Coronation of a breed: The rise of Angus cattle in western Canada

By Tim Kalinowski


Cattle breeds didn’t magically appear in the prairie horizon by some genie snapping his fingers, it has taken generations of effort by cattle breeders to get both the quality and distinctive characteristics of each breed to this point.
Looking around southern Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan today one breed has become the hands-on favourite, the Black Angus breed. This comes as no surprise to Southern Alberta Angus Club president Doug Allen, owner of Allencroft Angus near Taber, who got in on the ground floor with the breed over 50 years ago.
“My dad, as well as being a farmer, was also a butcher at a butcher shop. That was the one thing I listened to him for, he said if you want to raise quality, purebred cattle for beef, Angus was the way to go. He said they had the finest beef carcass available; and they still do.”
At a time when other popular breeds like Herefords or Charolais were dominating the local cattle landscape with their huge frames, the then diminuative size of the Angus breed made Allen the butt of many a local joke among his ranching peers.“Back then they called them belt-buckle cattle,” remembers Allen with a laugh. “That’s why I got some funny looks and people laughed at me a bit when I went into them. But we have used artificial breeding over the years to bring that all back into perspective. The British breeds in general at that point were in a phase where they had downsized; to the detriment of the breeds, of course. But we have dug ourselves out of that hole over the years.”
It gives Allen a deep sense of pride to look back and realize his, and other dedicated breeders’ efforts, have paid off so royally.
“You can see improvements all the time. Size-wise we have definitely got improvement in frame size to where they are useful for all segments of the industry. That’s a very important part of the business. If you breed cattle, they have to work for every segment of industry– for the cow/calf man, the feedlot, they have to make some money on it. And of course the packing industry has to have a carcass that’s going to work size-wise and quality-wise for the consumer… You are trying to breed just that one step a little better every time.”
For Allen, like so many, that starts with the selection process in his own herd.
“The biggest part of the market for a breeder in this corner of the world should be putting his attention on bull breeding and bull sales. There are so many commercial cattle out there, and they all have to raise a calf. Bulls are a given. They need bulls to breed cows, and we (at Allencroft Angus) are good at raising bulls.”
Not that it matters much to the average consumer, in the end.
“To the majority of people nowadays, it is just a steak on a plate,” states Allen bluntly. “And they get it in the grocery store. It’s understandable; there is less knowledge of agriculture today because people, generally, live in town.”
But for those with a discerning eye, and an eye on the future of their herds, it matters a great deal.
“Purebred bulls always have a many generation pedigree,” explains Allen. “You take a lot of pride in keeping it going down the years…. You always have to keep looking for that better sire to come along, and keep moving your genetics forward and fresh, so your customers keep coming back.
“The people who are at a bull sale want something that fits one particular purpose,” continues Allen. “Like if they want to breed a bunch of heifers, they are looking for bulls that easier calving. One thing you notice is everybody has their own little quirk they are looking for; their own way of looking at an animal and liking or not liking this or that. The next person will come along and totally look at it the opposite way. I guess that’s what makes the world go round— variety.”
Allen admits for him, like for many in the breeding business, the yearly bull sale can be a bit hard on the nerves.
“It’s exciting, and a little bit intimidating,” he says. “A little bit nerve-wracking; because it is an auction sale and you hope they are all going to come to the sale and spend some money. It used to be quite a (marketing) challenge when we first started, but you get to a point where people trust you, and they want to come back for more. As well as quality, you have to be a person people will trust and want to deal with. You have to stand behind your product, and have a good product to stand behind.”
A successful sale still gives Allen a sense of pride, even after all these years in the purebred Angus breeding business.
“You always get a great amount of satisfaction to see your genetics working for people, that they are happy with them, and they are doing the job and carrying on,” says Allen. “It’s nice to get the cheque, it’s no different from any other business— red ink doesn’t pay the bills— but there’s more to it than just that.”
The Allencroft-Border Butte Black Angus annual bull sale takes place on March 16 at the Medicine Hat Feeding Co.

Photo courtesy Allencroft Angus
Angus cattle have become the dominant breed in western Canadian agriculture, but it didn’t happen overnight.