Canada is blessed with an abundance of rich, fertile agricultural land – and Alberta is famous for its beef. So why, in our land of plenty, is Alberta the undisputed centre of this industry that feeds our people and our economy? Here are six reasons:
As early as the 1860s, the Canadian government was keen to encourage entrepreneurial movement to the ‘new frontier’ in the west. These were called the ‘free grass’ years because an individual or ranch company could lease up to 100,000 acres for the rent of one cent, per acre, per year for up to 21 years. They were also allowed to import cattle from the United States duty-free.
Those early settlers found a wealth of fertile grasslands in the sheltered, well-watered valleys of southern Alberta. These nutritious lands provided an environment where their cattle could be released and left to fend for themselves.
With Chinook winds tempering the effects of winter, southern Alberta is unique in providing year-round access to pasture for cattle. Most years, Alberta’s early ranchers found the winter conditions favourable for cattle, which were able to find shelter during the colder days, and grass whenever the snow melted.
4. Resilience and innovation
During those early days, most ranchers relied on the ability of their cattle to survive a Canadian winter without assistance. But brutal winters in 1882-83, 1886-87 and 1906-07 decimated many herds and ruined countless businesses. Rather than give up, many ranchers learned from these challenges, and even thrived – ranchers such as Lachlin McKinnon, who made grain a standard addition to his livestock’s diet at the turn of the century.
Winter shelter, and irrigation systems were among other innovations that enabled ranchers in Alberta to protect and nurture their cattle.
In 1888, Commissioner L.H. Herchmer of the North West Mounted Police was quoted as saying:
All ranchers, no matter what class of stock is their speciality, now cut large quantities of hay, and nearly all have shelter of some description for weak stock. Some of the more advanced cow-men are now yarding up their calves in the fall and feeding all winter. It will be found most beneficial to both calves and cows, and the calves of the following season will also be stronger.
As these ranchers learned about shelter, hay and grain for their cattle, so they created a precursor to today’s cattle feeding industry.
5. Research and training
As the beef industry evolved, schools of agriculture in all the western provinces engaged in research in animal science and husbandry, and range management. At agricultural schools in Olds, Vermilion and Claresholm, cattle rearing and stock feeding tests began as early as 1913. Professorial staff from these schools lectured at agricultural meetings and served as livestock judges at county fairs and shows.
Today, cattle feeding is a sophisticated business, using many different technologies to help feed Canadians. One of the most vital technologies is irrigation, which was developed as early as the 1890s, before Alberta even became a province.
Today, about 680,000 hectares are irrigated in Alberta, which represents about five per cent of Alberta’s arable land, and almost 70 per cent of Canada’s total irrigated area. That irrigation infrastructure also provides water to processors, intensive livestock operations, towns and villages, wildlife habitats and recreation facilities.
You can read more about irrigation in ‘Alberta’s Irrigation – A Strategy for the Future’ (PDF). And to learn more about how Alberta’s cattle feeding industry looks today, check out our ‘Feedlot 101 infographic’.
Stay tuned for a future post in which we will continue to explore the history of Alberta’s beef sector, and how the cattle feeding sector evolved.