Ralph Coppock: Pioneer Exponent of Cattle Feeding
By Grant MacEwan
Ralph Coppock, one of the pioneer advocates of the practice of commercial cattle feeding in Alberta, and grandfather of Kenneth Coppock, editor of the Canadian Cattlemen, was born on April 3, 1874, in Marion, Kansas.
Coming into manhood Ralph and his brother Tom were operating a big dairy farm and cattle feeding enterprise in Kansas but were not overlooking the opportunities that rested with the great tracts of fresh and productive soil in Western Canada. Tom was the first to venture forth. In 1904 he came to the North West Territories, a hundred miles east of Lacombe and homesteaded and became part of the Castor community.
Back in Rosedale, now a suburb of Kansas City, Ralph continued to operate the dairy business and feedlot. He married in 1902 and his son Kenneth was born, but the Kansas atmosphere was not good for Ralph and his doctor advised a higher atmosphere with a drier climate. The dairy business was rented and in 1909, the search for a more suitable location was extended into Alberta; a visit was paid to Castor and after looking the country over for a year or so, Ralph Coppock bought a ranch 20 miles west of High River. When he sold the place some years later, the buyer was the man for whom Hartell at the south end of Turner Valley was named.
The Coppocks were now Alberta ranchers but not entirely representative of their operating methods. From the corn belt Ralph brought firm ideas about fattening ranch-raised cattle with grain and in his adopted area he assumed the task of demonstrating the practical possibilities of feedlot operation. He grew a lot of coarse grains, mostly oats and by 1915 he was grain feeding several hundred head of home-raised and purchased steers per year. He used self-feeders for grain and may have been the first in Southern Alberta to do that.
The Coppock young ones were attending Glenmede School, about midway between the ranch and Black Diamond but there would be problems about high school and in 1918, the ranch was sold and the family took up residence in High River. But nothing was more evident than that Dad Coppock could not settle down to urban life. He was restless and almost at once began to search for another ranch.
The search, in 1920, led to the Barney Madden place, 2,600 acres 12 miles west of Crossfield. Land values were high at that time and instead of buying Ralph took a lease with an option to purchase at $25 per acre.
He bought feeder cattle from ranchers and farmers, bought feed and sold grain-fattened stock that topped the markets. In 1925-26 no fewer than 600 cattle were being fed for the spring market. The family home was right there on the ranch until 1926 when Ralph bought a home for his wife’s use in California from whence his two sons attended Stanford University.
Ill health then returned to force Mr. Coppock to make another change. He sought relief in Florida and California and circumstances seemed to be forcing him to retire. Consequently he declined to take up the option to buy the ranch and in 1929 he had a public auction and disposed of the livestock and equipment.
The general idea was that California would be home. But Alberta was now in his blood and he could not stay away. With some improvement in the father’s health, the members of the family agreed that dad should return to the life he loved most, raising and feeding cattle. When operating west of Crossfield some of the Coppock feeder steers had summer grazed on the old Bow River place. Mr. Coppock rode over the old Merino Ranch, once part of the Cochrane range, fancied it and said, “Boys, this is a ranch we should try to own some day.” As though fate was plotting to ensure fulfillment of hope, the Merino Ranch was offered for sale at the most opportune time and the family urged dad to buy.
It was 1931. Depression was spreading its dark cloak over the West but the elder Coppock made a payment on the 7,000 acres of the Merino Ranch. To support purchase of the ranch the big California home was sold and in 1934 son Kenneth, by this time in a thriving investment security business in California, left all that and returned to Alberta to aid in the rehabilitation undertaking on Merino Ranch.
It was like starting over. The herd grew again. The inevitable feedlot was filled and refilled with cattle, and fats from the Merino feeding yards may have been the first to test out the American market when the new United States-Canada trade agreement reduced the tariff to two cents a pound on cattle over 700 pounds in 1936. In fact, Merino-fed cattle were being exported in advance of the reduced duty that year.
The general result of the trial shipments led to a three-man working arrangement for the purpose of extensive exporting. With the acquisition of a feedlot at Clearing, Illinois, not far from Chicago, Mr. Coppock spent considerable time there and directed feeding and marketing. R.L. McMillan of Calgary arranged shipments and often went with the cattle to the Illinois feedlot, and Blair McMillan, did buying at the Canadian end. By holding the Canadian cattle for a time at the American point and feeding them there, they enjoyed more of the advantages of home-grown cattle when placed on the Chicago market.
With the death of Mrs. Coppock in 1940, the onset of war and difficulty in obtaining help, Mr. Coppock worked harder than ever. He worked too hard. But he believed in the dignity of useful work and he saw himself in an important role.
He was 69 years of age when death overtook him on July 27, 1943. He wanted to die in his working clothes and he did. He was plowing the previous day.
Ralph Coppock possessed the qualities of vigor and self reliance that made him typical of the generations of cattlemen and ranchers he represented. Feeding cattle was profitable for him and he was convinced that the best place in the world to finish cattle for market would be where both the unfinished cattle and the coarse grains are available, close to their point of origin.
Our History is curated by former Canadian Cattlemen editor, Gren Winslow.