By Mike Rainone and Patti Sweet
Way back in the early days when primitive wooden corals were popping up on newly established ranches and farms across the prairies, countless hardy individuals and pioneer families were finding ongoing successes by boldly experimenting with all breeds of cattle. Through constant challenges and hard work, these new herds grew rapidly, eventually adjusting themselves to the ever-changing Alberta seasons and conditions, and can be seen roaming through the rolling pastures and thriving to this day.
A breed of robust Red Poll cattle had been established in England over 200 years ago, and were the result of the cross breeding of a dark red horned beef variety of Norfolk with Suffolks, which were a lighter red hornless dairy type variety of animal. The powerful strain of Red Poll Cattle was thus developed and registered as a breed, and over a century ago, they were exported to the ranches of the United States and later Canada.
It all began with Lee and Roy Sweet
The Sweet family got started raising Red Polls about the turn of the century when A.L. Sweet, the father of H.L. Sweet bought his first purebred back in Nebraska. A.L. and his family moved to Alberta in 1907, bringing with them a few registered cattle that had been raised by that first lone purebred. Messrs. Lee and (brother) Roy Sweet would always proudly claim after they had settled in the Morningside area and methodically established and registered their new breed of cattle in the early 1900s, that many of the later herds across western Canada would start from the original Sweet stock. Although not as numerous as other common breeds on national farms, the eventual importance and keen reputation of the dual purpose Red Polls would eventually become very prominent thanks to the persistence and patience of the Sweet family.
Sadly Mr. Sweet Sr. passed away during the great ‘flu’ epidemic of 1918, and in 1921, when a sale was held to dispose of the stock H.L. (Lee) Sweet bought four of the females. In the years that followed Sweet would add a few more cows or heifers to raise in his small herd, with the sires being carefully chosen and purchased from neighbouring provinces and even across the border. Mr. Sweet recalled in a 1956 story in the Ponoka County News that one of those imported bulls from Iowa was fondly known as ‘Primrose Ted’, which weighed over a ton, and served the herd for seven years before being disposed of.
Over the years, the success of the herd gave them very little opportunity to put any of the steers on feeding tests, as the outside demand for the breeding stock on the Sweet Farm was overwhelming. At the time of the reporter’s visit to the farm, the herd had received a prestigious three year accreditation, and only one of the prize bulls had remained unsold before reaching the age of two years, while another was in the process of getting the necessary shots before going to a herd in Indiana. One of the many notable achievements of these hardy dual-purpose cows was their longevity and good production throughout their lives, during which it was not uncommon for a Red Poll Cow to live to be 15 or 16 years old and milk well every lactation. Back in those early and very progressive years, one of the most reliable Sweet cows raised 14 calves and produced 118,000 pounds of milk which averaged 4% butterfat, while most of the rest of the herd were always close behind on the production charts. Another interesting fact was that the Sweet stock was always maintained as a farm herd with no pampering or extra feed, yet for three years in succession, would average 8500 pounds of top quality milk each year.
Over the years mixed farming was always a great appeal to both Lee Sweet and his son Max, who also strongly believed that raising crops, hogs, and cattle would usually result in a good economy. The milk produced on the farm was separated and the cream was delivered to Ponoka, while the skim milk was fed to the pigs. On occasion, the feeder hogs were purchased and fed out, using the milk to supplement the grain, but along with the mixed farming, the 60 plus herd of prized cattle were always the main stay of the Sweet farm, which, like others in the area, also had to survive hail ravaged crops, that also resulted in low hog production. At the peak of production, there were three quarters of land in the Sweet farm, two quarters in the Ponoka County and the other in the M.D. of Lacombe.
Throughout the decades the Sweet family not only achieved great success from their lands and their herds, but they always enjoyed entering their pristine and quality cattle into various competitions throughout Canada, and were awarded with countless Junior, Reserve, and Grand Championships, as well as stacks of ribbons, and shelves full of prizes and trophies. Lee Sweet sold many of the herd to a rancher in Alaska in 1960, while the last time they showed their cattle was in 1963, the same year that the prestigious and long-standing Sweethurst herd was dispersed to H.R. Sweet and sons Max and Ross. In the fall of 1965, the new owners ended the longstanding Sweet family tradition of registered RP cattle by artificially inseminating ten of the cows with Limousin and crossbred the rest with Black Angus, all in an effort to get better beef production. Unfortunately, Lee Sweet did not live to see the outcome of the new programs, as he passed away in December of 1965, while the Sweet bros continued their operation with the crossbreeds from the original stock until 1974. For nearly 70 years, the efforts, dedication, and contributions of generations of the Sweet family in raising high quality cattle in a mixed farming atmosphere was well respected far and wide and will never be forgotten.