The traditional British breeds of Angus, Hereford and Shorthorn have all enjoyed a period of popularity in Canada, where everyone wanted to hitch a wagon to their rising star.
Canada’s national herd is built upon those breeds, but fortunes changed when European breeds were introduced more than 40 years ago. They were big and beefy, and the essence of the Canadian cow changed forever when they were crossed with traditional British animals.
“Crossbreeding does work, and all the exotics came in and we went around the clock,” said long-time breeder Glen Bender of Neudorf, Sask.
“We started at 12 o’clock. I figure we are at nine with the Angus. Shorthorns will be at 11.”
He was speaking tongue in cheek, but there was a time when Shorthorns were the most common cows on a Canadian farm. They were milked, the cream was skimmed off to make butter and the meat was eaten.
“They were the farmer’s cow because you could do anything with them,” said Bender, whose family registered their first Shorthorns in 1948.
Canada’s first imported cattle were likely Shorthorns, which were developed in northern England and Scotland and go back in this country as far as 1825. The first herd book was published in 1867.
The Shorthorn heyday waned in the 1950s. The cattle were too small for the marketplace, and Herefords were gaining popularity.
Bender also speculates that the udders became too large because so many people were milking them, which was undesirable in beef cows.
“The biggest thing that happened in the ’50s, all the breeds started downsizing, and the cattle just got too small and wastey,” said Grant Alexander of Weyburn, Sask.
“They just ran out of favour, but they were never close to extinction.”
His family emigrated from Scotland in 1903 and brought their Shorthorns with them. They registered their first cattle in 1917.
These breeders are witnessing renewed interest as consumers are now demanding more tender, marbled meat that is grown locally and has a history.
Many Shorthorn believers never quit the breed because they were calm, quiet cattle that still made money.
“They were profitable for us for generations,” said Russell Muri of Swift Current, Sask.
His family first registered their Shorthorns in 1927 and have had cow families with pedigrees that trace back generations.
Alexander tried other breeds.
“When we decided something had to go, we liked the Shorthorns better than anything,” he said.
Herefords had their time in the spotlight too.
Jay Holmes started with a Hereford when he was in 4-H.
“When I started showing cattle in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Herefords were the dominant breed. Everybody had Herefords,” he said.
A long-time rancher and cattle judge, he saw the astounding influence that the Continental cattle had on the commercial producer’s bottom line when the resulting calves were heavier and reached market weight sooner.
“The cow-calf guy, after he took these calves to the market a couple times and ended up getting another $100 a calf because these calves weighed another 150 pounds, it didn’t take long to decide that is what they wanted to do,” he said.
Interest started to swing to other breeds that could produce a quick growing calf that also did well in the feedlot.
“Our mistakes were purely not recognizing that we needed to have more mass and more performance in our cattle,” he said.
Commercial producers started to drift away from Herefords.
“A lot of our problem in getting the market back is the commercial man was burned so bad by Hereford cattle years ago that it is going to take a tremendous amount of coaching and advertising to get them back,” he said.
“We have the product for them now, but it is a hard sell to get them back.”
Gordon Stephenson, who retired from the Canadian Hereford Association at the end of 2013, managed Canadian Western Agribition in the late 1970s and early 1980s and was president of the organization in the early 1990s.
He said Herefords were the dominant breed when he managed the show, but everything went to black when the American Angus Association launched a branded beef program 35 years ago.
The Certified Angus Beef program sold 865 million lb., for the year ending Sept. 30, which is an increase of nearly seven percent over the past year. That kind of international acceptance was as influential as anything else in changing the seed stock industry.
Cattle sold for six figures in the Hereford heyday at events such as the Calgary Bull Sale and the Regina Bull Sale. Movie stars invested in cattle and the excitement was palpable.
However, mistakes were made.
“They were registering cattle that shouldn’t have been sold as bulls and females. And there was some complacency, too,” Stephenson said.
“Hereford was king in Canada for 35 years, and they just thought it would continue.”
Fortunes are now turning with more registrations from old and new breeders. As well, interest is coming from surprising corners of the world.
“One of the things that has really driven our business in the last five years is in the exports into Russia and Kazakhstan,” Stephenson said.
Producers exported $3.2 million worth of mostly live cattle to the region last year. About $10 million worth of cattle have been traded in the last five years.
