The Charolais originated in west-central to southeastern France, in the old French provinces of Charolles and neighboring Nievre.
The exact origins of the Charolais are lost to us but it must have been developed from cattle found in the area.
Legend has it that white cattle were first noticed in the region as early as 878 A.D., and by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were well and favorably known in French markets, especially at Lyon and Villefranche.
Selection developed a white breed of cattle which, like other cattle of continental Europe, were used for draft, milk and meat.
The cattle were generally confined to the area in which they originated until the French Revolution. But, in 1773, Claude Mathieu, a farmer and cattle producers from the Charolles region, moved to the Nievre province, taking his herd of white cattle with him.
The breed flourished there, so much so that the improved cattle were known more widely as Nivemais cattle for a time than by their original name of Charolais.
One of the early influential herds in the region was started in 1840 by the Count Charles de Bouille. His selective breeding led him to set up a herd book in 1864 for the breed at Villars near the village of Magny-Cours. Breeders in the Charolles vicinity established a herd book in 1882.
The two societies merged in 1919, with the older organization holding the records of the later group into their headquarters at Nevers, the capital of the Nievre province.
The French have long selected their cattle for size and muscling. They selected for bone and power to a greater extent than was true in the British Isles.
The French breeders stressed rapid growth in addition to cattle that would ultimately reach a large size. These were men that wanted cattle that not only grew out well but could be depended upon for draft power.
Little attention was paid to refinement, but great stress was laid on utility.
The Charolais of France are white in color, horned, long bodied, and good milkers with a general coarseness to the animal not being uncommon.
Introduction to the United States
Soon after the First World War, a young Mexican industrialist of French name and ancestry, Jean Pugibet, brought some of the French cattle to his ranch in Mexico. He had seen the Charolais cattle during World War I while serving as a French army volunteer and was impressed by their appearance and productivity.
He arranged for a shipment of two bulls and 10 heifers to Mexico in 1930. Two later shipments in 1931 and 1937 increased the total number to 37 - eight bulls and 29 females.
Not long after the last shipment, Pugibet died and no further imports were attempted.
The first Charolais to come into the United States from Mexico are believed to be two bulls, Neptune and Ortolan, which were purchased from Pugibet by the King Ranch in Texas and imported in June 1936.
Later imports of bulls were owned by some of the early "pioneers" in the industry: Harl Thomas, Fred W. Turner, C.M. "Pete" Frost, M.G. Michaelis Sr., and I.G. "Cap" Yates, all of Texas, J.A. "Palley" Lawton of Louisiana, and others.
In the mid-1940s an outbreak of Hoof and Mouth Disease occurred in Mexico. As a result, a treaty between the United States, Canada and Mexico set up a permanent quarantine against cattle coming into any of these countries from Europe or any country in which Hoof and Mouth Disease was known to exist.
This barred any further importation of French Charolais on this continent until 1965 when Canada opened the import doors via rigid quarantine both in France and in Canada.
Until the mid-1960s, all the Charolais in Mexico, the United States and Canada were descendants of this initial Pugibet herd.
Due to the limited number of original animals and the import restrictions which were in place, they have been crossed on other cattle in an upgrading process.
Because of the use of the upgrading process few of the Charolais cattle currently found in the United State are of pure French breeding.
With the lightening of the import restrictions in Canada in the mid-1960's fullblood Charolais were again imported from France. This allowed for the importation of new bloodlines from France. This meant new genetic material for tightly-bred Charolais pedigrees of the time.
Several breeding herds were estabilished in Canada, as well as the island of Eleuthera, in the Bahamas. Japan, England and Ireland also imported purebred Charolais directly from France.
Offspring from these herds were later imported to the United States. American Charolais are referred to as "purebred" or "recorded" depending upon the percentage of known Charolais blood.
The term purebred is used on those that carry 31/32 or more Charolais blood and those less than 31/32 can be referred to as recorded.
People wishing to develop a herd will still find it possible to upgrade, using purebred Charolais sires, a foundation cow herd of one of the other cattle breeds or their crosses.
Five generations of purebred bulls are required to produced the 31/32 level for classification as "purebred". Sires used in the grading-up process must be registered.
The offspring from the first as well as succeeding generations must be registered as "recorded" until they reach the 31/32 level at which time they are referred to as purebred.
It has been said that no other breed has impacted the North American beef industry so significantly as the introduction of Charolais.
The Charolais came into widespread use in the United States cattle industry at a time when producers were seeking larger framed, heavier cattle than the traditional British breeds.
The increased use on the range indicates that the cows have performed well under a variety of environmental conditions. Their ability to walk, graze aggressively in warm weather, withstand reasonable cold, and raise heavy calves has drawn special praise from many that have them.
Bulls have developed a well-earned reputation when used in grading-up for herd improvement. This is especially noted when they are used in herds where size and ruggedness are lacking
Charolais are white or creamy white in color, but the skin carries appreciable pigmentation.
The hair coat is usually short in summer but thickens and lengthens in cold weather.
Charolais is a naturally horned beef animal. But through the breeding-up program, where naturally polled breeds were sometimes used as foundation animals, polled Charolais have emerged as an important part of the breed.
Charolais cattle are large with mature bulls weighing from 2,000 to well over 2,500 pounds and cows weigh from 1,250 to over 2,000 pounds.