Beef Is Coming Back
In spite of U. S. Tariff Threat, Canadian cattle raisers are optimistic
CHARLES LUGRIN SHAW
ALL through the foothill country of Alberta, in the grazing lands of Saskatchewan and up and down the bunch-grass country of British Columbia, the word is being passed: “Beef is coming back!” And to the patient cattlemen who have been sighing for the good old times after ten lean, bitter years, this is glad news.
It means a lot to these cattlemen—the news that beef is coming back, that ranching is beginning to pay again, that prices are climbing and the market is sound, and that there’ll be more money than usual in the cow country after the beef drives this season.
It means a lot to the whole of the Canadian West, for it means prosperity in a quarter that has been anything but prosperous for several years. The fact that beef prices are coming back to the old profitable levels will encourage settlement, give the languishing back-to-theland movement much-needed stimulation, and lead toward stability all round.
“Everything’s jake with us so long as this here Mr. Hoover don’t go and hog-tie our business with his tariff,” mused an old-time rancher as he leaned against the whitewashed stock-loading chute in one of our western cattle towns. “Hoover could make a mess of trouble for us thataway, but even at that we ain’t done so badly.”
Out in Canada’s cow country the range bosses are having new fences and barns built; they are letting their young stock mature, and importing new stork to increare and build up their herds. They are finding it possible to pay higher wages to their ranch hands, and, incidentally, they find it easier to smile than, say, a couple of years ago when things didn’t look as rosy. It has been a pretty tough period for them—the last ten years, the range bosses will tell you; but they’re coming out of it now very nicely, thanks. If it wasn’t for this fellow Hoover . . .
But it is still a moot question whether the United States tariff will adversely affect Canada’s cattle industry. Views differ on that. Some say it is going to play hob with those long-awaited cow profits, but that is the pessimistic opinion. The fact remains that beef production in the United States is declining in relation to the growth in demand, and someone has got to fill the gap. Most of the people who have studied the situation claim that “someone” will be the Canadian cattle-rancher, with his access to cheap grazing lands of boundless area. To shut out imports of Canadian cattle altogether by a high duty would tend to increase prices in the United States, and the majority of congressmen would probably recognize the folly of that.
Even should the United States do its worst and establish a tariff so high as to keep out Canadian imports, this action might merely apply the necessary push to a long delayed movement calculated to put Western Canada’s live stock industry on a more substantial and prosperous basis than it has ever before enjoyed. Shut out of the United States market, our cattlemen might be forced to do something they have always hesitated to do in the past—co-operate in a big way for the development of the chilled meat trade with the British Isles and Europe. If that ever comes to pass—and even such leaders as Pat Burns of Calgary say it is inevitable—the Argentine of the British Empire will be right out in our far western provinces.
And that isn’t all. The revised tariff may have the effect of reviving the Canadian tanning industry. In recent years it has been to the advantage of the cattlemen—but hardly to that of Canada as a whole—to ship hides to the United States to be treated and then returned to Canada.
“In the long run, the British market would be best for us,” a prominent western cattle shipper remarked while discussing the tariff possibilities the other day. “The British market wants well-finished cattle, grainfed to make them ready for the butcher. Under recent conditions Canadians have been unable to make any progress in selling to Great Britain, because American prices were too tempting. The British market may be worth cultivating now, especially if some system of imperial preference is enforced.”
More and Better Beef
TN THE meantime, Canadians are being advised to eat more and better beef. Hon. W. R. Motherwell, federal minister of agriculture, tells us that if Canadians would eat fifteen per cent less bacon and fifteen per cent more beef, there would be no cause for anxiety about the tariff, as Canada only exports fifteen per cent of the' beef raised in this country, anyway.
Premier Simon F. Tolmie, of British Columbia, a former federal minister of agriculture, and one of the outstanding livestock authorities, says that if a high tariff does upset the United States market it will be the Canadian cattleman’s job to raise better beef and encourage home consumption.
“There will no longer be toleration for beef of the trunk-hinge variety,” says Dr. Tolmie. “If Canada once establishes the superiority of its beef, we need have no worry concerning its place in world markets.”
