General Articles

FLYING RANCHER

The old-time cattleman has been replaced by men like George Ross—who uses a cockpit instead of a saddle

W. O. MITCHELL September 15 1948
General Articles

FLYING RANCHER

The old-time cattleman has been replaced by men like George Ross—who uses a cockpit instead of a saddle

W. O. MITCHELL September 15 1948

FLYING RANCHER

The old-time cattleman has been replaced by men like George Ross—who uses a cockpit instead of a saddle

W. O. MITCHELL

FROM THEIR traditional role in the Canadian way of life as the most universal of all luxuries and the most exciting of all necessities, the T-bone steak, the sirloin roast and the veal cutlet Rave recently been dropped onto the sizzling frying pan of public controversy.

Since the war, the price of beef has been almost as consistent a source of front-page headlines and parlor oratory as Viacheslav Molotov. While the consumer has alternately winced with pain and sighed with relief over its abrupt gyrations a parliamentary committee has probed at the causes without conclusive result. Whether or not the Canadian cattleman should be allowed to sell his product in the United States has been a major political issue and a hot potato to the Cabinet ever since an embargo was placed on shipments to the U. S. in 1942.

Paralleling this restiveness with regard to beefon-the-butchers’-scales, there has been a sharp clarification of the public’s attitude toward the men who praise beef-on-the-hoof. In the mind of his ultimate customers the Canadian cattleman has ceased to be a bowlegged legend who sleeps under the stars, rolls Bull Durham with one hand and never gets so deeply involved in the social patterns of the times that he can’t escape by climbing aboard Old Paint and riding off into the sunset.

It has dawned at last on the people who depend on him for their choicest vittles that the cattleman is a Big Businessman. One of the biggest is a tallish, lank man named George Ross, who ranches in the southeastern corner of Alberta. He is by no means above sleeping under the stars, but he is just as much at home beneath the gilt ceilings of the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa. For every mile he has ridden on a horse, he has ridden 50 in the cockpits of his two airplanes.

George Ross runs approximately 2,500 head of cattle over three townships of land (108 square miles). He has been known for over two decades as the Flying Rancher and beef nourished on the grass of his ranch has graced the dinner plates of Canada and the rest of the world since the nineties, when his father first took up ranching in Alberta.

The list of his executive positions in the cattle industry is a long one. They include: organizer and president of the Short Grass Stock Growers; chairman of the National Council of Beef Producers; member of the Advisory Committee of the Wartime Prices and Trade Board.

He was a pioneer in the encouragement of farm youngsters’ interest in purebred cattle through calf clubs and in the Red Label plan which attempted to standardize beef and so secure the British market for Canadian cattlemen. He has helped to implement a Government industry leasing plan which is proving insurance against overgrazing such as that which has ruined many once fruitful grazing areas, both in this country and the United States.

The range where Ross’ cattle graze does not suggest the promised land. The tired land, perhaps, with the very bones showing in liver-colored sandstone and clay. It has the color of worn billiardtable baize, wrinkled here and there by meandering cattle trails, gashed deep with coulees, pungent with the smoky scent of sagebrush, utterly gopherless and mouseless thanks to ubiquitous rattlers and bull snakes.

“This,” says Ross with a sudden punch of his voice, with an abrupt up-and-out gesture of both arms, “is a natural resource—grass. My job is converting it into beef. Well, now, it isn’t like oil or coal or lumber, because—properly operated—it can be made into beef without depletion—that is, if it isn’t overgrazed and eaten into the ground. Beef is my business.”

Beef is Alberta’s business—an important business to the province which produces 20% of Canada’s entire beef output. Of the 1,700,000 head of cattle in Alberta, 2,500 head Continued on page 34

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Flying Rancher

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graze upon Ross land. Most of this is leased from the Alberta Government, with the exception of several sections deeded.

George Ross carries on his ranching activities from a two-story house, modern in every regard, finished in natural cedar siding surrounded by parklike lawn and shrubbery, where, when hot weather has begun, the gardener mows grass, dandelions and rattlesnakes. Within the house, finished in pickled paneling, are two bathrooms, modern kitchen and all the other comforts of an urban dwelling.

When he talks it is with intensity. He talks of beef, free trade, the West, beef, liberalism, his three sons, beef, old-time cattlemen like his father, flying and beef. He tal ks and there is an engaging sincerity in his blue eyes under full lids. His smile is wide and frequent, spreading out the two lines down either side of his mouth deep as the coulees that fold his range. His high brows still retain the gingerred his hair has lost. He is not grey; his hair has simply darkened. There is a boyish air about him, in his slender frame, in the abandon and generosity of his gestures. His hands move as he explains, surprisingly small hands, a fine thing in a cattleman who spays his cows by going in through a muscle tear with the least amount of damage to find ovaries with deft and sensitive fingers.

