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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  Industry  >  Agriculture
Cattle Ranching in the Subarctic
By Tricia Brown Page 1 of 2   Next ยป

Cattle ranching on the Last Frontier reaches back as far as Russian Alaska, when settlers first introduced bovines to Kodiak Island. The animals were easy pickings for the massive bears that inhabited the island, and ranchers lost many head before acquiring aggressive bear dogs in one attempt to protect their herds. Little changed in the next 200 years as ranchers continued to experiment with ways to protect their investment.

After transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States in 1867, the Alaska Commercial Company established a dairy herd at Kodiak and grazed their cows on a small neighboring island, which afforded the herd some protection. Beef cattle also were established on certain islands in the Aleutian chain, some with success.

Meanwhile, on Kodiak Island, the battle between ranchers and bears waged on. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, historical efforts in the 20th century included shooting bears from airplanes, and a proposal to build a nine-foot-high fence across the island that would cordon off a "bear-free zone." By 1927, nearly 1,000 beef cattle and dairy cows were grazing on Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands. By the mid-1960s, when anti-bear measures formally ceased, ranchers had seen only small gains, counting about 1,300 head.

During the 1900s, government and private concerns attempted to build a viable cattle industry in pockets throughout the territory. In 1887, the federal Hatch Act was passed, authorizing the establishment of agricultural experiment stations, and farms were established at Sitka and Kodiak. In later years, the government operated experimental farms at Kenai, Rampart, Copper Center, Fairbanks and Matanuska. Crop production was a mainstay of the work, although animal husbandry also was an important field of study, including work with reindeer, bison, musk oxen, yak, sheep, and swine.

In 1935, a herd of dairy cattle arrived in Southcentral Alaska as part of the Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation's Matanuska Valley Colonization project. The government-owned animals were shipped by seagoing vessel and train, then offloaded in Palmer for further trucking to the new colony. The growing community was comprised of Midwest farmers who had accepted the federal government's offer to relocate in Alaska as one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" programs. While nearly half of the 202 participating families left within two years, the project did serve as the seed for a budding market in dairy products, as well as potatoes, cabbage, hay, and other crops.

Breeds that seemed naturally suited for Alaska included Holsteins (a dairy cow developed in the Netherlands and first imported to America in the mid-1850s), Herefords (an ancient breed from western England, red-bodied with white markings), and Galloways (a Scottish breed that survives on poor forage and a cold, wet climate; white, curly coat with black points; first imported in mid-1850s).

Alaska farmers continue to raise cattle and sheep in areas of the Kenai Peninsula, the Kodiak Peninsula, the Alaska Peninsula, the Tanana Valley, and certain Aleutian Islands. The animals spend three-quarters of the year feeding indoors and only 100 days per year grazing.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation reports that the Tanana Valley produces much of the state's beef, hogs, barley, hay, oats, potatoes, milk, and greenhouse plants and vegetables. Farmers in the Matanuska Valley produce milk, hogs, beef, potatoes, oats, hay, and greenhouse plants and vegetables.

According to the state's Division of Agriculture, numbers of beef cattle increased between 1998 and 2005 in the Southcentral and Tanana Valley areas. Meanwhile, the state noted a decreasing trend in the number of dairy cows. Reports also show 6,100 beef cattle were calved in Alaska in 2006, with the greatest numbers from southwestern Alaska. Of the total 800 dairy cattle calved in 2006, some 520 were in the Matanuska Valley.

Feral cattle, survivors of early ranching efforts in the Aleutians, have remained problematic through the years. In 1985, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees were called upon to shoot all of the wild cattle roaming Simeonof Island. The drastic act occurred only after failed attempts to round them up. According to a UPI report published that September, the cattle had "roamed freely on the island since they arrived in the mid-1890s." The long-horned cattle were described as "too tough to domesticate and a threat to other wildlife."

The Fairbanks Experiment Farm, established in 1906, and the Matanuska Experiment Farm, established in 1916, continue to operate under the umbrella of the University of Alaska system, offering Alaskan farmers research-backed science, publications, and advice to help them succeed.

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Gallery of Images
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Cutting oats on the Kinsinger ranch
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Yak at Agricultural Experiment Station
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Cross between cow and yak
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Guernsey cows graze near Eagle River
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Sitka Agricultural Experiment Station
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