It wasn’t so long ago that people were apt to believe that the big cow ranches of the west were doomed, and that the wheat farmer with his gang-plow and thresher was sounding the death-knell of the frontier’s most picturesque industry. But these people who dreaded the passing of the colorful cowboy and other figures of the old West still enjoy their beefsteak, and to produce beefsteak it is still necessary to have cattle and ranches and cow hands and much of the romantic atmosphere that has always been associated with them. And just so long as there remain wide stretches of country in our Canadian West that are better suited to the production of beef than anything else, you are going to have your beef industry and the accompanying glamor of the open spaces. The coming of the wheat farmer has merely served to push the cattlemen farther west and higher into the hills. It is going to require something far more formidable than the wheat farmer to make the cattleman an extinct species. The big ranges are still there, and they’ll probably stay a good many years after the passing of the present generation, according to those who really ought to know. And, thanks to a welcome improvement in markets the world over, these ranges will thrive and expand. In the years to come it may require a bit more searching to locate these ranches. Even today, the passenger in a westbound train might imagine that cattle-raising was one of the minor industries, but let him leave his Pullman and journey back into the hills. He’ll find his cattle all right and be straightway convinced that the old West isn’t dead at all; that it is still very much alive.
He’ll find the ranch houses down in the valleys surrounded by whitewashed corrals, barns and stock fences, and there will be wide fields of waving hay there, too, for hay is a real problem in the cattle country, when you consider that the average beef animal requires from half to threequarters of a ton of hay to maintain it during the winter when the snow is on the ground and grazing is out of the question. In spring, summer and fall the cattleman doesn’t worry about his feed. Those far-spread acres back in the hills, many of them leased at a small charge from the government, provide plenty of succulent grass for his stock. But in the winter it’s a very different matter. When the snow flies, the cattle rancher sends his cowboys out on the round-up, and when they return they bring the herd with them, ready to eat their heads off on the hay grown during the summer in the valley.
The tendency now is toward smaller ranches and more of them; which means that the round-ups on the individual cattle layouts are not the stupendous job that they used to be in the days of the huge fenceless ranges when two-footed rustlers were a menace as well as wolves. But the West still possesses many ranches where the beef drives and other round-ups provide times of strenuous activity for the boys. Long, tedious days of riding over blistering hills; cool nights under the stars with a saddle as a pillow and the coyote’s cry as a lullaby.
The Nomad Cow Hand
COW hands are the same the world over—an international fraternity, at home wherever the talk is about cattle and the test of accomplishment is hard riding and a knack of handling steers. You’ll find men in the cow towns of Alberta who have roved north with bands of cattle from Montana and Texas, and south of the Rio Grande and even on the pampas of the Argentine there are cowboys who won their initiation in the cattle country of Western Canada. These cattle folk are heedless of boundary lines.
I remember encountering one of these wandering cattlemen on the Cariboo Road a year or so ago, heading north. His family was in a buggy drawn by a couple of piebald cayuses. He rode in the rear of his herd of some forty head of steers.
“Heard there was good grazing land in the valley yonder,” he said. “Better be, or I’m sure outa luck. We been on the road six months.”
He had driven his herd nearly 500 miles from one of the mountain states just because someone had dropped word in his ear that there was good grazing land in a certain British Columbia valley. But this case is typical of the spirit of the western cattlemen. They play the rugged pioneering game and play it cheerfully, ready at all times to take the long chance. They didn’t grumble so very much when things were going against them, and now that the tide of fortune appears to be sweeping their way, they are accepting the better times with easy-going contentment, as men who have had to fight hard for victory.
It was inevitable that wheat would take first place on the open prairies, even though the pioneering cattlemen who had been there first yielded ground grudgingly to their competitors. Alberta, with its wonderful green foothill slopes, a paradise for cattle, is still a long way out in front so far as beef production goes, but British Columbia is stepping along, and is becoming steadily more favored as beefproducing territory. Big herds today roam the rolling, parklike meadowlands of the Cariboo and the Nicola country, and there are many thousands of acres of excellent pastureland still awaiting the coming of the cattleman.
A New “High”
A FEW figures will illustrate the im2k portance of the cattle industry to Canada and reassure those who have gained an impression that the ranch business belongs exclusively to the picturesque past. As a matter of fact, last year marked a turning-point in the beef cattle business. In 1924 there were 441,712 head of beef cattle in the Province of Alberta, according to government figures. That total slumped to 389,748 the following year and to 322,748 in 1926. In 1927 the low level was reached— 267,414. But last year, thanks to better conditions all round, the pendulum started moving the other way, and 323,284 head were numbered in the official count, and yet more cattle were slaughtered and sold last year than ever— to a value of $27,000,000. Today the cattle industry of Alberta is valued at more than $60,000,000, which indicates that, while wheat may be king, the beef steer still plays an important rôle in court.
