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History: Horned Cow Herds on the Range

Reprinted from the June 1953 edition of Canadian Cattlemen

Horned Cow Herds on the Range
By Bert Sheppard, Longview, Alberta

Two major influences from different parts of the earth converged to form and mould the pioneer beef cattle industry in Alberta.

Our horsemanship, riding gear and methods of handling cattle were the first to arrive, originating in Mexico, spreading into Texas and ever northward through the Western States.

The other important factor, the British beef breeds, that sailed across the rough sea lanes of the Atlantic Ocean to replace the Long Horns of the days of the open range originated in the green pastures of the British Isles with Herefords and Shorthorns predominating in Alberta.

As the cattleman still looks to the British Isles for breed improvement so does he still get working ideas from the great progressive nation to our south where the industry is much older, larger and richer than our own.

For example, whereas the feeding of supplements on the range has been in practice across the line for many years we are only just getting started now. Our vaccines come from the U.S. The first dehorning gates, a Kansas City patent, were imported soon after the First World War, which brings us to the start of dehorning on a large scale in this province.

The Bar U started dehorning 31 years ago this spring. All the yearlings and two-year-olds were put through a Kansas City chute. The management took a good look at the results and came to the following conclusions, based on three or four years of observation. The first thing they noticed, the cattle did not trail as well as before, they did not spread out over the range, but huddled together more like sheep, resulting in uneven grazing and eating out of the more favoured spots. The cows did not seem to grow as big or winter as well. They appeared to lose their aggressiveness with the loss of their horns which nature had endowed them with for some good purpose.

However, in other respects, muley cattle were better. They fed better in feedlots and small pastures and were supposed to ship better.

It was at one time believed that horns were responsible for most of the bruising in livestock, but it is now becoming increasingly clear that a lot of the bruising can be accounted for by the human element due to rough handling from the time the cattle are shipped to the time they reach the killing floor.

It is a well-known fact that horned cattle that have been raised together don’t fight much. Experienced stockyard men claim the greatest damage from horn bruising is done when a cow or two with “untipped horns” is turned into a stockyard pen with strange cattle.

The American rancher, of course, tried dehorning, probably some time before we did, but now practically all the range cow herds of any size in the United States wear horns and the American cowman would not have it any other way. Horn bruising has been reduced to a minimum by tipping the horns of shipper cows previous to shipping.

The practice now is to dehorn all the steer calves and leave the horns on the heifers that are to be kept for replacement in the breeding herd.

This has a direct bearing on the economy of the ranchers in Alberta. While the price of beef on the hoof has been steadily going down, freight rates, industrial wages and farm machinery has either stood still or gone up. The cattleman is faced with either cutting his cost of production or bankruptcy. Many ranchers believe that they can cut their cost of production leaning towards a grass economy. As has been previously mentioned concentrates are becoming available that can be fed fairly cheaply and easily on grass, as has been done in the United States for years. This would cut the labor costs, the amount of roughage fed and I believe this is quite practical in a normal winter. Of course a good reserve of hay would have to be held over for a hard winter. If this takes place and it looks like it will, then horned cow herds would be a benefit on a lot of ranches.

We should now take a look at the Alberta Government Horn Tax. This tax was instituted primarily to stop carcass bruising by horned cattle, on the assumption that people would dehorn rather than pay the tax. Purebred horned cattle were exempted, providing the registration papers went to market with the animal, to be stamped by the brand reader. Calves up to 400 pounds were exempted. The tax on an animal with horns was one dollar. After several years of observation, the department decided it might be more effective if the tax was raised and so the Minister announced that on July 1 the tax would be raised to two dollars, a year from then it would be three dollars and if horns still did not come off then it would be raised still further.

The Western Stock Growers’ Association (WSGA), the Alberta Shorthorn Association and the Alberta Hereford Association are in sympathy with the Minister in his campaign to stop unnecessary carcass bruising, but they feel that in one respect the Horn Tax Act defeats its purpose. The purebred business in Alberta has been bounding ahead. At the present time there is a total of about two thousand members in the above mentioned associations who raised an aggregate of 10,000 or 12,000 calves. This would average out to five or six calves a member. There were about 1,500 dairy calves registered in the province in 1952. Most of these cattle will eventually end up through the public markets. One does not have to be an Einstein to visualize the number of tax-free horned cattle that will dribble into the stock yard pens each year, the very thing the Horn Tax is trying to abolish.

The WSGA, the Alberta Hereford and Shorthorn associations all feel that the tax would be more just and would benefit every phase of the beef cattle industry in Alberta to a greater degree if the Act were modified so that breeding cattle, both purebred and grade, would be exempt from the Horn Tax, provided the horns were properly tipped before the cattle were marketed. The brand readers would decide if the horns were tipped.

It would benefit the purebred breeder, the trucker, and the brand reader to the extent that they would not have to fuss around with registration papers. The commercial breeder could leave the horns on his cows if he thought it best and it would benefit the industry as a whole as horn bruising in the stock yards by breeding cattle would be reduced to a minimum.

‘Our History’ is curated by former Canadian Cattlemen editor, Gren Winslow.

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