Bull Durham and Brief Case

On the ranch he dresses in khaki pants and shirt, wears a brown herringbone vest— open—with the yellow string and tag of a Bull Durham sack dangling. In Ottawa, or Windsor, or Toronto, or Minneapolis, or Chicago, you’ll see him in a custom-tailored suit and he smokes Virginia Ovals then.

When walking through sagebrush and cactus and bullberry, he unconsciously breaks off a nd swings a branch. “It’s a good idea for a man to carry a stick in this country,” he says— “rattlesnakes.” When he confers with cabinet ministers, meat packers, or railroad officials, he customarily carries a brief case.

His association with planes goes back

to 1916, during the first War, when he left his father’s ranch in southeastern Alberta to enroll as a student in a course of seaplane instruction in Newport News, Va. From there he went overseas, returned to Alberta early in 1919. Six months later his bride, a Scottish girl whom he calls Rod, came out to the half-million acres of sagebrush, short grass, alkali and coulees of the Wallace and Ross Cattle Company. He himself had leased 100,000 acres of this, the other 400,000 acres belonging to his father and J. H. Wallace, his father’s partner.

His father, who died in 1935, was one of the colorful figures of the old West. Son of a Presbyterian minister, he had worked on the construction of the Welland Canal, been one of the contractors on the Lake Superior section of the CPR, had gone broke in Minneapolis, drifted down the Mississippi on a raft, worked along the Mexican border, visited Central America, contracted steel for the building of the Southern Pacific into San Antonio, Tex. With Wallace as partner he had come to Alberta and taken up ranching, under a partnership arrangement characteristic of the early days; they kept no books, simply sold beef in the fall and divided the money. Half the profits, half the liabilities belonged to each man.

George Ross is convinced that his own life has not the excitement or the color of his father’s. He lives in a house with running water, with gas and electricity. In a plywood-paneled office at a golden-oak desk he answers his correspondence, keeps his books. Bills and accounts hang in clips along the wall under pictures of cattle being trailed, cattle in holdup fields, cattle being dipped. He customarily takes a noon nap on a maroon leather chesterfield before a great stone fireplace in a living room finished in pickled pine. In the hearth are stamped the Roas ranch brands: the hat and the ox yoke. There are also those of other ranches: the ship’s wheel, the circle, the rocking chair, the crossed walking sticks.

He gets up at five-thirty each morning, goes for breakfast to the cookhouse where Louis Allard, a little man with a cockatoo of white hair, with a flour-sack apron tight around his middle, moves between the stove and the table, dishing out sour-dough pancakes, three different kinds of cereal, doughnuts, bacon and coffee to

George and his two sons, Jack and George Jr., and the four hands.

Cowboys have changed, George says. “In the old days this was their home. We buried ’em. Now they drift, in long enough to loosen their belts and get the wrinkles out of their bellies, and they’re away. ‘It’s too far,’they say. Why—” and his arms come up and out Ín his characteristic gesture—“they want picture shows and beer parlors and dances and people. And sure as hell’s a mantrap, this isn’t the place for that!”

Jeeps, Planes and Antelope

Breakfast over he walks out to the garage containing the jeep, the station wagon, the car. He drives to the field nearby where his Stinson Voyager stands in its hangar, passing perhaps a band of antelope with exquisitely slender legs, grazing till startled, beside the white-faced cattle. The still morning air is fresh with dew, bright with the sound of meadow larks. Now and again there comes the tinhorn call of pheasants; a goshawk slips his slow shadow over the land.

In his blue plane, flaps down, George Ross circles low over his range eyes careful, for it is calving time and he is looking for cows in trouble. Four hundred feet below where the turgid Milk River writhes, he sees a redbrown back almost swallowed in the sucking mud of a soap hole. He circles back over drying sloughs shrill green with moist grass at their outer lips, over the high banks of the coulee streaked with alkali like the drying brine of sweat on a horse’s flank. The trapped heifer’s sides bulge; the neck lies out, as she patiently a waits slow death.

He turns, lifts the flaps, climbs and heads back to the landing strip.

Fifteen minutes later he is bouncing over the range in the jeep. Half an hour later he is on the bank of the Milk River, stripping bare as a boy who intends to be the first into the swimming hole. With rope he circles the heifer’s neck and forefoot (he loops in the leg as well so that she will not choke to death when the rope tightens under the pull of the jeep.)

As he pulls on his pants and shirt he says, “There’s a cow and a calf against the plane.”

The plane or planes he has owned over the years have a great deal chalked up to their creditthe spotting of grass fires, the checking of windmills, quick trips to cattlemen’s conventions, to Medicine Hat, Lethbridge and MacLeod, for supplies. They are used for counting cattle and locating them in fields.

