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The Story of Cattalo
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The Story of Cattalo
Ranchers have been crossbreeding cattle and bison for over a century, but it's never been an easy mating game
Story by Ben Singer

Learn more:
•  Muddying the gene pool
• Facts and statistics about Bison
Newcomers to the town of Longview, Alta., in the Rocky Mountains foothills, might be forgiven for staring at a certain herd of cattle that aren’t quite cattle.

The beasts are the result of crossing bison cows with domestic cattle bulls. Their owner, Laurence Boyd, calls them "cattalo" — cattle plus buffalo, as bison are colloquially (though incorrectly) known. Boyd has been crossbreeding bison with cattle for 20 years, but the Boyd name has been associated with cattalo for quite a bit longer. His grandfather, M. M. Boyd, a logging industrialist who lived in Ontario, was the first Canadian to attempt to hybridize the two species, over 100 years ago.



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Cattalo are rare in Canada today. Bison/cattle crosses were largely abandoned 40 years ago, after decades of research showed major problems with infertility. Much like mules, the horse/donkey hybrids, male cattalo — but not females — are almost always sterile.

Cattle and bison are not-so-distant relatives. Members of the same bovid family as cattle, bison diverged after their ancestors migrated across the Bering Strait land bridge about 10,000 years ago. Because the animals are closely related, and both have 30 chromosomes, crossbreeding is possible.

But as history shows, it is far from easy.

As far back as 1750, wild bison were known to occasionally breed with cattle in the southern United States, yielding hybrid calves with some qualities of both animals. Ranchers in the U.S. and Canada saw the bison’s superb adaptations to prairie winters, from thick fur to foraging skills to the ability to survive a long period without food. The economic potential of breeding those traits into cattle was obvious.

The first people to attempt crosses of bison and cattle were American ranchers like C. J. "Buffalo" Jones, who coined the term "cattalo" in 1888. It was M. M. Boyd who brought the practice to Canada, six years later. Today, Laurence Boyd recalls how his grandfather moved his first bison bull, Napoleon, from California to Bobcaygeon, Ont., in winter, without a railroad for the final stretch. "They led the bison behind a stone boat [a low platform on skids], and this was pulled by a team of heavy horses," Boyd recalls.

M. M. Boyd tried to breed the bison’s meaty hump and thick fur into domestic cattle, with some success. His grandson still has some of the warm robes made from cattalo hides. "The crossbreeds have uniform hair all over the body," Laurence Boyd says, "not like the buffalo, where it’s long on the shoulders and short on the rump."

Although M. M. Boyd struggled with infertile bull calves, stillbirths and the deaths of pregnant cows, he managed to raise several cattalo bulls capable of breeding. But by 1916 Boyd’s health had failed, and the herd was dispersed. Agriculture Canada obtained some of his cattalo and began breeding experiments in Alberta that stretched over five decades. Scientists were unable to continue Boyd’s lines, but they created their own cattalo, in cattle/bison mixes of varying percentages, by breeding female bison with domestic bulls.

Still, problems persisted. In 1941, researchers wrote of "breeding indifference" between the two species and yet more infertile male cattalo. The scientists did find that the hybrids had "remarkable vigour," stamina and longevity. But the breeding males the scientists produced were only fractionally — 1/32 — bison. In 1964, with producers unwilling to face problems of sterility and deaths, the Canadian cattalo project was shelved for good.

But that wasn’t the end for buffalo/cattle crosses. In 1957, a Montana rancher claimed to have a fertile bison bull, and by 1966 a breed called "beefalo" had appeared in the U.S. Today, the American Beefalo Association (ABA) heavily markets its animals, which it claims are between 17 and 37.5 percent bison. The ABA website lists bison-like attributes such as easy birthing and leaner meat alongside more cow-ish traits like docility and fat hindquarters.
While over two dozen beefalo operations are listed in the U.S. and Australia, Canada seems to have largely — though not entirely — avoided the breed. In St. Francois Xavier, Man., a small town outside of Winnipeg, veterinarian Betty Hughes keeps 130 beefalo as a sideline. She speaks proudly of her animals, on whose carcasses there "isn’t a bad cut," and for which she hasn’t had to do a Caesarean section in 20 years.

Hughes says keeping the carcasses separate from regular beef in Canada’s meat-processing system is a challenge. Unlike bison, which are processed and sold separately, beefalo, she says, are "considered to be cows, and there are certainly advantages to that, but there are disadvantages as well."

Hughes says that under better market conditions her beefalo could be a financial boon. Boyd, on the other hand, breeds his cattalo simply out of interest and respect for tradition. For that reason, he rejects the updated name of beefalo, calling them cattalo, as his grandfather, M. M. Boyd, did. "I call it beefalo when it’s in the deep freezer, the lid is closed, and I know where he is," he says with a laugh.

At 83, Laurence Boyd doubts he can breed cattalo much longer. But with a veterinarian daughter and a granddaughter who has his love of animals "in the genes," there is hope the family tradition will continue.

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