By Darrell J. Pehr
Ancient Criollo Cattle Offer New Options in Semiarid Lands
For the ranching industry in the dry Southwest, tough times demand tough measures. Increasing fuel costs, dry conditions and a changing environment are creating new challenges for ranchers. In a search for innovative answers, researchers at the Jornada Experimental Range are studying an ancient, rugged breed of cattle that may offer some modern-day solutions.
Criollo cattle are hardy scrappers that make do in conditions other breeds of cattle could not withstand. These “Criollo” – a Spanish word that describes something of Spanish descent but born in the Americas – are particularly well-suited to the arid and semiarid Southwest U.S.
That’s not surprising, since they’ve been in New Mexico more than 400 years. Criollo have been in the New World even longer. Their descendants came across the Atlantic on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage (1493-1496) to the island of Hispaniola, and in 1598 Criollo cattle came with Juan de Oñate as he explored modern-day New Mexico.
But in the late 19th century, Criollo began to fall out of favor with the introduction of larger, British breeds like Angus and Hereford, preferred by British investors who fueled the cattle boom of the 1880s. Selective breeding helped those new cattle thrive in the Southwest U.S. and northwestern Mexico, but not without some extraordinary measures, like providing costly supplemental feed.
As the British breeds moved onto the rangelands, Criollo cattle became scarce.
Researcher Ed Fredrickson says ranching with British breeds worked very well until recently, when fuel and supplemental feed were still cheap. Currently, fuel to move cattle to markets has become more expensive and the demand for supplemental feed, like corn, has intensified, especially due to its current use as an alternative fuel feedstock. In addition, the process of desertification has been under way in this area for more than a century, creating more unusable shrublands as beneficial grasslands are lost. Those factors, combined with British breeds’ impact on the grasslands, led Fredrickson to begin to search for an alternative, desert-adapted cattle breed that might be a better match for these changing conditions.
Fredrickson is a researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service with expertise in range nutrition and behavior and desert ecology. Fredrickson came to New Mexico State University in 1987 to work on his Ph.D., then started at the USDA’s Jornada Experimental Range in 1990. His current research is based at the Jornada, a 197,000-acre expanse north of Las Cruces that stretches across an area the size of New York City, but has just a handful of residents.
Fredrickson initially searched for desertadapted cattle in North Africa. Later, he teamed up with researcher Jose Rios from the Universidad Autónoma de Chihuahua and their attention soon turned to their own backyard. In the Copper Canyon region of Chihuahua, Mexico, Tarahumara Indians still raised a breed of cattle that had nearly disappeared from New Mexico and Chihuahua – the Criollo.
“This is ideal for us,” Fredrickson said. “This land has really co-evolved with these cattle. So not only can we look at cattle in an arid situation, but how they’ve influenced the vegetation.”
In 2003, the scientists assembled a research herd that was divided among the Jornada Experimental Range and the UACH’s Rancho Experimental Teseachi in central Chihuahua. The two sites are representative of much of the Southwest U.S. and northwestern Mexico: The Jornada’s desert grasslands are lower in elevation and in annual precipitation, compared to the more mountainous Rancho Experimental Teseachi, which ranges from piñon-juniper savannah to forests of pine and oak in the higher country.
Initial studies by Fredrickson, UACH’s Rios and Gerardo Bezanilla-Enriquez, and Dean Hawkins, Animal and Range Science professor at NMSU’s College of Agriculture and Home Economics, have shown that Criollo bring several beneficial characteristics to the table: They tend to use larger areas and more diverse habitats when they graze, rather than concentrating on one area as a British cow would; they graze fewer hours per day; their diets are more varied; they are smaller, averaging 730 pounds, rather than the 1,200-1,300 pounds of a British breed; and they seem to be able to remain active in hotter temperatures.
“If cattle stay in certain spots, we lose vegetation. But if we can get an animal that uses the whole thing, we can avoid the desertification process. Criollo roam around,” Fredrickson said. “They use the rougher country, they travel more.”
In addition, it appears that their bodies partition energy in a different way.
“A British animal would put fat on the outside to prevent heat loss,” Fredrickson said, pointing out that body insulation is important for an animal accustomed to the colder European climate. But the Criollo cattle do not seem to build up fat as insulation. Instead, their bodies seem adapted to encourage heat loss.
Research will initially focus on the physiology of the Criollo cattle, then move to economic implications, whether local or industry-wide.
For the Tarahumara, the versatile Criollo have been essential to their existence.
“In Mexico, they provide milk, meat and draft,” Fredrickson said. “They’re part of the family.”
For other potential producers, Fredrickson sees possibilities for the cattle both as a meat animal and as a sport animal at rodeo events.
“This may be a great animal for people who have small ranches,” Fredrickson said. The meat could be marketed as a source of organic beef in specialty markets, for example, and the multicolored hides would add a second market for ranchers. Rodeo contestants value the stout-horned Criollo as roping steers.
Fredrickson also sees the genetic makeup of the Tarahumaran Criollo as a resource that could be critically important some day.
“These animals have had very little selective breeding,” Fredrickson said, so they are genetically different in many ways. The key to a disease outbreak in other cattle, for example, could be found in such a unique herd of cattle.
“When do these animals become valuable for some unique trait they have?” Fredrickson said. He believes the Tarahumara and Mestizos should be given incentives to continue to maintain their discrete herds.
The cattle also may have some answers for traditional ranchers who are looking for new products to bring to market, a more diverse genetic makeup for future herds, or an animal that can help them remain economically competitive.
“We’re losing a lot of people on the land. We need to figure out how to stay economically viable. This would give them some options,” Fredrickson said. “We can be more profitable, and when we’re more profitable, we’ll have more ranch families.”