Close up of a small brown cow with short horns standing in a cattle chute. Cow looks straight at camera
CATTLE TRIAL: A Criollo cow waits in a chute at Dugout Ranch in Utah © Q Media, LLC

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A Different Breed

An old ranch tries a new trick: desert-friendly cattle

Fall 2019

Jenny Rogers
Jenny Rogers Associate Editor and Writer, Nature Conservancy magazine

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Climate change looms large at Dugout Ranch, a 5,200-acre property in southern Utah. The ranch—located on the edge of Canyonlands National Park—was acquired by The Nature Conservancy in the 1990s to prevent the picturesque property from being subdivided and to launch a new conservation research center. Today, cattle still graze the property and 500 square miles of adjacent public lands, but researchers warn the ranch and others like it face a new threat: Native grasses, the mainstay of grazing cattle, will decline under warming conditions in arid lands like this one. One solution being tested at the ranch: a different breed of cattle.

Three people in jeans and western hats ride horses in high grass. A red rock formation juts sharply upward in the distance.
Ranchlands Founded more than 50 years ago, Dugout Ranch is located on the Colorado Plateau in southern Utah. © Q Media, LLC

The Criollo:

In 2018, Matt Redd, who manages the ranch and the Canyonlands Research Center now located there, added 10 Criollo cows to his herd. Typically, U.S. herds consist of Angus or other European cattle brought to the United States. The Criollo, however, are descended from Spanish cattle brought to Mexico centuries ago. They’ve evolved in northern Mexico’s rocky arid climate instead of the cooler, wetter climates of northern Europe. 

Brown cow stands in green cattle chute. Two men in cowboy hats and jeans reach through the chute, buckle large collar on cow
Tracking Research Workers at Dugout Ranch attach a GPS collar to an Angus cow in a cattle shoot. © Q Media, LLC

Initial studies from New Mexico State University and the Jornada Experimental Range—a field laboratory studying rangeland science—suggest that the Criollo could be better suited to drier climates. They seem to travel farther for water and eat a more diverse diet than Angus, potentially making them less reliant on native grasses.

 “Numerous lines of evidence suggest that some of the native perennial grass species, which are really important for the livestock producers, will lower cover and lower productivity under future warming conditions,” says Mike Duniway, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist working out of the Canyonlands Research Center.

Drought experiments, modeling, surveys through time—all of that suggest future substantial risks to livestock producers and the way they do business.

Close up of two hands buckling a collar on a brown cow with horns
Tracking A rancher attaches a GPS collar to a Criollo cow at Dugout Ranch. © Q Media, LLC

Tracking Research:

To better understand whether the Criollo could be an option for livestock producers that puts less stress on a struggling landscape, Duniway and the Dugout team fitted 10 Criollo and 10 Angus with GPS collars in October 2018. They’re now tracking where they graze to determine whether the initial results found by the Jornada Experimental Range scientists in New Mexico are also true in Utah’s canyonlands environment.

“The first stage is to infer what their impact might be on the desert,” Duniway says. The second stage? “Analyze their poo to figure out what they’ve been eating.” 

Studies on the economics of the new breed—whether they’re financially a good decision for livestock producers—would follow. Much of the American cattle industry and infrastructure is built around the larger Angus breed, Duniway says. And the final test, of course? Taste.

landscape seen from above: layered mountains in distance, green and brown low land with few trees in foreground
Dramatic Lands Aerial view of Dugout Ranch and the canyonlands portion of the Colorado Plateau © Ted Wood

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Jenny Rogers

Jenny Rogers is a writer and editor for Nature Conservancy magazine, covering books, science and conservation.