Charlolais enjoying renewed popularity

Alberta family has spent generations breeding strong Charolais line based on fertility, short calving period and growth

CLYDE, Alta. — The grass at Valanjou Ranch is belly high and green, and the Charolais cows grazing through are white.

This is the picture Henri Lusson envisioned when he emigrated in 1951 from the Anjou region of France to northern Alberta to become a rancher in northern Alberta.

Henri and Odette Lusson started the farm at Clyde, north of Edmonton, with some Hereford cattle. However, they wanted to produce bigger, meatier carcasses, so they started to use a Charolais bull in 1964.

In 1967, Henri bought a dispersed herd of 30 registered Charolais, the year their son Phillipe was born.

Of their eight daughters and two sons, Phillipe would take over in 1993 and run about 100 registered Charolais while his brother, Jean-Marc, has a commercial operation nearby.

Phillipe was a young boy when five females and a French bull named Gascon arrived in 1970. Most of the herd can trace back to that sire.

“I remember when he came. It was kind of a big event, a bull from France,” said Phillipe. “It was big money back then. It was craziness with Charolais in the early ’70s. A quarter of land around here was $6,000 an acre and they were buying calves for $6,000.”

The cattle were crossed with Canadian stock to create three-quarters and seven-eighths breeding until they were eventually considered purebred at 15/16. Some breeders preferred to stay with the full French, meaning the cattle trace directly from France.

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The Lusson family continued the full French program with regular imports of semen from France.

“All through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, all the way through, we always used full French bulls, even on our purebred cows,” Phillipe said.

“After 50 years they all look full French.”

The French cattle are differentiated with a red ear tag.

The family actively showed cattle in the steer and breeding herd divisions at events such as Farmfair in Edmonton. They have won grand and reserve steer championships at Farmfair with buckskin cattle.

Over time Charolais were adapted to Canadian conditions and tastes. The cattle became taller and less meaty, but in his opinion that is not what the top end commercial beef producers want.

Many bull buyers ask for low birth weight calves, but he feels producers are giving up performance.

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“It is like they lost the art of crossbreeding. It is simple and you can gain 100 pounds,” he said.

Phillipe also became an active exporter in the late 1990s until the discovery of BSE in Canada, when borders slammed shut and markets collapsed.

“From ’98 to ’03 I exported every year to Mexico. I was selling my females,” he said. “It was smooth sailing for five years, then bam, May 20 and I lost my Mexico market overnight,” he said.

He got a job on highway construction and in late 2005 he hurt his back and was incapacitated for two years.

Recovery was slow, but the Charolais breed is enjoying a renewed popularity, and he is starting to export live cattle again.

The efforts of 50 years were recognized when the Alberta Charolais Association presented Valanjou Charolais with the 2016 purebred breeder of the year award. This recognizes people who work to promote the breed and produce quality cattle.

Henri and Odette Lusson were recognized by the Alberta association in 2007 with the Pioneer Award for their contribution to the establishment of the Charolais breed in the province. Henri died in 2009 and Odette died last year.

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Phillipe, a single father, has three children. The oldest daughter, Emilie, is 23 and working on a master’s degree in history at the University of Ottawa. The second daughter, Dante, is studying science at the University of Alberta, and his son Mateo is 15 and still at home. All were active in 4-H and showing cattle.