The desert-friendly cow

A rancher and a researcher search for a better bovine — and think they’ve found one.

  • Criollo cattle are well-adapted to living in arid environments.

    Andrea Campanella/NMSU
  • Ed Fredrickson, left, a former researcher at the Jornada Experimental Range with expertise in range livestock nutrition and behavior and desert ecology, and rancher Alfredo Gonzalez discuss the herd of criollo cattle they brought to graze on the Jornada Range.

    Darrell J. Pehr/NMSU
  • Alfredo Gonzalez herds criollo cattle on the Jornada Experimental Range in New Mexico.

    USDA Agricultural Research Service Information Staff
 

In his younger days, Alfredo Gonzalez ran large ranches in Brazil and Paraguay. Cattle drives involved fording rivers and navigating swamplands and tropical forests. “It was a big show,” he recalls, beaming as he speeds a feed truck down a sandy, sun-baked road in the Chihuahuan Desert on a warm morning. He loved spending weeks on horseback, drinking dirty water. It was a cowboy fantasy come to life. “It was funnn,” Gonzalez croons.

He’s still having fun, but for different reasons. Today, Gonzalez manages a modest herd of 200 beef cows on the Jornada Experimental Range, a long-term ecological and agricultural research site near Las Cruces, New Mexico, where grass is scarce, and water scarcer. Occasionally, he says, fellow ranchers ask: “What the hell are you doing?”

Such skepticism is directed primarily at the animals he raises. When Gonzalez parks next to a wood-and-wire corral, it’s obvious there’s something different about them. They are speckled and streaked with brown, black and white, have horns that spiral as they age, bony frames, and a name that is endlessly fun to recite. These are criollo cows. (Try it: cree-oh-yo.) One stares at us with dewy eyes, then cranes her neck and scratches her auburn face with a long hind leg, rather like a dog.

Criollo are unusually leggy. They are also unusually small, anathema to the bigger-is-better philosophy that drives the beef industry. Gonzalez’s criollo top out near 1,000 pounds, a few hundred pounds less than conventional beef cows. Corporate meatpackers won’t buy them. Rick Estell, an animal scientist with whom Gonzalez collaborates, says raising criollo is “kind of like raising sheep if you’re a cow man.”

But in the criollo, Gonzalez sees only potential: an animal that could rescue ranching and rangelands in the Southwest from their failing marriage to Angus and Hereford, the dominant British beef breeds. “Things are bad,” he says bluntly. “Everybody’s going broke. Everybody’s running out of grass. It’s all dry. Never are we going to get the same money for criollo as a big animal, but our costs will be lower. And at the same time, I think we’ll be saving our land.”

 

Criollo were brought to the New World on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage in the late 1400s. (The word describes people or animals of Spanish ancestry born in the Americas.) The cows were eventually introduced and adopted from Tierra del Fuego to the Northern Rockies, and were established in the American Southwest by Spanish conquistadors in the late 1500s.

People kept criollo for milk, meat, leather, grease and draft. The hardy cows — often free-roaming and seldom selectively bred — adapted to their new environment primarily via natural selection. They required little water, subsisted on available forage, and could withstand hot weather. Texas longhorns, Florida cracker cattle, and corriente sport ropers are among their descendants.

Criollo in the Southwest started to be phased out with the introduction of British breeds during the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the modern beef industry took off, spurred by expanding railroads and beef demand in Eastern markets. But the newcomers were hard on the desert, and the desert was hard on them. Large livestock need a lot of food. Productive grasslands and inexpensive feed made the enterprise viable for a time. But unsustainable stocking rates during the droughts of the 1880s, 1910s and 1950s ravaged the grasslands, which are now dominated by mesquite and creosote, shrubs that most cattle and wildlife won’t eat. And supplemental feed is no longer cheap.

Around 2000, Ed Fredrickson, a former livestock researcher at the Jornada, became convinced that with the landscape beaten up, feed and fuel costs and global temperatures rising, Southwestern ranchers needed to change, raising smaller animals that could tolerate heat, eat less and more broadly, and move more to minimize overgrazing of native grasses.