“There has been a real exodus of females into those two markets, so our breeders have expanded their herds to meet that demand,” he said.
The Soviet Union had accepted cattle in the late 1960s through dealings with John Hay of the Alberta Hereford Association.
“They tried many breeds, but the Hereford seemed to survive the best because they came from a region in Canada that was much like Russia and Kazakhstan,” said Stephenson.
Kazakh producers also crossed them with a local breed and called them the Whitehead, which he said was almost indistinguishable from Canadian Herefords.
The Hereford has retained other advantages as well.
Genetic tests have shown the Hereford is a completely unique breed not closely related to others. The British herd book has been closed for 300 years, so no animals may be registered unless the parents are purebred Here-ford.
“The advantage comes in crossbreeding when you have a genetic pool that is so different,” Stephenson said.
“When you crossbreed with another breed and another gene pool, it seems like you get a boost in your heterosis.”
Heterosis refers to gains in growth and performance achieved in the offspring of cross-bred animals.
Hereford producers have also joined genomics research to develop better predictions through expected progeny differences and DNA sequencing. They are looking for feed efficiency because it benefits the commercial industry.
John Willmott, a former manager of the Canadian Angus Association and a breeder, has witnessed the changing fortunes of all three British breeds.
His family had Shorthorns, but he switched to Angus more than 50 years ago when he met his wife, who owned and showed the black breed.
“When I was growing up as a teenager, Herefords were king and Shorthorns were second and Angus was in third place,” he said.
The wave of Continental cattle landing in Canada turned heads, and Angus fortunes further declined.
“At that time, black calves in the market were being deducted,” he said.
Someone even referred to them as little black gophers that should return to their burrows.
“It was tough sledding. We weren’t getting the prices on the market, and it all boiled down to the grading system at the time,” he said.
“If your carcasses were heavy, they sold better, and the European breeds gained very fast.”
Angus cattle were in Canada just after Confederation in the Guelph, Ont., area, and the sizes changed like fashion. Some stood as tall as a man’s waist in the 1950s and were called belt buckle cattle. Breeders tried to follow the Continental fad for bigger, taller cattle, but the Angus lacked muscle mass.
“They almost looked like a Holstein but they were winning the shows,” he said.
“They were trying to compete with the Charolais and some other breeds that were so popular at the time.”
The turnaround came when the U.S. certified Angus beef program started promoting the breed’s ability to produce well marbled, tender beef.
The Canadian grading system eventually responded and changed to a yield and quality grade program where meat was graded A, AA and AAA. It was a good fit for Angus.
Markets were also opening up in Japan, where black cattle and the well-marbled Kobe beef were preferred.
Those market signals built such momentum in the United States that nearly every breed offered cattle with black hides.
There was a surge in new members and registrations, increasing from 20,000 registrations when Willmott was with the association from 1988-92 to more than 50,000 per year today.
As often happens with popular breeds, too many animals were retained for breeding stock, even though the quality was not there.
“A breed is only as good as its breeders,” Willmott said.
However, it is satisfying to watch the term Angus beef become synonymous with quality, said Corrine Gibson, who ranches with her family at Six Mile Angus near Fir Mountain, Sask., and is president-elect of the national association.
“Angus breeders had a lot of intestinal fortitude. Sometimes they took a kicking, but they kept on going,” she said.
“When you believe in something so strongly like our forefathers and we do today … and are so passionate about what we can give the industry, you don’t give up. Just because somebody doesn’t like them at one point, you keep on.”
Six Mile ranch had other breeds, including Salers, Simmental and Charolais.
“There have been lots of other breeds come and go on the ranch, and we think there are good cattle in every breed,” she said. “In our environment and our customer base, Angus is where it is at for us.”
Certified Angus Beef put the breed over the top.
As well, Canadian programs that identify all Angus influence cattle with green ear tags and hold “rancher endorsed sales” help producers market calves at a premium.
With such success, how does a breed stay on top?
“It is important to be humble,” said Gibson.“We are on top, but we should learn from past experience that it is always easier to get there than to stay there. We have to keep working with our commercial cattlemen, we have to keep working with our own breeders and members to improve our breed.”
The association conducted a survey last year among breeders and found most were going to stay the same or expand their cow herds.
However, Stephenson said the bottom line for all breeds is to remember their true purpose, which is to produce food.
“I do the most important thing in the world,” he said.
“I produce food.”