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
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.
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
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
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.