Crucial and Contentious: The American Market and the Development of the Western Canadian Beef Cattle Industry to 1948

Article excerpt

If I were to be offered the fulfillment of one solitary wish in the interests of western agriculture, I should without hesitation name the free admission of lighter cattle to the United States.

--C.W. Peterson, Editor, Farm and Ranch Review, 25 September 1925

Beef cattle provided western Canada with its first agrarian-based commercial enterprise. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, open range ranching in Alberta represented Canada's best example of the North American western frontier experience. It figured strongly in the ongoing debate over the nature of the Canadian and American frontiers, and arguably has been the main focus in differentiating the two mythologies. (1) In this context it is not surprising that most historical focus on the beef cattle industry in western Canada has been on the early ranching period. Historians Lewis G. Thomas (writing in the 1960s and 1970s) and, later, David Breen in his superb study, The Ranching Frontier in Western Canada (1981), laid out the foundations of what became the standard interpretation of the early ranching experience. Breen associated the Canadian ranching frontier with powerful metropolitan forces that distinguished it from its counterpart in the United States. Interest in this ranching period has remai ned high. In a recent challenge to Breen's interpretation, Warren Elofson in Cowboys, Gentlemen and Cattle Thieves: Ranching in the Western Frontier (2000) argues that powerful continental and environmental factors were crucial influences on early ranching practices and society in western Canada. This attention to the early ranching period and concentration on sociocultural and political factors overlooks the profound implications of market forces in determining the type of industry that evolved in the Canadian West. The irresistible pull of the American market and the dominant role of the ranching industry that supported it provide a further and powerful continental dimension in explaining the uniqueness of the western Canadian beef-cattle industry.

Operating in a high-latitude climate, the western Canadian beef cattle industry was always at a cost-production disadvantage when compared with countries like the United States, Argentina, or Australia. Sustained periods of extreme privation raised feed costs and reduced the cost efficiency of range grasses. Dissuaded by a low population base, in western Canada and by high transportation costs to eastern Canada, the producers of quality cattle were drawn like a magnet to high-demand export markets. Between 1887 and 1948, the western Canadian beef cattle industry was heavily influenced by the export market, first in Great Britain and, later and most significantly, in the United States. Beliefs associated with the importance of exports had a tremendous impact on the way the domestic industry developed. Domestic beef quality and price, and the failure to integrate a feeding industry either nationally or regionally were all related to the export market. Equally significant were the differing opinions between the Canadian federal government and the western Canadian producer over export market priorities. The former was oriented east-west and trans-Atlantic; the latter, north-south and continental.

Cattle ranching in western Canada formally began in 1881 when the federal government introduced its generous leasehold system into the foothills area of southern Alberta. From there, ranching extended into submarginal agricultural country in southern and southeast Alberta, and southwestern Saskatchewan, and farther north along the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. The other cattle area in western Canada was in the British Columbia interior and included the Kamloops-Nicola and the Cariboo-Chilcotin grassland and forested areas. (2) By the 1890s, the system of big leaseholds, although already curtailed by a federal government committed to cereal-crop agriculture, had served to establish beef cattle as a vital component of a nascent regional economy. …

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