History: The Big Steers of Yesteryears

Reprinted from the October 1951 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

Abridged from the October 1951 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

By Grant MacEwan, former dean of agriculture at the Universities of Manitoba and Saskatchewan and (in 1951) associate editor of Canadian Cattlemen. 

Like petticoats, busties, blunderbusses and burnside whiskers, big steers had their day and their story is worth noting. Great size has always had dramatic appeal about it. Fortunately there is a record of the weights of many of the show cattle of earlier years and that record has done more to garnish breed history than the most exotic terms describing smoothness and quality could have done.

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People might argue about beef type and character, but bigness was a characteristic that nobody could misjudge, and in a period when long working hours and big appetites were the rule, size was more impressive than quality. The best thing about a serving of roast beef was its big dimensions and more people paid to see the massive Durham Ox than would have considered parting with two pence to cast eyes upon a smaller but more refined beast.

The fact is that weight and size ideals changed in a spectacular way. If the champion steer from a pioneer Canadian show could be presented at one of our present-day exhibitions, it would create a sensation and appear as a monstrosity well worth 25 cents to see. As recently as 55 years ago, the steer champions at Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition were outweighing the winners in the heavy draft stallions by 100 to 500 pounds each.

The craze for size began in the Old Country at an early date, of course. The first Smithfield Fat Stock Show was held in London in 1799 and while the weight of the winning steer is not known he was described as a “Herefordshire ox” standing 6 feet, 7 inches high.

In the few years that followed that first Smithfield show, the Shorthorn people were gaining some of their best publicity and prestige by exhibiting the huge Durham Ox, sired by the noted bull, Favorite, and raised by breed-builder Charles Colling. The ox was calved in 1796 and began to attract attention when five years old and weighing 3024 pounds. He was carted up and down the English countryside and displayed at every fair that could be worked into his crowded itinerary. At 10 years of age his weight was up to 3400 pounds. At 11 years of age, he was slaughtered, yielding a carcass of 2322 pounds.

The pages of breed history tell of no more interesting steer class than one presented at the first American Fat Stock Show held in 1878, under the auspices of the Illinois State Board of Agriculture.The class was for steers four years and over. Shorthorns had few rivals at that period and of the 12 head in this particular competition, all were Shorthorns except one Hereford, the lightest in the class, with a weight of 1,980 pounds. The others ranged upwards to 3,155 pounds on a five-year-old in which the owner had unusual pride, no doubt. The average weight for the 12 head in the ring was 2,491 pounds and omitting two of the lightest cattle the remaining ten had the handsome average of 2,594 pounds. It would have a been a class to see. The grand champion steer at that show just 73 years ago, was a 2,185-pounder.

In 1883 and 1884 the steer sensations of the North American show rings were Canadian entries and big ones. The former year witnessed the appearance of the first Aberdeen Angus steer to make a significant impression on this side of the Atlantic; he was Black Prince, recently imported from Scotland by Geary Brothers of Ontario. His first show was at Kansas City to which point he was sent directly from quarantine at the Canadian port of entry, by express, in order to have him at his destination in time for the judging. It was the biggest shipment of beef in one piece the express company had handled. Leaving Scotland, “the Prince’s” weight was 2500 pounds but shrinkage was heavy and at Kansas City where he paraded behind a pair of kilted pipers, he was down to 2,360 pounds. From Kansas City, he was taken to Chicago and there he secured the sweepstakes awarded by the butcher judges.

The year 1884 was said to be “Clarence Kirklevington’s year.” He was a white Shorthorn exhibited by Bow Park Farm of Ontario and admirers pronounced him the most perfect specimen seen up to that time. Carrying 2,400 pounds of Bates Shorthorn nobility within his white hide, he emerged from the sweepstakes at Chicago Fat Stock Show with the championship for the best steer, cow or heifer and later won the carcass championship. Butchers were evidently not so fearful about excessive covering of fat in those days.

With the turn of the century there was a noticeable change of sentiment on the matter of size in market cattle. Consumers were showing a preference for more moderate weights and folk were beginning to say that a steer doesn’t have to be big in order to be good. At the first International Live Stock Exposition at Chicago in 1900 the champion steer represented a somewhat different model; he was trimmer than most champions had been and he weighed 1,430 pounds.

Cattle as light as 800 pounds and even 750 pounds won showyard honors, including championships after 1925.

Perhaps the pendulum swung too far in the direction of light weight; perhaps the small and immature cattle of fed calf or baby beef order won more popularity than they deserved. It was a change dictated by consumers more than producers, and the consumers will continue to be the key figures in making decisions about weight, fatness and whether the evening meal will consist of hot dogs, canned meat, fresh fish or roast beef. Producers cannot afford to lose contact, and they should not overlook a certain responsibility in giving guidance.

Such guidance should be given with meats, and then, perhaps some reasonable suggestions can be made about tomorrow’s beef. Tenderness is a characteristic of youthfulness, just as good flavor and cutting stability go hand in hand with maturity. Thus the swing to light cattle offered small and convenient cuts and tender meat, but it denied the best flavor, the nobility of beef character and those qualities necessary for ripening.

Sixty years ago the premium was on bigness with a lot of fat; in recent years it has been on light weight. Today and tomorrow it should be on cattle of more medium weight, with deep and even fleshing, because smooth deposition of external fat is related to inter-muscular distribution of fat called marbling, an essential characteristic of quality.

Our History is curated by Gren Winslow. For more of the past from the pages of our magazine visit our History section.

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