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B.C. ranch finds fertile ground for rebirth of cattle industry

Don Richardson feeds his prize-winning breed stock.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The pride of Richardson Ranch is tawny brown and white, weighed about 450 kilograms when he was sold in September, and, according to measurements that discerning buyers note, had a scrotal circumference of 32 centimetres.

And when the bidding stopped for Tlell 8N Red Zulu 1Z – more commonly known as Zulu – the nine-month-old bull sold for a hair under $15,000, a record high for a purebred Polled Hereford herd founded in 1981, and a stand-out when an average bull might sell for between $2,000 and $3,000.

For ranch proprietor and veterinarian Don Richardson, Zulu represents past investment and future hope at a time when the Canadian beef industry is struggling with the fallout from an E. coli outbreak at Alberta's XL Foods Ltd.

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By industry standards, Mr. Richardson's herd of 35 is small and isolated. But by focusing on purebred breeding stock, embracing technology – the ranch for the past three years has sold some of its stock through its own online auction – and running complementary businesses, the family stayed afloat over the past decade even as many B.C. ranchers went out of business. Now, Mr. Richardson is looking to new export markets.

The ranch has also thrived in an unexpected locale: ocean-ringed Haida Gwaii.

Cattle, said to have arrived in the early 1900s, are an introduced species on the archipelago, as are rats and raccoons.

The Richardsons – in their sixth generation on the farm – run an operation that includes a veterinary clinic, a feed store and their prize-winning Herefords.

The advantages of ranching on Haida Gwaii include enhanced biosecurity – no neighbouring cows to worry about – while cons include truck-and-ferry odysseys to get animals to auction or slaughter.

While raised on Haida Gwaii, Richardson Ranch Herefords are getting around the globe through the international trade in bull semen. Packaged and frozen in straws, it is sold by the half or quarter cubic centimetre, typically for anywhere from $15 to $100 per straw.

Semen is usually drawn once and stored. Supplies can become more valuable after the bull it came from is dead; at an online auction last week, semen from a late, highly regarded bull sold for $1,000 a straw.

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After drawing the high bid, Zulu was moved in September to Alberta artificial insemination company Alta Genetics, where he's being tested for disease in preparation for having his semen cleared for export. From there, he'll head to his new home in Saskatchewan, where he is expected to produce offspring the old-fashioned way.

Exports of Canadian beef semen, at $9.4-million last year, and dairy semen, at $84.6-million, have climbed in recent years, as countries such as China, Brazil and Argentina have sought to add Canadian content to their herds.

Mr. Richardson has already had inquiries about Zulu's semen from Finland and elsewhere. Given the remoteness of Haida Gwaii, he gambled on not vaccinating Zulu against infectious bovine rhinotracheitis, a contagious disease that tends to hit feedlot cattle and can result in a respiratory condition known as "shipping fever." Mr. Richardson wants Zulu's semen to be cleared for sale in the European Union, which is working to eradicate IBR and requires that semen collected for export there must never have been exposed to the virus or the vaccine. After the semen is collected, Zulu will be vaccinated and sent to his new home.

When he sold the bull, Mr. Richardson specified he wanted to hang on to semen privileges. Saskatchewan rancher Leonard Conlon, who put in the winning bid for Zulu, bought "walking rights," which gives him control over the future breeding activity. Mr. Conlon also bought a 25-per-cent semen interest – which means he'll get a cut when Mr. Richardson sells some of Zulu's output.

Zulu has characteristics that make him appealing to EU customers, including the fact that he was relatively small at birth and then rapidly packed on weight – a trait that if passed on, would make for easier calving. But the export sales are not a sure thing. While he's tested IBR-negative to date, Zulu has yet to produce semen – that's expected later this year. And not all bull semen stands up to freezing.

Although removed from high-volume production epitomized by XL Foods, Mr. Richardson is feeling the effects of an outbreak that closed the plant for several weeks and caused a massive recall of beef products. "As an industry, all of us are caught up in it," he says. "I am in the business of producing purebred cattle for breeding. When the market has a downturn, that is going to affect me. I may be able to weather this storm a little better because I have another outlet, but at the same time, the last thing I want to see is a downturn in the beef industry."

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