To aid his search for a desert-friendly cow, Fredrickson hired Gonzalez, who had recently returned to the U.S. Fredrickson already had his eye on criollo. “To me, it made sense to work with this animal with 400 years of adaption to the Southwest — if we could find it,” he explains. “We were losing the genetics.” (Longhorns, for instance, have criollo blood, but also that of other cows.) Fredrickson had been working with Mexican livestock geneticist Jose Rios, whose DNA analysis of criollos throughout northern Mexico uncovered only two populations with unpolluted genetics — pure descendants of the conquistadors’ cows. One was in Baja California, a state the U.S. wouldn’t allow livestock imports from. But it would be possible to draw from the other population, kept by the Tarahumara Indians and Mestizos in the Sierra Madre.

The pair took trips to the region to check out animals. Fredrickson noticed the cows eating forbs and trees, and relatively little grass. Once, in Copper Canyon, Gonzalez spotted an animal perched on the steep and rocky canyon wall. “I thought it was a goat,” he recalls. Peering through his binoculars, he was surprised to discover it was a cow. “This is something we can work with!” he thought.

They wanted a “rugged animal,” and in the hottest depths of Copper Canyon, they found one. The criollo was a good size. Some were semi-feral and rounded up only when needed, while others seemed like pets. They were docile, wandering in and out of people’s huts and tolerating herding by small children with sticks. The cow’s long, strong legs let it navigate the canyon with ease. Gonzalez and Fredrickson thought the breed could manage the Southwest’s mountains and deserts and traipse long distances through sand, a laborious task for the massive British cows with their stubbier legs.

They selected and purchased 30 cows and three bulls, and in 2001, in a Jeep with no brakes, Fredrickson drove them two to three at a time to the village of Temoris, loaded them onto train cars and accompanied them to Chihuahua. “We were supposed to stop at the cattle facilities, but didn’t,” Fredrickson recalls. “So I’m moving cattle from downtown Chihuahua. It took some trucks, some tequila and a few things like that.”

Add in time for disease testing, bureaucracy and corruption, and it took about a year to get the cows to the Jornada, where Fredrickson began to evaluate their habits. His early studies showed that criollo spend less time near water than British breeds, graze fewer hours and over more diverse terrain, and remain active during extreme heat. That might be because they store fat around their kidneys, rather than only under their hide, and thus retain less heat.

Now, a new phase of research will look more closely at their eating habits and investigate how economical criollo are, and whether there’s a market for the beef. There’s anecdotal evidence that criollo will eat more of the shrubs and tougher grasses on degraded grasslands, but no hard data yet on whether that amounts to a statistically different use of the landscape.

“A lot of people say, ‘Why don’t we go back to buffalo?’ ” Gonzalez muses, bracing himself against the fence. “Well, in dry lands, why don’t we go back to criollo?” Gonzalez is cognizant of the argument that no cow belongs in the desert, but believes that with light stocking rates and large pastures, criollo can have a minimal footprint. For that to be true, Fredrickson notes, landscapes still need ample resting time during and after droughts. And there are trade-offs. Because criollo travel well, they also probably spread shrub seeds more widely. Still, says the animal scientist Estell, “If you’re doing less damage to the landscape and can still produce some beef, it seems like a win-win.”

It has been for Dennis Moroney of The 47 Ranch in southern Arizona, who is converting his whole herd to criollo. Drought and the changing climate caused Moroney to cut his herd to half the size it was a decade ago to help maintain vegetation. Raising criollo, which he finishes and sells without a middleman, has kept him afloat despite the reduction. They range well over Moroney’s rugged terrain, browse shrubs, cactus, trees and grasses, calve easily, fall ill rarely and get little supplemental feed. “But the acid test for our business,” says Moroney, “is do our customers like the meat?”

It’s tender and beautifully marbled, Moroney reports, and farmers market and co-op customers accept smaller cuts — a 7 or 8 oz. ribeye. Moroney tells them about the animals’ historical relationship to the Southwest, “but the main pitch is that it tastes fabulously,” he says. “It’s a little earthier than conventional beef, maybe even floral,” says David Smith, executive chef at Criollo Latin Kitchen in Flagstaff, deconstructing it like a fine wine. “You can kind of taste the grass in it” — or mesquite and prickly pear, as it may be.