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The Economics of Ranching

Ranching had already been big business in the American west when, in 1881, the Conservative government of Canada established its long-term lease system for raising open-range cattle in southern Alberta. The land, after all, was ideal for the purpose: native grasses and streams kept the animals well provided for, while the warm Chinook winds melted snow, and coulees (deep, flat-bottomed ravines) kept stock sheltered in otherwise harsh winter conditions. American merchandising companies began bringing capital, stock, and expertise into the area while young, privileged men, mostly from Britain, came looking for adventure. By 1882, the "Beef Bonanza" of the States had found expression in the Canadian west. And ranching was, in most cases, a lucrative enterprise.

By 1885, four cattle companies controlled almost half of the leased acreage land in southern Alberta, and cattle exports from Alberta were totaling over eleven million dollars a year. Ranchers themselves were most often part of the social and political elite of the area, participating in civic affairs and wading into the most swift of entrepreneurial waters. For some, the kind of men who came to Alberta for the economic and personal rewards of the ranching business seemed enterprising and vital: most often from upper-class British families, the owners and mangers of big ranches brought to Alberta much-needed capital, stability, and an educational tradition the area had been lacking. To others, it seemed as if most of the credit for the success of ranching was due to its less-privileged participants: the stock-hands, or cowboys, whose spirit and intimate experience of the land have become part of our western mythology.

By 1905, however, the ranching boom was already beginning to lose momentum, as much of the growing rural population began raising crops and diversifying production. Oil was becoming Calgary's most economically viable resource, and a series of bad winters, combined with high tariffs and inadequate shipping methods, all served to dampen the original success of the cattle industry in the early part of the twentieth century.

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            For more on the history of settlement in Alberta, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.