How One Woman Rancher Grabbed The Bull By The Horns And Succeeded In The Male-Dominated Agriculture...

Out in the lush prairie fields, a hard-to-escape notion is that women are not suitable for the role of ranchers. Every day, Sherilyn Arnecke disproves that thinking more.

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When buyers called the E4 Cattle Company looking for bulls, they were surprised to learn that a male wasn’t the head of the long-time family operation – it was Sherilyn Arnecke, the owner of E4 Cattle Company since 2006 and someone who doesn’t take kindly to assumptions.

Arnecke isn’t shy about telling her beliefs: she knows women can do this job and succeed with businesses. She represents a turning tide in the ranching industry: more and more women are taking on prominent leadership roles. According to the 2019 Agricultural Resource Management Survey, 51% of farming operations in the U.S. possess at least one woman as an operator, with 14% of operations having women as the principal operator.

Arnecke’s love for cattle runs deep in her blood and throughout her family, which arrived from Germany in 1857 and set up shop in Texas’ Victoria County. Growing up, Arnecke was mentored by her grandfather, Freddie Schmidt. Schmidt had no grandsons of his own, meaning Arnecke soon became his “honorary grandson.” Now, as she puts it, “as a female, I’m as close to ‘grandpa’ as can be.”

“We were very close,” Arnecke remembered fondly about her grandfather. “I wanted to be where he was, I always wanted to go where he would go. I didn’t want to be in the house cooking and cleaning, I wanted to be outside, where the animals, the cattle, and the horses were.” 

“He had big old mules that he farmed with back at that time. I just wanted to be where he was, and like I said, he was rough, tough, but he wasn’t like that with me. He was just ‘grandpa.’ Always had a cigar in his mouth, I just loved him. He was probably one of my greatest mentors, actually. He was full of vinegar, full of get up and go and he actually always carried a knife in his boot.” 

Arnecke’s stubbornness to fall back into typical female roles was a clear driving force in her journey to where she is now. “I didn’t like being told ‘no, you can’t do that’ or something to the effect that girls can’t do that,” Arnecke said. “Then as I got older, it became ‘women can’t do that type of thing’ and… just never tell me I can’t do something, that’ll just set me off really fast.”

Just like her grandfather did to her so long ago, Arnecke has continued to pass her experience and skills to new generations – specifically, her children, who she’s had the pleasure of watching grow up into skillful ranchers. “I’m very proud, very proud of that. At first I wasn’t sure that they were gonna, you know, like it like I do, but as they’re getting older – and they’re older, my son is 50 and my daughter’s 46. They have their own families, they live out here on the property. They have their own little herds, and it’s exciting watching them grow.”

It took some time for those who did business with Arnecke to learn she was the ringleader. “They would call wanting to buy a bull or look at a bull and they always wanted to talk to my husband. And I told them well, if you’re calling about the bulls, you’re gonna have to talk to me because he doesn’t know the first thing about them!” Arnecke exclaimed. “I don’t do that anymore. They know that I know my business, and I produce quality animals. I get a lot of repeat buyers coming in and a lot of word-of-mouth sales.”

Arnecke’s advice to women who are similarly in male-dominated industries is simple: keep chugging along. “Just don’t give up. Keep looking forward, keep moving forward, and just don’t accept the fact that they think you can’t do it. Just keep moving, just keep moving forward.”

“It’s an everyday thing, we’re out there working every day. When the baby hits the ground, we have to tag them so we know which baby goes to which mama because with black Angus, they all look alike. They’re no distinguishing features, they’re all solid black, so you sort of have to keep up but don’t let it get too far down the road without getting a tag.”

As the prime operator of E4 Cattle Company — which possesses a property of around 2,000 acres and 400 “mama cows” — Arnecke focuses on raising and selling black Angus bulls, which she raves are easy to handle and very docile. E4 also deals with crossbreds and heifers.

“We have to make sure there’s good fresh water, we have stock tanks, we have solar pumps which I really like, you don’t have to have electricity, you just need the good old sun and in South Texas, we have plenty of sun. They have to have shelter, and a lot of the pastures here are brush pastures, so it’s a natural-type [of] shelter for when the weather gets bad. We have a barn that we store feed in, we usually buy the big round bales of hay. They’re like six-foot bales, not the small square ones. They’re easier to put out and it’s not as labor intensive if you have to put out the small individual bales.”

