Iain Aitken is passionate about his Luing (pronounced ‘Ling’) cattle and their outstanding traits that make cattle-raising easy. He and his wife Rowena have 200 head of this Scottish breed on their farm near Belmont in southwestern Manitoba.
“I came to Canada from Scotland in 2000,” says Aitken. “I grew up with Galloways, then my family switched to Luing cattle. The Luings had many characteristics of the Galloway — hair coat, hardiness and thrift in winter conditions — but the Luing had more growth potential.
“Here in Manitoba the winters are cold, and hair coat makes a big difference. These cattle can be grazing at -35 C or -40 C with windchill and still gain weight. By contrast, a regular cow with a regular winter coat will be seeking shelter and she won’t be out grazing.”
Aitkens says the “real selling point” of the breed, for him is that breed development has always concentrated on maternal traits. It’s a cow breed.
“Many breeds today try to be all things to all people,” he says. “They try to have good females and also the fastest-growing animals in the feedlot. I don’t think you can have both. The thing that sets Luing apart is that neither in Scotland nor in Canada have they ever been selected for feedlot performance. They are a purely maternal breed.”
Newer crossbred breed
This is a new breed, started in the late 1940s by the Cadzow family by crossing beef Shorthorn with Scottish Highland genetics, on the island of Luing off the west coast of Scotland. The Cadzows wanted a herd that would thrive in their harsh environment and produce quality beef calves economically.
Due to conditions on the island, the breed evolved into an outstanding roughage converter with the ability to utilize low-quality feed. These traits make the Luing an ideal choice in many areas of the world where beef cattle are maintained on low-quality forages.
“After many generations, the breed type became established and the British government officially recognized the Luing breed in 1966,” says Aitken.
Canadian Luing cattle do well in cold weather due to their heavy winter coat, which sheds easily for summer comfort. “They were bred to fatten on grass, and marble very well on grass,” says Aitken. “Like the Galloway, the Luing does very well on lower-quality feeds, like cereal straw in a winter ration. They are exceptional foragers and graze plants that a lot of cattle won’t eat. The foraging ability of the Luing is what attracted us to the breed, along with the maternal characteristics.”
Luing cows are very fertile, with exceptional longevity like their distant Highland ancestors. Aitken has had four cows on the farm that produced beyond 20 years, with the oldest turning in her last calf at age 23. Calving ease is another feature that is built into the breed. “We sell bulls to customers looking for bomb-proof heifer calving sires,” he says. “You get a 70-pound calf out of whatever kind of heifer you breed them to.”
Breed comes to Canada
Luings were first imported to Canada in 1973 by the late A.R. “Sandy” Cross of Rothney Farm near Calgary, who already had world-renowned herds of Shorthorn and Galloways but was interested in promoting the Luings.
The Canadian Luing Cattle Association was incorporated in 1975 to encourage, develop and regulate the breeding of Luing cattle in Canada. “The breed has never been big, numerically, in Canada but we’re building numbers steadily, and building a market among ranchers who need hardy, maternal cattle,” says Aitken.
When the first Luings were brought to Canada in the 1970’s it was near the end of the exotic craze, he says. It was bad timing for this breed; the exotics were terminal cattle (best suited for a terminal cross to produce a bigger meat carcass) and Luings were maternal cattle. The Luings never really caught on in a big way at that time.
“By the time I came to Canada, I felt it was a better era to promote them,” Aitken says.
Today there is more interest in maternal, efficient cattle and grass-finished cattle. Unable to import Luings from Scotland, Aitkens sought out seedstock in Canada. He found most in one herd in Alberta owned by well-known cattleman and researcher Bob Church.
“We have many customers for the bulls, but don’t have enough numbers to sell very many females,” says Aitken.
“People come to our ranch to look at the cowherd and see maternal qualities that many commercial cattlemen feel have been lost in their own herds. Maybe their cattle are too big and their cows are difficult to keep. They like the look of our cows so they’ll buy bulls, to keep the daughters.”
Those crossbred females make good cows, with more maternal traits and hybrid vigour.
“The crosses have exceptional hybrid vigour because the Luing is so different from mainstream beef genetics,” he says. “We sell bulls all over the Prairies from Manitoba into British Columbia. Often they go to the northern or western fringe of agriculture where there aren’t many lush pastures or crops. People ranching in extreme conditions appreciate our bulls.”
Canadian Luing cattle have proven to be hardy, long-lived, productive mother cows on some of the toughest ranches in Western Canada, where people need cattle that can thrive in marginal conditions. This success is influenced by two factors; first, this breed in Canada has a limited genetic pool developed from superior foundation stock. It was very difficult and expensive to import Luings from Scotland, therefore, the animals brought to Canada were the best examples of their type.
Breeders kept bloodlines tight enough to ensure genetic prepotency (and hence exceptional influence when crossed with other breeds). Rigorous selection based on functional efficiency under real ranch conditions has ensured that Luings can handle anything Canadian weather or grazing challenges throw at them.
Second, the contribution of the Snowlander cattle to the Luing gene pool added more hardiness. Snowlander cattle were developed by Charlie Flick of Edgewood, B.C. in the 1930s by initially crossing a polled Shorthorn bull with his herd of Highland cows. From this cross, the same type of cattle was developed into a breed in the same manner as the Luing in Scotland.
Flick, in partnership with his grandson Dave Bilinski, refined his new breed for 40 years before the very best of the Snowlander females were infused into the Luing breed in the late 1970s.
The Snowlander cattle at Edgewood had to survive largely on a diet of browse in the timber on rocky mountainsides. Like the severely challenging conditions the Luing breed was developed under in Scotland, this ensured that the cattle had built-in foraging ability. The Snowlander influence also introduced polled genetics into the Canadian Luing cattle.
For more information on Luing cattle visit the Canadian website at: www.luingcattle.com or contact Iain Aitken at: (204) 537-2620 or email [email protected].