Origins of the Charolais Breed

It can be speculated that Charolais dates back to Roman times in ancient Italy. Roman figurines depicting the Charolais type and religious references to sacrificial white cattle indicate the beginnings of the Charolais breed. The white cattle accompanied Romans on their invasions of France and England.

Written reference to white steers appears in a French document in the year 878 A.D. Due to historical accident and political peculiarity the forbearers of today’s Charolais were isolated around Charolles in east central France from the fourteenth century until 1772. The Charolles region was used as a pawn; traded, sold or won by one royal head after another. Of course tariff barriers and custom duties were part of the game and Charolles was virtually forced to keep to itself. This forced segregation greatly benefited the development of the Charolais breed. The Charolles strain was kept fairly pure, and of necessity, the breeders selected only the best of the white cattle. Records show that there was rivalry and competition among the Charolles breeders.

After the region was reunited with France in 1772, the Charolles cattle began moving throughout France. Two major branches of the breed ensued, the original Charolles and the Nivernais which was centered in the French province of Niever. In 1864 a Nivernais breeder, Count Charles de Bouille, set up a Herdbook. In 1882 the Charolles breeders followed suit and began registering cattle in the province of Saone-et-Loire. To avoid pedigree confusion the two books merged in 1919 with the older Niever Herdbook assimilating the Charolles book. By the one-hundredth birthday of the Niever Herdbook over 2,200,000 head of Charolais cattle had been registered in France.

Charolais in North America

Charolais cattle reached the western hemisphere as early as 1879 when they were imported into Brazil. Several other South American importations followed. Although Charolais were imported into Mexico before 1910 it wasn’t until the importation of Charolais by Gene Pugibet in 1930 that the North American cattle industry was affected by the breed. Until 1967 all Mexican Charolais were crossed with Zebu or Brahman cattle and in so doing, provided an animal which had superior growth, while maintaining the heat and disease resistance important to that area. This Charbray animal often times formed the basis of the breeding program of these people and was in evidence when Charolais appeared in Canada.

Charolais Comes to Canada

Searching for more growth and vigorous cattle, commercial cattleman Wayne Malmberg imported Charolais crosses into his Alberta ranch in 1953. Charolais was an abrupt change from the blocky, compact, fat producing cattle prevalent at the time. Cattlemen who looked to Charolais in those early years wanted meat producers.

Realizing the potential of the Charolais breed the early Canadian Charolais enthusiasts were not content to just sit back. They were determined to make Charolais a leading Canadian breed. In 1959 the Canadian Charolais Association was formed and in 1960 it was formally recognized as a Breed Association under the Livestock Pedigree Act of Canada. From the beginning the Canadian Charolais Association, backed by innovative and aggressive cattlemen, has been recognized for its leadership.

Through the efforts and lobbying of these progressive cattlemen, a quarantine system was established by co-operation between the French and Canadian governments. The Canadian government built a station at Grosse Ile, Quebec to house cattle imported from Europe while they underwent tests to establish their freedom from disease, in order to protect the high health standards of the Canadian cattle population. The station became operative in 1966 and the first cattle imported to Canada from Europe arrived in the spring of 1967. This arrival marked the first importation of cattle from Europe since the outbreak of foot and mouth in Mexico in 1940.

These white cattle set off a chain of events that continues today in the Canadian cattle industry. With the introduction of French Charolais, it was quite apparent that more information and a method of evaluating the worth of these cattle in the Canadian environment was essential. The Conception to Consumer Program as initiated and cattlemen were supplied with a reliable source of information which they could use in their breeding programs.

The beef grading system was the next major item of concern and through representation in the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, a new grading system was designed whereby the production of lean meat became the important characteristic of the beef carcass. This grading system also took into consideration that an appropriate fat cover was essential in providing a product that the wholesaler, retailer and consumer would accept.

Political chance six centuries ago began development of Charolais as a beef producing breed of cattle. Adherence to scientific logic six centuries later has capitalized on the breed’s assets resulting in cattle which are adapted to Canadian conditions and marketing practices.