There are two main types of cattle in Canada: British breeds and Continental European breeds. The history of those two regions of the world has greatly influenced the type of cattle that came from there. Historically people on the British Isles used horses as draft animals whereas a great many regions of the continent of Europe used oxen to pull a plow. Thus, the place of the cattle beast in these societies was different: in Europe the cattle were used for draft power and dairy, on the British Isles cattle were used for beef and dairy. The physical expression of these animals is very different indeed.
The Continental breeds were bred to pull a plow: to be big, strong, with a heavy skeletal system and joints. The mother cows would be milked, and their sons would be butchered at a year of age or less and served as veal, or their bull calves would be castrated and trained to pull a load for the rest of their life. The cuisine reflects this. Open a French cookbook and you see a cuisine that relishes in its dairy, that eats veal, and that cooks its beef by way of braising or stewing - the only way to turn an old ox into a tender eating experience.
The British breeds by contrast were bred for efficiency: to weather the elements of the North Atlantic, to graze a diet of low energy forage, and to turn that into meat and fat. This means the animals historically were much smaller and daintier than their European cousins. These are fine boned animals who yield a fine grain and tender beef. These are animals with a thick coat that fatten easily and wean calves more than half of their mature body weight. It was the British breeds that really allowed the North American beef supply to evolve from Spanish longhorn range cattle into a stable supply of beef available for all.
After WWII and once the Haber-Bosch process had gone from making Nitrogen gas for bombs to Nitrogen gas for fertilizer a new agricultural era was born. For the first time ever we could turn fossil fuel calories into food calories. For the first time ever we were able to remove animals (historically used for their fertility) from our annual cropping systems (think growing wheat, canola, etc). And for the first time ever it was cheaper to grow grain and feed it to cattle in feedlots than it was to pasture cattle on the same acreage.
Initially it was the “good-eating” british breeds (think angus, shorthorn, hereford) that filled the feedlots. But their efficiency was a problem, instead of growing bigger they just got fatter and fatter, essentially “ruminant hogs”. In the 1970’s and 1980’s the Continental breeds finally saw the day that they could yield a decent eating experience. Unlike their British cousins, the Continental cattle would just grow bigger, and bigger, and bigger. The longer they were in a pen and the more grain they were fed, the bigger they got. The meat packers loved it! It is basically the same amount of work to disassemble a 1300 lb carcass as it is to disassemble a 700 lb carcass, so that is the way the whole beef “industry” has gone: bigger is better. Today it is hard to find any cattle with the ability to get fat on grass alone. Ironically many of this biggest bulls on the market now are from British breeds!
Unlike the period following WWII we no longer live in an era of cheap and plentiful fossil fuels that underpins the entire feedlot industry. We are proud to have a herd of cattle that turn solar rather than fossil fuel calories into food calories.
We are fortunate to have a herd of lowline angus cattle. They are small (about 900 lbs live weight), efficient (the mother cows graze almost year round), wean a tremendous calf relative to their own size, and the 2 year old steers fatten beautifully on nothing more than green growing grass.