In British Columbia the advance of the cattle industry has been steady. Every year since 1920, with one exception, has recorded a healthy growth in the beef herds. It is estimated that there are today 270,000 head of beef cattle in the province—an increase of about 120,000 in eight years.
The rising cost of land in other parts of the country and the constant encroachment of grain growers and other farmers constitute the chief factors in the slow but definite westward trend of the cattle industry. You still need not search in vain for the 10,000 acre stock farm, but you will find that the modern tendency is toward more and smaller cattle layouts. The modern way is to go in for mixed farming and raise fruit and vegetables and small stock as well as beef cattle. Scientific agriculturists contend that this is the better way, and they are pleased with the enthusiasm in which the practical ranchers are adopting the new idea.
“In a country adapted to the production of such a wide variety of things, it is bad business for the rancher to depend on a single crop or kind of stock,” said one of Canada’s most eminent farm authorities the other day. “Had the cattlemen been dependent on something more than cattle during the lean years after the war, they would have been in a far better position.”
Well, the cattlemen are not going to be caught that way again. They have learned their lesson and are diversifying. One of the really amazing developments in the livestock situation is the growth of the sheep industry.
Not long ago the writer chatted with the representative of several British earls who have large holdings in western Canadian cattle ranches. This man was convinced that, while the cattle situation was much better than it had been for years, the ranching interests should not overlook the profits in other branches of the livestock industry.
“I am planning to import several thousand head of sheep,” said this representative of British nobility. “First, I am making a trip through eastern Oregon and Montana and the other sheep states with a view to studying their methods, and then we will bring in the sheep. In a year or so we will probably have about 60,000 head grazing on our lands.”
The prophets of the cattle and sheep industry think that the most notable expansion is likely to occur west of the Rockies. That is due to the fact that so much acreage in British Columbia is good only as pasturage, while in the prairie provinces every scrap of available land is earmarked for wheat, unless you care to mention oil as well.
Pat Burns, pioneer cattleman and packer of Alberta, and Canada’s most picturesque figure in the days when Calgary was a cow town, sighs and chuckles when he realizes how much of his grazing lands are now yielding oil.
“All these Alberta oil wells are being brought in on land where we used to pasture our stock,” remarked Mr. Burns. “I’m sure there must be more money in the oil business than in feeding cattle.” But on the western slopes of the Rockies, in the Cariboo and Chilcotin country and the Nicola Valley, those who have gone in for cattle are content with their profits, and are not being disturbed by the money being made by their oildrilling neighbors in Alberta. They have seen the ups and downs of the cattle business, these British Columbia beef herders, and they are convinced that this is the time to concentrate and make the most of their opportunity.
The Cattlemen of B.C.
AFTER all, the cattle industry is nothing new, west of the Rockies. Some of the most venerable brands in Western Canada are to be found on cattle pastured in the Cariboo and Nicola. Indeed, they go right back to the very beginning of civilization in the plateau wilderness fed by the Fraser River, the Thompson and the Peace, those mighty arteries that have written history for Canada’s Pacific province. They were raising beef out there when the only stock on the prairies was buffalo— way back, long before the C.P.R. went west.
“We beat the prairies by years in the cattle business, and it looks like we’ll be in it last,” a veteran of the British Columbia cow country told the writer. “On the prairies you can raise crops most anywhere, and wherever the grain man goes the cattle’s got to move on. Cattle and wheat don’t mix. But out here in British Columbia there’s thousands of acres where cows will be the only worthwhile crop for years and years.”
It was in 1879 that the Canadian government established the backbone of the great prairie herds by importing a thousand head of breeders from Montana.
The principal motive was to supply the Indians with a future source of food, because the buffalo had been slaughtered almost to extinction. It was an experiment carried out under unusual handicaps, because the herd was badly managed and much of the stock fell prey to cattle thieves and wild animals, but it was a successful venture even at that; so much so, in fact, that capital began to flow in from Europe, Eastern Canada and the United States, and the foundation of the Western Canadian cattle industry was quickly and solidly established.
