obsession to produce better beef cattle culminated recently when a heifer bred and raised by Merle and Merna Schrage was named grand champion Maine-Tainer Maine-Anju female at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colorado, one of the world’s most prestigious cattle shows.
“It felt wonderful,” said Merle Schrage of the Jan. 14 triumph by his heifer, Izzy. “It’s been a good run. It was amazing.”
A championship at the National Western is coveted by cattle showmen across the nation and represents the high-water mark in 62 years of raising Angus and Maine-Anju cattle by the Schrages.
The path to the prized purple ribbon entails a remarkable story line for the Parkersburg couple, who have slowly turned a small cow herd into a show cattle juggernaut. Schrage-bred heifers and steers have dominated local county fairs for years, increasingly getting closer to winning “a big one.”
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“This is the first big one for my wife and I,” Schrage said. “The nice thing is we own the cow and the bull. She’s not an AI (produced by artificial insemination) cow.”
Schrage cattle have impressed at top shows in the past, including the reserve champion steer at the North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville, Kentucky, a grand champion heifer at the South Dakota State Fair and a handful of reserve champs at various major junior and open shows.
The story began in late 1959 when 17-year old Merle, then a junior in high school, bought two heifers and an “old cow.” Merle’s wife also was drawn to cattle, and the two have made a formidable team over the years. The Schrage herd began as registered Angus but in 1972 came a milestone: Merle made the decision to cross his herd with the emerging Maine-Anju breed.
Merle and Merna have two daughters, Melissa and Mary, and a granddaughter, Kassie Rice, who got her start raising and showing prize rabbits and has since evolved into one of the cattle industry’s young stars. It was Rice on the halter at the National Western. The Schrages did not attend due to Merle’s health.
The success in the show rings is remarkable when one considers the size of the Schrage herd. While many of breeders have herds numbering in the hundreds or even thousands, the Schrages have never had more than 50 brood cows and generally run about 35 or 40.
Their freakishly high success ratio explains why 4-Hers and cowmen seeking to upgrade their herds travel down the gravel road to their 200-acre farm northwest of Parkersburg from hundreds of miles away every year.
Over the decades, the Schrages have tirelessly promoted 4-H activities and have offered their time and advice to young people learning the often confusing ropes of caring for and grooming show cattle. They donated a prize heifer to raise money for the Maine-Anju Association’s junior organization.
The Schrages were elated with their memorable championship but don’t expect the success to change their Iowa-nice ways. Three days after the big win in Denver, Merle was at the Waverly Sale Barn doing what he likes and knows best; looking at cattle and chatting with the folks he’s known all his life.