It is largely the planes (he and his two aviator sons fly a Canuck as well) which allow him to operate with only four men. Both George Jr. and Jack fly. The third boy, who is 17, is now attending Ravenscourt boys’ school in Winnipeg. The older boys are younger editions of their father, with the same laconic manner, wearing battered Stetsons with bands stained dark with sweat. Their hair is red; they too have the same relaxed almost.-slouch and are slow-talking, sudden-smiling individuals. George Jr. was a wireless air gunner during the war at the time that Jack was attending Mount Royal College in Calgary.

The Bankrupt Winters

The Ross ranch is made up largely of leased government grazing land; the deeded part of his holdings is floodirrigated so that it raises grain, which is stored in two cement elevators with a capacity of 5,000 bushels each. These elevators full of grain are insurance against a deep-snow winter for, unlike

the foothills ranches, the short-grass ranchers do not put up hay to carry to cattle unable to find their own feed under the snow.

in addition to the vagaries of export markets, the beef business is subject to the whims of nature, to such disasters as those of 1906-07, when snow smothered the feed, and 1919-20 when heavy snow cost the Wallace and Ross company 3,000 head. The last mentioned winter handed the partners a third of a million dollar wallop, when cattle went down to $20 a head. “Father and Wallace dissolved their partnership,” says George Ross, “split the outfit right down to the frying pan. The bank about then was pretty interested—$600,000 worth—and they decided they’d like their money from the partners. .

“1 was pretty well whipped about then, myself. Well, now—I got to thinking about the cowboy that landed in town broke and with a long, hard winter ahead. All he had was his horse and his squaw. He sat down with his back against the livery-stable wall, whittled on a stick, did some thinking. Then he got up. He had it figured out.” With a quick lick of his tongue George completed the thin Bull Durham cigarette. “He sold the squaw for a load of hay.

“1 went to Pat Burns (the big meat packer); he wanted our cattle. I made a trade, too. I sold the outfit down— retained only the Milk River range clear and 2,200 wet cows Pat sold me. Like that cowboy, it was half a loaf or none.”

He explains that the operation of the ranch is largely determined by nature and the cows themselves. About April 15 the cattle ai-e moved from their winter field—a plot about 49 square miles—to the spring pasture30 square miles. In the first part of June the calves are branded—and early shipment of beef is made (perhaps 100 head). The first part of July bulls are turned into the breeding pasture— one bull to 25 cows. A bull is good for ‘about five years; after that time he will be breeding his own heifer daughters and at that time, as a seven-yearold, he may still be conscientious but his production may be spotty. Old bulls bring a good price; they are used for bologna and for Bovril.

After fly time—September—heifer calves not wanted for breeding (those with lined backs and those which are spotted) are spayed. Selection of calves for breeding is determined a great deal by whether or not the calf has had a good mother. “We like a light cross of Shorthorn with Hereford in our cattle so that we get the advan-

tages of size and milk productivity.”

“Along about November, about the time the cows start to walk the fence along the winter field, we let them through, weaning the calves.

“That’s an interesting thing,” says George Ross, “the way they know what’s good for them and it doesn’t do any good trying to work against it— you’ve got to do your best to understand them—if a cow gets on the fight it’s because someone or something is keeping her from doing what she knows is good for her.”

The unquestionable sovereignty of the cow is a conviction that years of beef growing have given to George Ross. He believes almost as much in the sovereignty of humans.

Beef Can’t Go South

“Take that line—” he waves in the direction of Sweet Grass Hill in Montana—“there’s a fence and beyond it the natural market for Canadian beef. We gave up the right of private export to the United States in 1942— we did it willingly as a contribution to the war—sacrificing the only market in the world that has been any good to us.

“We don’t keep those cows out of a field when they line the fence, roaring and bawling and getting on the fight— it doesn’t make sense. Now the American Government is willing to take our cattle—in January they increased the quota of cattle allowed to enter at the reduced duty. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to regain the American market? Somebody’s been awfully confused. In Ottawa for months they have been trying to blame the American people for the shortage of U. S. dollars by saying they won’t buy anything from us! How could they, as long as we refused to sell to them!”

So if in recent weeks the Canadian consumer has been worried about the availability and prices of T-bones, Rancher George Ross has been worried about his beef and the market he must have for it. He has educated his sons to carry on the business their grandfather founded, (“most of their education took place x'ight here”), and he is naturally interested both in their future and that of the ranch.

“We’re selling ’em pieces of this outfit now that they can further develop,” he says. “You have to get them young to teach them cow-ality.”

As lie outlines his plans for his beef, for his range, you realize that he considers the thing bigger than himself, bigger than one man’s life, or his sons, or his sons’ sons.

It is. TIT