Type change of the late 1800s

Dec 28, 2012

With the 107th annual National Western Stock Show approaching this January, it is interesting to look back at the first major type change that occurred two decades before its 1906 opening. Before the 1900s, the American Fat Stock Show in the former Dexter Park by the stockyards on the south side of Chicago was the most important show of the day. To set the stage, one must first look at the state of the industry in the 1800s.

Unimproved cattle types in North America had dated as far back as the 16th century, but breeders looked to purebred breeds from the British Isles. Shorthorns were first imported into the U.S. as early as 1783, and between 1820 and 1850, large numbers had been imported. So, by the middle of the 19th century, the breed had gained considerable acceptance, especially in the Midwest farming regions of Ohio and Kentucky. The fattened Shorthorn bullocks found great favor in the eastern cities, and numbers grew rapidly. The type of Shorthorn popular at the time was the large frame, late maturing dual-purpose cattle; however, as these dual-purpose Shorthorn seedstock were moved into western range country, their utility diminished under the harsh conditions of the time.

Henry Clay first imported Herefords in 1817, and between 1848 and 1886, a total 3,703 head of imported cattle were registered in the American Hereford Herdbook, with the vast majority of these imported between 1880 and 1886. Starting in the early 1870s, Hereford bulls began to be used on Texas Longhorn cows of the western range in large numbers with outstanding results. Their survivability during the severe winters of 1881 and 1886 sealed Herefords place at the time as king of the range, and resulted in the “range turning red” through extensive use of Hereford seedstock.

Therefore, by the time the first Aberdeen-Angus females were imported into America in 1878 by Thomas Anderson and George Findley of Lake Forest, IL, the Shorthorn breed was well entrenched and the Herefords were off to a good start in becoming established as a useful breed.

In the 1870s, it was still widely believed that a steer needed to be at least 4 years old to produce a Prime carcass. Like the two British Shorthorns, the “Durham Ox” and the “White Heifer that Traveled,” which were exhibited throughout England and Scotland at the beginning the 19th century, in 1870’s America, massive Shorthorn bullocks were upheld as ideal, with some of these late maturing animals weighing over 3,000 pounds and standing over 65 inches tall. In 1878 at the first American Fat Stock Show held at the old Dexter Park in Chicago, the champion was a Shorthorn not yet 4 years old and weighing 2,185 pounds.

However, according to the January 1879 issue of the National Livestock Journal, it was the class of grade steers 4 years and older that most impressed the crowd: “This was probably the most remarkable group of steers ever seen together in America. There were twelve steers in the class, ranging in weight from 1,980 to 3,155 pounds, and averaging 2,491… They were all high-grade Shorthorns excepting one, the smallest of the lot, a grade Hereford weighing 1,980 pounds, but although the smallest steer in the ring, he was not the poorest butcher beast by long odds.

The largest ox, weighing 3,155 pounds… was five years old in June last, attracted universal attention on account of his huge proportions; but he was rather coarse, and was especially faulty and ragged in the conformation of his rump. The first-prize steer was the third largest animal in the group… possessed unusual smoothness, fineness, and evenness for so large a steer, and was especially remarkable for excellence in the hindquarters… There were steers in the ring of lighter weight that would have cut up better, but taking the size and quality both into account, the committee, which had in very few cases appeared to attach much importance to mere weight, were unanimous in their award. The secondprize animal… was the second largest animal on exhibition, but was not equal to the winner in smoothness nor quality.”

There was also tremendous economic incentive amongst Shorthorn breeders to maintain the status quo since these large, stylish bullocks typified certain bloodlines in which people had heavily invested. Chief among these were the bloodlines from England’s Thomas Bates’ herd. Although the herd had been dispersed in 1850, by the 1870s, Bates’ bloodlines were worshiped and valued beyond reason. The prime example was the 1873 Walcott sale in New York in which 14 head of cattle with pure Bates Duchess breeding averaged $18,472 and the 109 lots of heavily Bates-influenced animals averaged an astonishing $3,504 (unadjusted for inflation)! The high selling cow, Duchess of Geneva 8th, sold for $40,600, a record that would hold till the 1960s. The folly of this bloodline worship and speculative investing would come to an abrupt end when the industry realized the value of earlier maturing, straight beef type animals, which the Angus breed exemplified.

According to Alvin Sanders, editor of the Breeders Gazette magazine, the seeds of change were already in the wind in 1878 when the first Fat Stock Show was held. Pioneer Midwest scientists such as Professor George E. Marrow of the University of Illinois talked against carrying steers to the ages and weights common at the time, arguing that the practice did not make economic sense given the cost of adding weight to the older steers. These leaders called for a switch to earlier maturing animals which could be processed significantly younger at more moderate weights.

