The Raramuri Criollo cattle are easy to identify, once spotted in the pastures at the Canyonlands Research Center: they’re smaller than the typical Red Angus cattle, and have tall, curved horns. They’re descendants of the cattle that were introduced to the Americas by Cristopher Columbus, that originated in the arid climate of southern Spain. These are the cattle that researchers at CRC hope can save the future of ranching in the desert. 

Since gaining the national spotlight in 2018—Matt Redd, manager of Dugout Ranch, where CRC is based, was on the cover of National Geographic’s November issue that year—the Criollo research at CRC has gained momentum. The project ties together research on climate change, rangeland ecology and grazing, movement ecology, livestock nutrition, beef production, and soils. 

The first project, established by Redd, Mike Duniway, and Andreas Ciblis, is in collaboration with researchers from New Mexico State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Jornada Experimental Range. The goal of the research is to determine whether “Criollo rangeland use and behavior will lead to more sustainable ranching in Canyon Country rangelands, as compared to more traditional cattle breeds,” according to the project summary; basically, whether or not having a Criollo herd on desert landscapes is more sustainable than an Angus herd. 

Research gathered from that initial project allowed researchers to apply for grants to create an even bigger project, now led by Kari Veblen, a researcher based at Utah State University. Veblen and her team are researching whether Criollo cattle are better able to adapt to climate change, and within that, if Criollos could have a lesser impact, or maybe even a beneficial one, on desert landscapes being affected by climate change. The project is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agroecosystem Management program. 

In February, The Guardian found that “more than a third of the American population is currently experiencing rapid, above-average rates of temperature increase.” The 10 counties in the country with the largest pre-industrial temperature increases (from 1895 to 2021), were in California, Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan, and Utah: Grand County had the second-largest temperature increase (2.57ºC, or just over 36ºF) in the country. A study published in the science journal Nature this year found that the American West is experiencing its worst drought in over 1200 years. 

As temperatures rise and the drought continues, the grasses that traditional cattle eat are predicted to become more scarce. If there is a cattle breed that can survive climate change, have a lighter impact, and still produce enough beef to be economically feasible, the future of cattle production in the desert lies within it. Criollos might be the answer. 

Credit: Courtesy of Mike Duniway

Why Criollos? 

The Raramuri Criollo breed is one of 33 known heritage Criollo cattle that exist throughout the Americas today, according to the CRC. The breed comes from the Tarahumara communities in Copper Canyon, Mexico, who have been raising the cattle for close to four centuries—in 2005, a few of these Criollos were brought to the USDA Jornada Experimental Range in New Mexico. 

In 2018, CRC introduced 10 Raramuri Criollo cattle from the New Mexico herd into its own herd. Research on these cattle is taking place at five ranches in the U.S.: Dugout Ranch, Corte Madera Ranch in southern California, Evergreen Ranching and Livestock in South Dakota, and the Jornada Experimental Range and Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center in New Mexico. There are also collaborative sites in Mexico, Argentina, and Uruguay. 

The initial research conducted in New Mexico found a few promising characteristics about the Criollos: they’re extremely hardy. There, Criollos spent more time traveling than Angus cattle, meaning they can travel further from water. They also ate a more varied diet and were less prone to heat stress.

At CRC, researchers are studying the cattle by tracking their movements and grazing patterns with GPS collars and through visual observations on horseback. In 2018, the 10 Criollos and 10 Angus cattle were collared, though since then, one of each breed died. 

The Criollo cattle were fitted with GPS collars to track their movements. Credit: Courtesy of Will Munger

So far, the traits observed in the Criollos in New Mexico “have held true,” Redd said. He’s seen another beneficial characteristic from his herd: they’re eating the brushy species that have popped up on the landscape as other grasses died out. 

The ability of the Criollos to travel and to eat a varied diet is what Veblen is most interested in with her research. Typically, Angus cattle are transferred to grain feedlots to finish gaining weight. From a sustainability standpoint, ideally, cattle could be on rangelands their whole lives. 

“The idea is that if Criollo are going farther and having broader diets, that’s effectively more forage that would be available to livestock operators in difficult shoulder seasons,” she said. “That would be great for ranchers, or for anybody who has cattle.” 

Data collection using the collars has hit a few snags, according to Duniway, a researcher with the USGS who started working with the cattle initially. The biggest issue is the collars’ battery life. GPS doesn’t work easily, if at all, when the cattle wander into a canyon. The Criollos are more “mountain climber cows” than the Angus, Duniway said—as they’re learning about the landscape, they’re wandering to places the Angus don’t. The more the collar tries to get a location, and can’t, the quicker the battery dies.

Despite challenges, Duniway is confident that with Veblen’s project up and running, the CRC will have a much better idea of the impact of Criollo versus Angus cattle in the next three years, he said. 

The future

The problem with introducing Criollos on a larger scale is their marketability. A fully-grown Angus cattle is 1,200 pounds, Duniway said—a fully grown Criollo is only 900, meaning it’s sometimes too small to even consider being sold at a stockyard. 

“The Criollo may have a lighter footprint in the desert,” Duniway said, “but if they’re not gaining the weight—if the economic pieces aren’t put together—they won’t get adopted.” 

The researchers have been studying a hybrid breed as a potential solution, Redd said: cattle that are half Criollo, half Angus. 

“You’re getting the benefit of the Criollo on the landscape, but then you also have a calf or a product that you can market,” Redd said. The hybrid calves take cues from their Criollo mothers: they learn to cover a wider landscape and eat less grass, while also putting on weight similar to their Angus fathers. 

Redd said he thinks Criollo cattle—or at least, incorporating heritage breeds into cattle herds —will be the future of cattle ranching in arid landscapes like the Colorado Plateau. 

“I would guess that it’ll be a necessity,” he said, “to run smaller animals that are more resilient to the changing conditions we’re already experiencing.”