Alexa: 400 Years of History, and an Uncertain Future
A short post on the history and current status of the Canadienne dairy cattle breed.
Meet the latest addition to the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, a Canadienne cow named Alexa. The museum, which preserves and promotes our agricultural and food heritage, is also a demonstration farm with a unique dairy herd composed of the seven dairy breeds historically raised in Canada. Alexa was born at the museum on April 2, 2018, and joins three other Canadienne cows in the dairy barn.
The Canadienne breed is descended from cattle imported from France in the 17th century, especially between 1632 and 1671. The breeding of these animals and the difficult conditions found in New France, particularly the cold climate, resulted in small cows with dark coats, alternating between red, brown and black.
Canada's Ministry of Agriculture maintained a Canadienne herd at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa from 1905 to 1925. It also opened the Cap-Rouge Experimental Station in 1911 to preserve the Canadienne cow and the Canadian horse, a horse breed descended from horses sent to New France in the 17th century by Louis XIV, King of France. These efforts ended in 1940 with the dispersion of the herd and stud farm.
This first and only dairy breed developed in North America, the Canadienne became known for its hardiness, frugality, fertility and ease of calving. The richness of its milk, in terms of fat and protein, made it a sought-after product for cheese makers. Perfectly suited to its environment, the Canadienne became the typical cattle of New France, contributing to the colony’s development as a draught animal, dairy cow and beef cow.
The industrialisation and expansion of the dairy industry in the 19th century, however, resulted in dairy producers switching from the Canadienne breed to more productive breeds such as Jerseys and Holsteins. And a crossbreeding program with the Brown Swiss, to improve the Canadienne's production, had disastrous effects on the breed. The decline was drastic: once omnipresent in rural Quebec, there were only 103 purebred Canadienne cattle in Canada by 2001. According to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, the Canadienne breed is at risk of extinction.
Canadienne cattle in the dairy barn at the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, 2018.
Efforts are underway to preserve, re-establish, and stress the importance of the Canadienne breed. Some organizations focus on preserving its genetic resources and highlighting its qualities and strengths, while others are attempting to educate the public about its historical importance. A group of cheese makers and dairy producers have joined forces to emphasise and maximise the breed's potential for cheese making. The Canada Agriculture and Food Museum has featured Canadienne cattle since 1996 to help raise awareness about the breed. However, much work remains, and the preservation of the Canadienne breed is far from certain.
In a few years, Alexa will take her place in the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum's dairy herd. She will represent over 400 years of history, perseverance and determination, and will help teach visitors about the richness and challenges of our agricultural heritage. Let's wish her every success, and above all, an abundant progeny!
Alexa in the calf barn with Sarah, a guide at the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, 2018.
For more information:
Allard, Diane et Guy D. Lapointe, La Canadienne, plus de 400 ans d’histoire, Agriculture, Pêcheries et Alimentation Québec, March 2012. 29 p.
Bernier, Jean-Guy, Canadian Bovine Breed Report, in Proceedings of the Third Global Conference on the Conservation of Domestic Animal Genetic Ressources, Rare Breeds International, 1995. p.148-156
Commission on Genetic Ressources for Food and Agriculture, The State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome. 2007. 524 p.
Gendron, Mario, "La survivance des races patrimoniales québécoises", L’histoire vivante. Le passé au présent, numéro 116, hiver, 2014. 3 p.
Silversides, F.G., and al., Canada's country report on farm animal genetic resources to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2004. 40 p.