On The Trail with Cervi Championship Rodeo
Written by: Siri Stevens< Back to Articles
“We were blessed to have started out at a good time with a good group of rodeos. Actually, we have had some of the same rodeos ever since I started,” said Mike Cervi, who was born in Denver, Colorado, September 9, 1936.
For five decades, Mike, who earned PRCA Stock Contractor of the Year (1983, 2001), and his sons (the late Mike Jr., Binion, and Chase) have produced many of the country’s biggest rodeos, including RodeoHouston, the National Western Stock Show & Rodeo in Denver, and the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo and 27 others. They continue to take many of their animals to the Wrangler NFR. Recognized for his accomplishments, Cervi was inducted into the PRCA Hall of Fame in 2003.
Today, Mike and his sons are recognized as one of the largest rodeo producers in the country, yet he has always been a deal-maker and entrepreneur. As an elementary schoolboy, he sold flavored toothpicks and Christmas trees, hauled ashes and rode racehorses. Cervi became fascinated by rodeo clowns and, by age 14, had a trained mule act at Little Britches and junior rodeos.
Mike grew up in Littleton, Colorado where his dad had a newspaper. He got interested in rodeo through the Centennial racetrack, which was not far from his childhood home. “I started out galloping horses at the race track in 1952 at age 12. Many of the people I met were involved in rodeo. I took off with it from there.” Two years later, Cervi was at a Little Britches rodeo, where he was competing in steer wrestling and bull riding. He ended up clowning as well, because someone didn’t show up, and his passion for crowd-pleasing performances was sparked.
Spending a semester at Colorado State University, Mike got his first taste of stock contracting. “Marvin Brookman sent all the stock to that rodeo in 1957, but didn’t have any help, so I pitched in,” recalled Mike. “That’s when the arena was outdoors – it was just a simple wire and the cars would park all around the outside of it.” Cervi Championship Rodeo now provides stock for CSU every Spring.
Mike decided college wasn’t for him and took off for the rodeo road, taking his clown acts, steer wrestling and bull riding with him. One of his acts, the famous mule act, came from George Mills. “He gave me the mule, trailer, and everything I needed,” said Mike. “Gravel Gertie (the mule) would ride into the arena in the taxi cab, get out of the car and lie down while putting her feet in the air. She would get back in the car to leave the arena.” He had another trick that involved a station wagon with windows that were soaped up so nobody could see inside. “We’d get about 32 kids and pack that wagon. We were bringing the kids to the rodeo and every five or ten feet we’d stop the car and let a few more out. At the end, we’d let Gravel Gertie out – that’s how we got the idea of the colt coming out of the limo that we still use today.”
The family had a ranch near Sterling, Colorado, which was homesteaded by his grandfather starting in 1852. In 1958 Mike acquired the family ranch. “When I first got to the ranch, I bought a load of cattle from Oregon. I was only 19,” explains Mike. “My dad called and asked how I was going to pay for them. I hauled the load to Scottsbluff and resold. I made a little over $350 – that was a lot of money back then. From there I started trading – I would bring cattle from the west, back to Colorado. It put a little change in my pocket.” He bought an airplane, put a good friend in charge of the ranch and took off. “That’s what I did from 1960 through half of 1980.” During that time the Cervi’s expanded their Colorado operations – adding a ranch in Roggen in 1979 and the Cervi Feedlot east of Greeley in 2001.
Along with trading cattle, Mike was also producing rodeos. In 1967 he acquired the Beutler Brothers Rodeo Company, now known as Cervi Brothers Rodeo Company, and in 1974 the Billy Minick Rodeo Company, now known as Cervi Championship Rodeo Company. “When I got in it, there were two major stock contractors – Harry Knight and Beutler. Harry Knight was one of my best friends and one of the most professional people I’d ever been around.” During that time, Mike bought quality bucking horses. “I would buy all the good horses out there that I could. In the early 60s, 70s, 80s, my goal was to grow and improve our string of horses. That was the key to a lot of it. When we were in Oklahoma at the Finals, we sent as many as 35 horses to the Finals every year.”
