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Ranching in the Years 1914-1920

Round-up cook, southern Alberta, leaning on table attatched to back of wagon. Pies, meat, dishes shown. Note clock suspended. Date, 1905-1906. The formative years of the Alberta cattle industry were characterized by difficult circumstances seemingly catastrophic enough at times to actually threaten its survival. Essentially, there were only two periods before 1940 in which cattlemen enjoyed consistent profits. The first is widely recognized and covers the successful years of the open range, 1887-1900. The second, which spans the period 1914-1920, though receiving less attention from historians, was equally as significant given its wide-ranging impact on the overall development of the Alberta cattle industry.

Export markets were crucial to Canada's livestock industry, particularly after 1881 following the establishment of the big Alberta leaseholds. Generally, cattlemen felt that an export market capable of absorbing 150,000 head a year was necessary to guarantee profitable domestic prices.

In the fist golden age period, that market was Great Britain. Between 1897 and 1911, Canada sent an average of 130,000 head annually to England where they were usually sold at prices of between $40-$50 per head at London's Smithfield market in competition with Scottish and Irish beef.

Although the dreadful winter of 1906-07 is often associated with the end of this early period of prosperity for cattlemen, it was also partly occasioned by the rise of Argentina as a beef producer and her success in producing huge volumes of cheap chilled beef virtually indistinguishable from the freshly-killed product. Very simply, the high cost of production and freight meant that Canada's share of the British market was severely jeopardized by 1910, shipments being virtually negligible after that date. One rancher complained in 1912 that for every two Canadian cattle sold in the Smithfield market, it took the sale price of one to cover expenses. In the nine years between 1912 and 1920, Canada's total livestock exports to Great Britain numbered less than 60,000 head.

This diminishing of Canada's only export market was accompanied by other factors, the most important of which were the federal policies which favoured agriculture and the homestead system over ranching. Unable to plan for the long term because of uncertain leasehold tenure, rising provincial land taxes, and the powerful lure of cash crop farming, the Alberta ranching community was in full flight by 1911-12. Hundreds sold their breeding stock and abandoned their ranching operations. During May and June of 1912, fat cattle were actually shipped to Alberta from the East. The Northwest Mounted Police superintendent at Fort Macleod in 1911 referred to "ranching as being a thing of the past," a sentiment echoed a year later by Dr. J.G. Rutherford, Canada's Veterinary Director General when he wrote that "while in its own time and place it served a useful purpose, the ranching industry has properly had its day and that its early disappearance from southern Alberta and Saskatchewan need, except from the standpoint of sentiment, cause no deep or lasting regret.

Given the dismal picture of the western Canadian cattle industry in 1912, the sudden turn-around two years later underscores the volatility of livestock operations. Two causal factors were at work. One was the stabilizing of leasehold tenure following a federal investigation into the woes of the western Canadian cattle industry. The passage of new regulations in 1913 granting closed ten year leases allowed the long-range planning necessary for herd build-up. The second was the sudden presence of an export market in the United States. The opening of this hitherto unlikely market meant a significant change in the orientation of the western Canadian cattle industry.

from "Mixed Blessings, The second 'Golden Age' of the Alberta Cattle Industry 1914-1920," Alberta History Magazine. Reproduced with the generous permission of Max Foran.

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