Iain Aitken is passionate about Luing (pronounced ‘Ling’) cattle and their traits that make cattle-raising easy. He and his wife Rowena have 200 head of this Scottish breed on their farm in Manitoba.
“I came to Canada from Scotland in 2000. I grew up with Galloways, then my family switched to Luing cattle. Luings have many characteristics of the Galloway — thick hair coat, hardiness and thrift in winter conditions — but more growth potential,” says Aitken. “Here in Manitoba, winters are cold. These cattle can be grazing at minus 35 or 40 degrees with wind chill, and still gain weight. By contrast, a regular cow with a regular winter coat will be seeking shelter and won’t be grazing.”
Many breeds today 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 they’ve never been selected for feedlot performance. They are a purely maternal breed,” says Aitken.
This breed was started in the late 1940s by crossing Beef Shorthorn with Scottish Highland cattle, on the island of Luing off the west coast of Scotland, to create a herd that would thrive in the harsh environment and produce quality beef calves economically.
Due to conditions on the island, the breed evolved into an outstanding roughage converter with ability to utilize low-quality feed. These traits make the Luing ideal in areas where beef cattle are maintained on low-quality forages. “After many generations, the breed type became established; the British Government officially recognized the Luing breed in 1966,” Aitken says.
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 well on grass. 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 most cattle won’t eat. The foraging ability and maternal characteristics of the Luing is what attracted us to the breed,” he says.
Luing cows are very fertile, with exceptional longevity like their distant Highland ancestors. “I’ve had cows that produced beyond 20 years, with the oldest turning in her last calf at age 23. Calving ease is built into the breed. We sell bulls to customers looking for bomb-proof heifer-calving sires; you get a 70-pound calf out of whatever kind of heifer you breed them to,” says Aitken.
Luings were first imported to Canada in 1973 and the Canadian Luing Cattle Association was incorporated in 1975. “The breed has never been big in numbers, but we’re now building numbers steadily, and a market among ranchers who need hardy, maternal cattle,” says Aitken.
“When the first Luings were brought to Canada in the 1970s it was the tail end of the exotic craze. It was bad timing for this breed; the exotics were best suited for a terminal cross to produce a bigger meat carcass, and Luings were maternal cattle. The Luings never really caught on. By the time I came to Canada, it was a better era to promote them.”
Today there is more interest in maternal, efficient cattle and grass-finished cattle. “We have many customers for the bulls, but don’t have enough numbers to sell many females. People come to our ranch to look at the cow herd 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 require too much feed. They like the look of our cows so they buy bulls, to keep the daughters.” Those crossbred females make good cows, with more maternal traits and hybrid vigor.
“The crosses have exceptional hybrid vigor because the Luing is so different from mainstream beef genetics. 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 these cattle,” Aitken says.
They have proven to be hardy, long-lived, productive cows on some of the toughest ranches in Western Canada where people need cattle that can thrive in marginal conditions.