The Polled Hereford: Born at Bobcaygeon
March 4, 2023
Robert Watts with Polled Hereford Bull
When the first Mossom Boyd arrived at Bobcaygeon in 1834, he was an orphan in a foreign land and when he was married, it was in a borrowed suit. But he certainly knew how to work, was shrewd and soon developed a reputation as one of the hardest-driving men in the district. He rose to become one of Canada’s most famous timber barons, and a multi-millionaire in an age when that was truly exceptional.
Whereas his father had travelled with the rafts, Mossom Martin (Mossie) Boyd had much greater skill in administration and clerical work. He also had much more time for gentlemanly pursuits. Whereas today, many prominent business owners do something for the environment to publicly demonstrate virtue, in the nineteenth century advancing agriculture was a great social cause. For a generation that had grown up in the era of the Irish Potato Famine (the Boyds had significant Irish connections), where practically everyone knew what it meant to do without, the second generation of the Boyds at Bobcaygeon were one of the few local families who never had to worry about the wolf at the door. Most people spent most of their time doing tedious manual labour just to provide for themselves—it was an era when families would manually kill potato bugs, because they truly needed their potatoes to grow. Figuring out a way to make farming more efficient—mechanization, improving crops, or breeding better livestock—was a route to becoming an international hero.
While today it might be surprising that society was once fixated on finding ways to improve agriculture, it is because practically everyone takes for granted the yields that were painstakingly won through centuries of work. The strawberries for sale in the grocery store are vastly different than their wild ancestors. Mouflons, which were selectively bred to become sheep have reddish-brown short haired coats, not wool. In 1700, an average British ox weighed about 370 pounds—the size has since tripled.
As Mossie Boyd was becoming interested in improving cattle, having an animal that was a specific breed was a luxury that was reserved for only the wealthiest farmers—in 1879, a Hereford bull from a reputable breeder would start at $200, a hefty sum in a time when farms (which represented the lifework of a family) sold for $1000 to $4000 dollars. Improving cattle was not simply a matter producing larger animals, breeders looked to find animals that grew faster, and as one contemporary illustration observed, produce Beef Not Bones.
In the late nineteenth century, the Shorthorn (Durham) was the most popular breed, then being an animal that was considered to be both a good milker and a good beef cow—at the time, most farmers would think in terms of meeting their own needs and maybe having a little bit of butter to sell. But, processing it by hand at home, in the days before cream separators, any large quantity of milk likely would only be used as animal feed. Though they did not produce as much milk at once as a Shorthorn, the Hereford’s milk was richer (in an age when cream was much more valuable than milk) and grew faster on pasture. The late nineteenth century Hereford had horns and at the time the fashion was animals with small legs and huge torsos—maximizing beefiness and minimizing boniness.
Breeders preferred polled stock because they were easier to handle and would not use their horns to injure each other. As they worked to find ways to convert pasture into beef as efficiently as possible, growing horns was a waste of energy. In the early 1880s, Mossie, then in his late 20s, became deeply interested in breeding fine cattle, importing three revered Polled Angus bulls (the breed was then called Aberdeen Angus)—Ermine Bearer, King of Trumps and Chivalry, raised by Sir George McPherson Grant, a world-renowned Scottish breeder. Mossie took pride in showing his imported bulls at the Dominion and Toronto Industrial Exhibitions. They were pastured on Big (Boyd) Island in Pigeon Lake, hence the name of his company, Big Island Stock Farm. Unfortunately, while being transported to pasture on the palace scow Paloma (a flat-bottomed boat towed behind a steamer, also used to host excursions), the King of Trumps broke loose and died while attacking Chivalry in 1887.
After selling many of his Polled Aberdeen Angus cattle at Dexter Park, Chicago in 1888, Mossie decided to try to create a Polled Hereford breed, using his polled Angus bulls and fine Hereford cows, ultimately derived from Frederick W. Stone’s renowned herd at Guelph. Much of breed selection was based on appearance, and Angus cattle were black while Herefords were reddish-brown with a white face. If he bred the offspring back to Herefords for enough generations, they would again be considered purebred Herefords. It helped produce the appearance of immediate results that being polled and the Hereford’s characteristic white face were both dominant traits genetically (for instance, an animal would have two copies of the gene for the trait of whether it had horns or not, one from its father, the other from its mother and it would be polled if it inherited the trait from either side).
By 1898, Mossie had produced 23 three-quarters Hereford calves, 15 of them were polled and 14 had the colouring of a Hereford. In the next generation, the seven-eighths Herefords looked more like what was expected for the breed, and half were still polled. At about that time, Mossie learned about Warren Gammon’s collection of four bulls and seven cows that were freak polled Herefords, located in Des Moines, Iowa. So in 1903, he sold his experimental cattle and started again with two bulls he bought from Gammon. Bulls Wilson and Variation were intensively bred to his Hereford cows. From that point on, all of his Polled Herefords descended from those two animals. Within two years, he had 22 calves descended from the bulls, 3/5ths from one bull and 4/5ths of the other were polled. He continued to take an interest in breeding until he died in 1914, and succeeded in fixing the trait. His bull, Bullion 4th (it was conventional to name a line of offspring after their progenitor) was reputed to be the finest Hereford that had been produced to date, and most Hereford cattle today are descended from him (the same can be said of Variation). However, some local critics still complain that when he bred the horns off the Hereford, he also bred off their hind end, meaning that they produced less beef.
Mossie Boyd kept a many breeds of improved livestock over the years, including Southdown, Persian and Merino sheep; Berkshire and Yorkshire Pigs: Angora Goats; Highland and Longhorn cattle; St. Bernard dogs; Mexican burros; and Percheron, Clydesdale and Suffolk Punch horses. He is perhaps best remembered for trying to cross cattle and bison (buffalo), producing offspring he called ‘cattalo’—today the name beefalo is preferred. To help improve local stock and generate revenue to offset the thousands of dollars he spent on improved stock, he ran stud circuits, where local farmers could pay to have their animals bred by a famous sire, like Chivalry and King of Trumps. Most local farmers settled for less notable animals. Between 1885 and 1887, the Clydesdale stallion Abbotsford generated $2469 on a stud circuit.
After Mossie died in 1914, his family carried on the farm, alongside another acreage in Saskatchewan. His son Winnett W. (Brownie) Boyd, became well known as a judge and executive in the Hereford Association. The family’s cattle continued to show successfully at the national stage, including the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair and Canadian National Exhibition. For 50 years, Bob Watts managed the Boyd herd at Bobcaygeon, until the 52 registered Polled Herefords were offered for sale at the Kawartha Community Sale Barn, Lindsay, with Neil McLeod as auctioneer, on June 17, 1972.
Though Mossie Boyd’s farm is probably best remembered locally for his unrealized ambition of combining the best traits of cattle and bison—few would forget the sight of buffalo romping through the Kawarthas—his practical contribution was as the Canadian originator of Polled Hereford Cattle (his contemporary, Warren Gammon founded the American Polled Hereford Association). To this day, the Polled Hereford remains Canada’s most popular breed of cattle, equally so in many other countries. For his accomplishments, Mossie Boyd was inducted into the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame in 1965.