The Bar U And Canadian Ranching History

by Simon Evans
ISBN: 155238134X

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A Review of: The Bar U: Canadian Ranching History
by Andrew Allentuck

Simon Evans, a retired professor of geography, has crafted a history of Alberta's huge Bar U ranch.The book also roams over the history of the Canadian west, agronomy, cattle branding, suburban sprawl, the late 19th century transatlantic meat trade, train robbing, horse stealing, and, no fooling, the Sundance Kid.
This is not just another horse opera. With 57 pages of bibliography and footnotes, numerous maps, tables of horse counts and cattle prices, it's scholarship that has as much in common with Louis Lamour's cowboy tales as cryptography has with James Bond's derring-do for queen, country, and compliant ladies. Yet with apologies about the old saw that says you can't tell a book from its covers, a hurried shopper might think this lovely book is for an evening's read by the fireside. Lavishly printed on acid-free paper, graced with a painting of a part of the Bar U, it's a monument of scholarship tarted up as an academic crossover into trade books.
The thesis of the book is that the founders of the Bar U, having taken and leased land around central Alberta, played the winds of fortune and used sensible business practices to build a model of what the west would become before resources surpassed cows as the biggest contributors to Alberta's wealth.
Today, the headquarters of the the Bar U is an historic site. But in its 122-year history, the ranch it managed was a model that attracted the attention of visiting British royals, agricultural economists, and supportive national governments in Ottawa. Formally called The North West Cattle Company, the Bar U got its start in the late 19th century cattle boom.
In the 1870s and 1880s, the idea of raising rib roast on low value land and shipping it to the carnivorous masses of England produced an investment bonanza rather like the dot-com mania of the late 1990s. The concept took off as railroads made it possible to send live cattle to European slaughterhouses, and worked even better when refrigerated cars on trains and refrigerated ships allowed more value to be packed into available space. Supported by government contracts to provide meat for the Mounties, for feedlots and packing houses in Chicago, the Bar U grew into a colossus that, by 1914, totaled 700 square miles and held 30,000 head of cattle.
The cattle business is really just one end of one part of the food industry. It has romance that raising grapefruit can't match. But ranching is a cover story for the vast ecological tragedy of western North America. Within a few generations of the breaching of the west by Louis and Clark in the United States, and the completion of the CPR in Canada, the land was changed forever. Bison were pushed within a hair of extinction- their deaths the stuff of sport and circus heroes like Buffalo Bill, their hides used for industrial belting in factories, their flesh left to rot. The indigenous peoples who had lived with them and on them perished in an episode of ethnic cleansing not often called that in secondary school textbooks. Animals that had lives with the buffalo, such as the pronghorn, the fastest antelope in the world, were driven near extinction or onto tiny ecological islands of their own. The process left the ranchers with the Lebensraum they needed to conserve sparse grass for their cattle. The ranchers got nearly free real estate since they did not have to pay the indigenous folks for the land taken over by cattle. Raising and selling beef with artificially low costs, cowboys became cattle barons. Simon Evans is no David Suzuki and The Bar U is an account of what was, not what might have been. Those who expect a lament for the lost will be disappointed.
The focus of The Bar U is ranch management. Evans traces the enterprise from the stewardship of founder Fred Stimson through the period when it was controlled by meatpacker Pat Burns. The business was sold in 1949 and 1950. Parks Canada purchased the ranch headquarters in 1991, and turned it into an iconic ranch of the west.
Ranching isn't what it used to be. Competition in livestock threatens the beef biz. In addition ranchers have to contend with mad cow disease, nutritionists and animal rights crusaders. The land that once saw cows and calves roaming free is being nibbled away by urban sprawl. All that is left of the ranchers of yesteryear are the bumper stickers that read "cows not condos", the last cry of the cow folk.
That the Bar U had a run of almost a century as a great enterprise was due to the managerial skill of its owners. Evans traces their work to a level of detail, such as chicken egg inventory management in the cookhouse, that may exceed what anyone may care to know.
Some of the business detail the Evans brings up morphs into tabloid news. It may help to sell the book, but it does little for financial analysis. For example:

"The apex of fame and fortune of the Bar U Ranch was the visit to the ranch by the Prince of Wales.For a day or two the eyes of he world were focused on High River and the Bar U, and on the ranching way of life which Prince Edward said that he had enjoyed so much....."

Evans carries on with this royal minutiae:

"The citizens of High River were up and about early on the morning....the Station and nearby streets were liberally decked with flags, bunting and streamers, and a triumphal arch was built leading out of the station yard...."

The Bar U was a great enterprise, but it had its day. Evans suggests that the Bar U could not be resurrected, even if someone had the guts to try it. Grassland is less valuable for grazing than for oil and gas drilling. Drilling has the advantage of taking up little space, but it introduces toxic chemicals to fodder. In future, land is not likely to be squandered on steers.
On a slightly more positive note, Evans adds: "As encouraging as any small victory is the increasing sophistication of foothills ranchers in their grasp of grassland ecology and their growing acceptance of a role as stewards of the ranges they occupy."
The Bar U is a book as vast as a James Michener historical roman-a-clef-a South Seas novel without the palms. It covers the great issues of life and death on the range, provides lessons in animal husbandry, reviews family histories down to the level of who begot whom, and has enough detail to mesmerize the most ardent of readers. Yet Evans could have traded decoration for substance.
He offers readers maps and company accounts, running herd valuations and income statements. That's interesting in an accounting sense, but it's not economics. Evans notes the long cycles in beef ranching, to which the slow rate of bovine reproduction is a contributing factor, yet he does not discuss cash flow in comparison with what futures markets were saying about cattle prices. He acknowledges the relationship between ranch size and internal feeding operations, such as grain and hay production, but never gets to the essence of the numerical problem of optimizing income from ranching. That's input/output economics, mainly a bit of algebra about marginal cost and marginal revenue.
In sum, The Bar U is a celebration of a period of western Canadian history. It is not a textbook on how to ranch, nor a recipe for rebuilding anything like the Bar U. For fans of western history, it is a lovely thing to hold and to peruse. But one will tend to read it in chunks, for it is a chronicle, not a body of theory bound by facts. For all that, it is a gracious monument of scholarship, and a curiosity, for Evans's post before retirement was at the geography department at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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