But even before the arrival of the first steer in the Canadian provinces, British Columbia had blazed the cattle trail. In the days when the red men ruled the plains, and ranching, even of the most primitive nature, was unknown in that territory, clouds of dust were rising from the old cow paths of British Columbia, following bellowing bands of cattle bound for the gold country. Old Jerome Harper and his brother Thaddeus were the real pioneers of the business, driving their steers all the way from the United States border through the Okanagan valley into the sagebrush country, and on northward beside the mud-grey Fraser to the Cariboo, where miners paid top prices for beef. You’ll find the Harper brand on cattle even yet in one of the interior ranches, but the Harper brothers passed from the scene many years ago.
The Harpers were merely the first of a long line of adventurers who led a life no less exciting than those of the betterknown cow regions of the southwestern states. Their careers reeked with romance, but there is no space for details here. Consider William James Roper in passing, though. He came out from England in a sailing ship in the ‘sixties, began in a small way as a packer of freight into the Cariboo, and gradually drifted into the cattle game. The Harpers were then “cleaning up” handsomely, driving cattle by slow, easy stages overland and delivering them at the market in prime condition after grazing all the way. Young Roper did not see why a couple of shrewd Yankees should have a monoply, so he set himself up as their competitor. Eventually he became the possessor of 15,000 acres and a vast herd of fine beef stock. Then there was Joe Guichon, the little French boy from Savois, who arrived in British Columbia with a pair of blankets and twenty-three dollars, and who lived to see the day when his land stretched in all directions as far as the eye could see. One of the most famous ranches of all is the Australian, at Soda Creek, now owned by the Yorston brothers. The founders were a couple of drifters, one of them formerly a sailor on a Swedish windjammer, who had been lured to the Cariboo by tales of fortune easily found in the gold creeks. When the journey up the Fraser was ended and the fortuneseekers had reached the point where it became necessary to finish the journey afoot, they built a huge wheelbarrow on which they placed their belongings, and started their long trek pushing the clumsy vehicle before them. They tired of their task before reaching the goldfields, created a ranch out of the wilderness and made it one of the most prosperous in the country. They never regretted having thrown in their lot with beef cattle instead of the pan and riffle.
The New Cow Country
/CONDITIONS in the cattle business have changed vastly since those early days. Instead of cattle being driven northward, as in the gold rush era, they now come south and west from the high plateaus which are now just as characteristically “cow country” as Wyoming and New Mexico. Take the little town of Williams Lake, for instance. Every other person there is a cow hand, or is associated in some way or another with the cattle business. The main stores feature displays of two-gallon hats, colored neckerchiefs, stock saddles and chaps. And every fall there is the town rodeo— a miniature of the Calgary stampede. And Williams Lake is only one of half a dozen genuine cow towns that have sprung up through the British Columbia interior.
What will become of it all? Are the cattle ranges doomed, and are those now existing in Western Canada merely a strenuous effort to retain the colorful yet impractical past—a temporary harkback to the covered wagon days?
“The cattle industry of Western Canada has the biggest chance right now that it ever had,” said one of Canada’s outstanding livestock authorities. “That chance lies in development of the export business. The Argentine has been supplying most of the beef to the British Isles in the past, and has made millions out of that market which should rightfully be Canada’s. Lately, Argentine cattle has fallen into disrepute because of the prevalence of foot-and-mouth disease. Canadian cattle, on the other hand, are notably free of disease. If that fact is ever properly established, and the industry’s selling force backs up that great selling point with aggressive merchandizing, the Canadian cattle industry may be regarded as at the threshold of its most prosperous period. Some years ago, the western cattleman didn’t have to worry particularly about where and how to sell. The market was close to home, and the demand was never satisfied. But the industry has passed that stage now. Marketing becomes the prime consideration, and the threatened action of the United States merely adds to its importance.”
The Panama Canal has helped British Columbia’s grain trade enormously by stimulating shipments westward to the Pacific coast, and thence by way of the Canal to Europe. Cattlemen believe that the Canal will render their business a similar service.
“I’m dubious about shipping live cattle that way,” a big operator remarked when questioned as to the possibilities of this movement. “The Atlantic voyage alone is hard enough on live cattle, and the heat of the tropics would make it worse. The Canal trip would mean a month on the water—a pretty severe test. But we are splendidly situated for the chilled meat trade. If the cattlemen can get together on this we’ll find another El Dorado. The only thing that makes it impossible now is the lack of co-operation among the cattle interests; but we’ll get that sooner or later. Things look better today than they have for years. Ranching is a paying proposition again in the West.”
Beef is definitely coming back, and so long as beef is in the ascendant the color and glory of the old cattle frontier will never die.