Mike Junior was born January 4, 1971, and his role in the stock contracting grew over time. At the age of 16 Mike went up to Canada and borrowed a stud from Donny Peterson. “He drove up there and wanted this stud – he’s the one that started the breeding program here,” said Mike. 70-80% of the first set of colts yielded good bucking horses. He got a scholarship at Sacramento State for football as backup quarterback. He graduated with a degree in history, and went to picking up for Mike. “He married Sherry (Cervi), and started to trade cattle. He was going to circuit finals, roping, and helping with the stock as he could.” Mike Junior was killed in 2002 when the twin-engine Cessna that he and four others were traveling in crashed. He was on the bubble in the standings and trying to get to a rodeo in Missouri. The loss was a void that Mike will never fill.
Another tragedy struck the Cervi family in 2005 when Mike was charged with violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act. “It had to do with wastewater disposal for an oil field,” Mike explained. “I had built a monitoring well in 2000 and we had a leak – my employees were bypassing that without my knowledge.” Three years later, Mike spent five months in prison. “I came home from court and told Binion and Chase that I had to go to prison. They were 19 and 21.”
“It felt like a lot of responsibility at the time, especially given our age, but everything happens for a reason,” said Binion.
“I ran the ranches in Lompoc, California on Vandenberg Air Force Base,” said Mike. “They asked me to take care of 900 cows for them. The game wardens had five horses that were terrible, so I asked Chase to bring me some pickup horses and they stayed with me awhile.” Mike was able to raise their calf weight by 42 pounds by implementing his experience raising cattle and teach the game wardens how to do it. “They didn’t want me to leave,” he said with a laugh, then adding with a serious note about being in prison. “It matures you dramatically and you learn what the real world is – meeting all kinds of interesting characters.” He got out while RodeoHouston was going on, “All my committees stuck by me,” said Mike. He had home detention for five months, paid $30,000 in fines, and did several hundred hours of community service.
After that, it was business as usual. Mike settled into his role running the feedlot, while Binion and Chase continued down the road. “I run this feedlot and oversee the two ranches,” he said. “When things increase, you put parts together and you have good people around you is how you do it.”
“We call him for advice,” says Binion, “Dad gave us an opportunity that most people would die for. He would give you whatever you needed to get the job done. He crafted Chase and I each to do what we wanted to do and did best.” Cervi Championship Rodeo provides stock for pro, amateur, college, and high school rodeos. “We’ll take an animal for everybody – we bring enough for all of them. We make it as fair as we can for college and high school to compete on the same level.”
Chase handles the livestock end of the ranch, on both ranches. He also picks up at every rodeo that Cervi produces. Chase was horseback his entire life, beginning his picking up at the age of 14. He gets horses that are started and then he trains them to be pickup horses. He doesn’t sell any, but when they retire, he gives them to a kid as a good retirement home and family friend. “We are blessed to be able to do what we’ve done our whole lives. Binion and I plan to be part of the rodeo thing forever, and we hope to carry on my dad’s legacy. It’s some pretty big shoes to fill.
“These boys goals for high school and college is to develop the cowboy; help these youngsters come up so they have something to get on later,” said Mike. “They try to bring horses that the kids can be taught something on.” Part of that program includes a nonprofit that they started to provide free schools to help teach the next generation of bronc riders. To-date, the Ace High Roughstock Academy has put on 25 free schools in the last eight years and hosted over 700 aspiring saddle bronc and bareback riders. “We will host the first one of the year at the ranch in Stoneham, Colorado May 24-26. At the end we give prizes and scholarships.” Acehighroughstockacad.com has more information about the schools.
A lot has changed over the years in rodeo for Mike. “Rodeo has increased in popularity considerably,” he said. So has the number of stock contractors. “There were probably 15-20 active stock contractors in the PRCA when I started; now there are over 70.” He has remained at the forefront of that list by being an example to others. “The best management is the owners’ footprint – the best fertilizer for a ranch.”
Mike ended with this, “One day, if it all went away, we’ve been blessed to be able to do it.”