While Arnecke sells to big and small ranchers alike, she prefers the latter. “Now I don’t mind selling to the big rancher, and that’s exciting, but the small rancher usually has a herd of cattle that’s about 20 to 30 head, and he’s only gonna buy one bull. So he’s got to take good care of that bull, make sure he’s fed and is in good shape, whereas a lot of the big ranchers, they have this huge acreage and they’ll just go dump these bulls out and they’ll never see them again.”

Thankfully, the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t interfere with Arnecke’s business – in fact, she saw an uptick in sales because of it. “My sales really went up during that time. The only reason I can come up with is the fact that, you know, they [buyers] didn’t want to go to town or they didn’t want to go to this big function. It was just them and me out in the pasture and y’know, no COVID out there! It was amazing to me, actually.”

Like any good business owner, Arnecke is always concerned with how her product holds up. “I’m very concerned about the people that buy my animals. I wanna make sure they’re performing like they should. I wanna make sure they’re happy with the products that the bulls are producing.” However, the rancher gushed over her cattle, which she knows are superior through and through. “I’m really proud of the fact that I can look out at some of these pastures and know that that’s an E4 bull out there working.”

Arnecke can see the increased residents with her own eyes, as about 100 new homes are being built around her property – each with its own water well. That approach is quite different than the typical one municipal district water well residents would share, and it has Arnecke worried. “So, everybody sticks a hole in the ground to pull their water out and that has me concerned, just how long are these water tables gonna be able to stand up to all of that production.”

Arnecke also holds the distinction of being the first woman member and director of the Victoria Soil and Water Conservation District, a position she’s had since 2015. After being approached, Arnecke took on the role believing it would be beneficial for her to know what’s happening around her land and industry. “I stay informed, and I attend everything that needs attending, and I keep an eye on things in my district,” Arnecke said of her role.

One of the greatest threats Texas conservation is facing comes from the population boom the state has experienced. 10 counties in the lone-star state grew by more than 100,000 residents in the past decade, while the total population has hit an all-time high of over 29.7 million.

In response, Arnecke has done her part in building up awareness. “I’ve been talking with the water boards, I’ve been talking with county commissioners out here, trying to make them realize that this is an issue. You know, ‘don’t just overlook this,’” Arnecke said. “Maybe the ones that don’t have their own cattle aren’t real worried about it. All they’re trying to water is their little house or whatever, but you know, we have a lot of mouths that need water.”

“We do catch rainwater. We have big harvesting cisterns that we harvest water that comes off the big barn roof or off of the house roof, and that’s great. The cows love rainwater. But then we also have tanks out in the pasture and what that means is that it’s not like a physical metal tank, it’s a big earthen pond  that holds a lot of water and what it does, it catches water from when you have a big heavy rain and you have a lot of runoff. You try to build these tanks where that water flows through and you just catch the natural water as it’s coming through. But it takes rain to do that, and a lot of times we’re real short on rain down here.”

“It’s just a gamble, y’know, you gotta be up on top of everything. Then we have the electric water wells, but that’s only where there is electricity and there might be four or five miles out here that there’s no electricity so you have to try to come up with water without using electricity and that’s when the solar and the tanks come in.”

The trailblazing rancher now plans to slow down operations. “I’ve got some older cows and stuff and I’m not replacing them. I’m producing a lot of my own heifers now, but I really don’t wanna stay as big as I am.”

As for what’s next, she’s going to explore her country. Arnecke says that she and her husband have seen all but 10 or 12 states. “We bought an RV a couple of years ago and we just like to hit the road and see what’s out there and the kids now, since they’re living here, living on the place, they’re close by to keep an eye on things when we take off.”

Reflecting on her long career, Arnecke couldn’t help but be proud of the success she’s created for herself. “I think the fact that I succeeded at it, that I’m able to supply a product to the farmers and ranchers, and I’ve done it without a man,” Arnecke said.

“My husband helps if I need a little extra muscle power, that’s when he’s there. But as far as planning, organizing, buying what bull, breeding which cow, that’s all me. And I’m very proud of that.”