Although no one knows for certain the exact origins of the Charolais (shar-LAY) breed of cattle, it probably originated in the central Burgundy region of France, near the town of Charolles or Charollais. The Romans may have brought it to the area for sacrificial purposes. However, it may have existed in France earlier.
The region surrounding Charolles was frequently isolated from the rest of France throughout history as one petty ruler after another conquered and ruled it, frequently restricting imports as a means of retaining his control. So the Charolais became a distinct breed early in its career, when it was used for milk, meat, and pulling power. After centuries of selection for size, strength, and rapid growth, the Charolais slowly began to spread throughout France, beginning shortly before the French Revolution and continuing throughout the 1800s.
The next step in the breed’s expansion came after World War I. While serving as a volunteer in the French army, a Mexican named Jean Pugibet happened to see a few of the cattle and was impressed by their massive size. He began a series of importations of Charolais to his ranch in Mexico, and by 1937 had introduced a total of 37 cattle, 8 bulls and 29 females. He died shortly after the last shipment, and no one thought to import any more for a few years.
The first few cattle had meanwhile been brought to the United States via the Texas-based King Ranch. And they were a resounding success. The size and muscularity of the Charolais impressed quite a few cattlemen, and soon ranchers were clamoring for more of the cattle. An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Mexico precluded any more importations from that direction, however, so after 1965 Charolais were imported from France.
But most ranchers relied on upgrading to expand the breed’s numbers. In the process, they created a polled (hornless) version of the breed and discovered something that would radically change the American beef industry. Crossbred Charolais calves were huge, making them the perfect choice for the feedlot. A “bigger is better” mania erupted across the nation, affecting nearly every breed of cattle. Taller, heavier cattle became the norm in America, and only now are breeders beginning to rethink their philosophies a little bit.
The modern Charolais is almost exclusively a beef breed. However, many Charolais cattle in America are kept for breeding purposes, while their crossbred calves are raised for the feedlot.
The Charolais has earned a bad reputation for its temperament. Its personality can run the gamut from skittish to aggressive. Charolais also tend to fight with each other. Bulls are difficult to deal with, and cows protecting calves are equally dangerous. Crossbred Charolais cattle are not immune from these issues, either. For this reason, Charolais are not recommended for beginners.
A few breeders have taken great pains to improve the temperament of their cattle, and have raised some very peaceable, good-natured animals. Potential cattle owners looking for Charolais would do well to seek out these reputable breeders when buying their cattle.
A number of health issues plague the Charolais, most notably reproductive difficulties such as prolapse and dystocia (difficult calving). Their white color can lead to sunburn, pinkeye, and cancer eye.
- Genetic consistency.
- Adaptability to most climates.
- Fine mothering instincts.
- Rapid growth.
- Conformation ideal for producing high-value cuts of beef.
- Lean meat.
- Good flavor.
- Good prices for crossbreeds at the sale barn.
- Poor temperament.
- Inability to perform under minimal management.
- High feed/forage needs.
- Late maturity.
- Calving problems; should never be crossed to small cows under any circumstances.