History: Twenty-five years in the saddle with Hereford cattle

Reprinted from the March 1950 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

By Bert Sheppard

Articles by eminent college professors of animal husbandry on beef cattle production appear periodically. These men gained their knowledge and theories from books from their association with agricultural schools and from interviews with the packing house fraternity.

On the other hand, very little has been written by cowmen, who learned their lessons out of Nature’s text book in the School of Hard Knocks, and graduated from the University of Cow-camps in the Great Out-of-Doors.

In writing something about Hereford cattle for Canadian Cattlemen I am afraid that I fail to qualify in the first group so will have to try to get under the second.

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The conquest of the great cattle ranges of North America during the latter part of the last, and the first part of the present centuries, by the sturdy Herefords was not without good reason or just cause. The hardihood and rustling ability of the white-faces that made the breed supreme wherever grass was being converted into beef on western ranges were due to certain characteristics well known to old-time rangemen. To start with to stand the rigours of long spells of sub-zero weather, it was necessary for a critter to be covered with a thick, pliable hide and a warm coat of thick, curly hair that would keep the cold out and the snow away from the hide. Calves born with a deficiency of hair, although in good shape, will invariably die when the temperature goes down to forty below zero.

Some years ago I asked the late Jimmy Johnston, a cowman of forty years experience, which breed of cattle he liked the best. At this time he had spayed anywhere from fifty to a hundred thousand head of yearling heifers. He replied that he had always noticed when spaying that the Herefords had the thickest hides and he believed that this was one of the reasons that they stood the winters so much better. No other breed of cattle has such broad strong muzzles capable of pushing down through great depths of soft snow to the grass that lies beneath.

My own experience has been that rugged heavy-boned bovines with strong backs and good straight legs will stand more hardship and buck more snow than the lighter boned, sickle-hocked kind. When one’s worldly wealth is wrapped up in something that walks on four legs, it is well to know that those legs are straight and strong and will not buckle easily.

In this day of enlightened thinking, we are often told that dressing percentage and fleshing are paramount to our beef economy, that the packer does not want too much bone, and that a thick heavy hide is wasteful. There is no doubt a great deal of logic in what they say, but I have yet to see or hear of any packer or college representative out on the range during a hard winter helping a cowman tail up an old cow that settled down in a snowdrift.

It has been proven during the last twenty-odd years in this country that the offspring of Hereford cattle of the proper type and rugged enough to survive under present-day range conditions can complete successfully in feeder and fat stock shows with the offspring of other breeds that require much better care. So there appears to be no reason to breed Here­ford cattle too fine.

In the last quarter of a century, on the whole, the type of white-faced cattle has gradually changed. The tendency has been to raise a shorter-legged, blockier, more compact animal that will mature earlier and can be turned as a two-year-old off grass. Personally, I like this type but I see no sense in trying to breed the legs right off the cow-brute. For instance I don’t think the Comprests would be very suitable north of the border up Canada way. In fact, any time beef cows off grass in the fall of the year weigh under 1,200 pounds would be to me a danger sign that they were getting too small.

Another change that is taking place, that could well be to the breed’s detriment, is that the leadership of the purebred business is passing out of the hands of men schooled in range ways and conditions into the hands of successful businessmen who raise cattle as a hobby, and farmers who know how to fatten cattle but don’t know what is required to ranch an animal. My opinion is that so much attention has been paid to so-called fleshing qualities that the framework of the animal has been too often neglected. Consequently, crooked legs, weak backs and rough shoulders, all of which are detrimental to the ranchers and to the breed, have been allowed to creep in. I have a suspicion that what is often referred to as fleshing in overfitted bulls is quite often fat and occasionally lard.

Substance, on the other hand, is a word we hear too little about nowadays. To the cowmen it means “Beef” spelled with a capital B, or in other words, plenty of natural muscle. This should be carried right down to the hocks, as this is an indication that the back is packed with meat, as well as an indication of strength.

During the time I write about many man-made changes have taken place in the beef cattle industry. The one thing we can’t do anything about is the weather. Dry summers followed by hard winters will come and go, leaving behind them the usual toll of dead cattle. Present-day purebred breeders, in their eagerness to progress, would do well to see that they do not breed out of the Hereford cattle the very characteristics that have made the breed excel on the range for so many years.

The market conditions that would be created by a surplus of beef animals would most certainly be aggravated by the excessive tonnage due to oversize cattle. Come what may, cowmen that raise medium-sized, thick, rugged-type “Here­fords” will probably be headed on the right trail.

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