Old Cow, New Tricks

Desert-friendly cattle that came over with Columbus might be better bovines for the drought-plagued West.

Credit: Ted of DGAR

The cows weren’t acting like cows.

In the remote reaches of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, miles from the nearest road or settlement, a moving speck on a steep rock wall caught Alfredo Gonzalez’s eye. “I thought, that couldn’t be a cow, maybe a goat,” the longtime ranch manager and animal scientist. “The canyon goes straight up and down. But when we looked with binoculars, there they were: Criollos walking on the canyon walls.”

Bingo. Criollos. Gonzalez and a former colleague from the Jornada Experimental Range, an ecological and agricultural research station in southern New Mexico, had traveled to this parched land south of the border in search of Criollo cattle. The bovines in that region are known as Raramuri Criollo, a name meaning “fleet foot” or “light-footed ones” in the language of the local Tarahumara people (no slouches themselves—made famous in the book Born to Run, they cover hundreds of miles of rugged terrain for fun).

Gonzalez was looking for cattle to bring back to the Jornada to start an experimental herd—one that could thrive in the Southwest’s arid and drought-stricken country, eating the woody plants that encroach on former grasslands and ranging far across the landscape. Climate models project that conditions will only get worse, and that carbon pollution could spur megadroughts before the end of the century. Recent drought caused cattle producers to trim their herds, as pastures shriveled and grain prices soared. Now add to that most commercial beef’s enormous water footprint—which is due largely to what it takes to grow cattle feed. By some estimates, alfalfa and hay production in the West uses 10 times the water consumed by the region’s cities and industries combined.

Raramuri Criollo seems like an ideal candidate to withstand such harsh, dry conditions. “These animals are the poor man’s cow,” says Gonzalez, explaining that Criollos are very economical to raise, and need mineral or no supplemental feeding or special care. Plus, he adds, they tolerate hot temperatures and forage in diverse habitats.

All good, but one more thing sealed the deal. “We knew these were the animals we wanted when we saw them within people’s yards, some within the houses, and children moving the cattle on the roads,” he says of the horned bovines, which display a kaleidoscopic array of coat patterns. “Docile cattle are more productive.”

Since 2003, when Gonzalez moved 30 cows and three bulls across the border, the Jornada herd has been expanding, with the aim of reaching about 200 head. Researchers at Jornada reported last month in the journal Rangelands that, compared to British breeds, Criollos forage across larger areas, travel much farther in general, spend less time near water, and remain active even in extreme heat. But lead author Dean Anderson, a research scientist at the Jornada, is quick to point out that there’s still much work to do. “Our research hasn't been through all seasons of the year, and all the types of years—wet, dry,” he says. “Still, it’s exciting what preliminary data points to.”

Criollos came to the Americas in the late 1400s on Christopher Columbus’s second voyage, and have since inhabited ranges from the northern Rocky Mountains down to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. If Raramuri Criollos prove to be the hardy, desert-friendly, wide-ranging, woody-plant-munching bovines that they seem, Anderson says ranchers in arid climates may want to cross them with traditional breeds. The bovines Gonzalez purchased in Mexico have yet to be crossbred, but if their rugged traits turn out to be heritable, he and other ranchers may want to give drought-tolerant hybrids a try.

Even though they weigh in at about 750 pounds, compared to a 1,300-pound Angus or Hereford, Criollos may prove profitable, too. New Mexico State University agricultural economist Allen Torell recently calculated that Criollo ranchers in desert climates could make as much money as those raising traditional breeds. Torell says he was surprised by the results and, like Anderson, stresses that the research is still in the early stages. “Still,” he adds, “it’s not like every rancher in New Mexico is going to adopt them.”

Dennis Moroney is one of the early adopters. He’s converting his entire herd on the 47 Ranch in southern Arizona to pure Criollos. He first acquired some cows from Jornada a few years ago and now has about 80 on his 25,000-acre ranch. “These cattle just thrive in this environment,” he says. “They eat prickly pear in the winter, mesquite in the spring. They stay in really good condition, and are really good mothers.”

Some of Moroney’s neighbors, however, question his cattle caretaking. “By their standards, we are totally negligent when it comes to livestock care,” he says with a laugh. “All we provide is salt. No protein supplements. No extra feed. Nothing.” (They must be jealous.)

Moroney sells the beef—marketed under the brand Sky Island—at Arizona farmers’ markets and to local co-ops and restaurants. He credits the meat’s popularity to its marbling and tenderness.

Back in New Mexico, Gonzalez is looking to introduce more Criollo bulls from the Copper Canyon into his herd. The scientists might not have definitive data on whether they’ve found a better bovine, but demand is growing for these resilient cattle. Gonzalez just sold some young female cows to a rancher in California, and is speaking with others from increasingly parched regions of the United States and Mexico. “I wish,” he says, “I had a lot more heifers.”

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by NRDC.org and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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