In the latter part of the 19th century, fat steer shows had an inordinate amount of influence over the industry and it was on this stage that Shorthorn, Hereford and Angus would compete as to the utility and quality of each breed. By far the most important of these shows was the American Fat Stock Show, which served as the precursor for what would become the International Livestock Exposition starting in 1900. In his book, “The Story of the Herefords,” Alvin Sanders summed up the industry impact of the American Fat Stock Show: “It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the influence exerted by this exhibition… Such a tribunal was demanded not only for a comparison of the relative values of different breeds for producing profitable steers, but to try the general economic issue of big bulk vs. baby beef.”

By 1883, the same year as the Aberdeen-Angus Breeder’s Association was formed, Aberdeen-Angus had entered the fray in earnest when the Messrs. Geary of Canada imported a 2,300-pound bullock from Scotland named Black Prince to represent the breed. The first of the major fat stock shows that year was held in the first week of November at Kansas City. Wanting the breed to be represented, the Gearys transported Black Prince express from the Quebec quarantine station. Alvin Sanders observed, “He arrived in time for the fray, and created a genuine sensation. A threecorned fight, instead of the duel between the Herefords and Shorthorns, was thus precipitated, and the blackskins made a hit with the killers from the start.” The Gearys, wanting to make the most of their opportunity to promote the Aberdeen-Angus breed, staged a parade of Angus and Galloway cattle through the streets adjacent to the Kansas City yards. With Black Prince at the head and accompanied by a pair by people dressed in traditional Scottish kilts and playing the bagpipes, the parade was a spectacle that Sanders described as “full of thrills even for the oldest cattlemen.” At Kansas City, the Shorthorn, Starlight, won the show, but not without angry protests from both the Hereford and Aberdeen-Angus camps. Thus the stage was set for December’s 1883 American Fat Stock Show in Chicago.

Although big cattle continued to reign supreme through 1882, each year the more compact, straight beeftype animals were making steady inroads, and for the 1883 American Fat Stock Show, the Hereford and Aberdeen-Angus entries represented the greatest set of this new type of steer ever assembled. The final competition that year came down to Black Prince, grade champion Roan Boy who was a Hereford/Shorthorn cross, Hereford champion Wabash, who had been imported from England, and the Shorthorn champion Starlight, with Roan Boy selected as overall winner. Although all the steers in the championship lineup still weighed over a ton, 1883 marked an important year for the progressives. Not only had the Shorthorn grip on the championship been broken, but also the more moderately framed “blocky” steers like Black Prince, Wabash and Roan Boy represented a clear break from Bates type conformation.

However, it was not until 1888 that the full embodiment of the 19th century “baby beef” ideal was achieved when the purebred Angus steer Dot won the overall championship. According to the Breeders Gazette, “He came back unbeatable (Dot was yearling champion in 1887), gaining the 1888 championship with little grumbling from any corner, weighing only 1,515 pounds at 863 days of age, a living exemplification of what was meant by the expression so often heard, ‘the greatest weight in the smallest superficies (outer surface of a body).’” Dot also cemented Angus’ reputation for excellence in producing early maturing steers of the highest quality, and Aberdeen-Angus would go on to dominate the early steer shows and carcass competitions.

The International Livestock Show, held in the new International Amphitheater on the grounds of the old Dexter Park (which burnt in 1897), was the preeminent livestock show from 1900 until it closed in 1975. At the International through 1949, records show that Angus had more single steer, group of steers and carload fat steers champions than Herefords, Shorthorns and crossbreds, combined (Briggs, 1949).

As for the Bates-type Shorthorns, they had become worthless practically overnight with the crowning of the championship of Dot. Alvin Sanders summed up their fate: “…the fortunes of the Bates-bred cattle during the evil days that fell upon them as a natural result of abuse in methods of breeding by a once noblestrain of cattle at the hands of numerous amateurs and speculators on both sides of the Atlantic. Hope had no sympathy for those who disregarded individual merit of the animal, or who dealt merely in pedigrees.”

It is interesting that in the late 1800s, Shorthorn breeders were forced to look to Scotland to find breeding stock appropriate for the new realities of beef production. Many Scottish producers started breeding Shorthorns at the beginning of the 1800s, but unlike their English counterparts who emphasized the large dual-purpose type of cattle, the Scots selected their Short horns for beef conformation only. Thus the cycle had come full circle. Where at the turn of the 19th century, Scottish breeders of Angus “doddies” and Aberdeenshire’s Buchan “humlies” had looked to England for the improved genetics of the English Shorthorns, by the end of the 19th century, breeders turned to Scotland for not only the leading genetics of the Aberdeen-Angus breed but also for the then improved Shorthorn genetics found there.

By the mid-20th century, Herefords continued to dominate the western range due to their heartiness, and centered mainly in the Midwest; Angus breeders would continue to lead in the “baby beef” movement. Meanwhile, Shorthorns had settled into a comfortable third place. But all breeds, especially Angus, selecting for ever smaller frame, earlier maturing animals, the cattle had become so small and fat that the industry would face the opposite problems of the huge Bates-type Shorthorns. When the need came to move away from these tiny cattle, the industry would again face the same problems of vested interest in the status quo. — Dr. Bob Hough