A few years ago, like most Arizona beef cattle ranchers, Dennis Moroney, the owner of Cross U Cattle Company, had a herd composed of several mixed breeds – primarily Hereford crosses, with a little bit of everything else thrown in. And like most Arizona cattlemen, he found these cattle, with centuries-old lineages tying them to the misty British Isles, weren’t exactly suited for life in the Sonoran Desert region. They tended to stick close to water sources, trampling the rangeland in concentrated islands of erosion. They got sick a lot and required constant vaccination and medication. They needed lots of supplemental nutrition and minerals. “Every year,” Moroney said, “we would buy a semi-truckload of a supplement, a cooked molasses product … that was sorghum based with trace minerals and a little bit of salt in it. It would be a $12,000 to $16,000 purchase every year.”
Moroney’s a restless soul, a tinkerer, and he began to wonder whether there wasn’t a better way of doing things than raising and marketing English breeds in the same way as everyone else – basically, selling them at auction. “The two big themes for me over the last 25 years or so have been how to reduce overhead or operating costs, and how to increase returns so that we could stay in business,” he said. “And we’ve been through some really deep valleys, where we owed a lot of money to the banks, had a lien on our cattle, and were basically facing imminent foreclosure.”
Moroney began to experiment with the Texas Longhorn – a more drought-tolerant breed directly descended from the first New World cattle. He brought in a pair of Longhorn bulls to cross with his heifers and cows. He liked the marbling and tenderness of the beef these crosses produced and began to market them directly. About 10 years ago, at a conference in Colorado, he met an old friend who was working at the Jornada Experimental Range, a 230,000-acre field research laboratory for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) with headquarters on the campus of New Mexico State University in the town of Las Cruces.
At the Jornada, his friend told him, animal research scientists were building a herd from a relatively obscure New World breed: the Raramuri Criollo (cree-o-yo), from the Copper Canyon region of Chihuahua, Mexico. Moroney, something of an amateur cattle scholar, was intrigued. As soon as he was home, he hitched his trailer and took off for Las Cruces. He returned with about 15 heifers – and he hasn’t looked back since.
Today, the only bulls Moroney uses for breeding on 47 Ranch, about 18 miles north of the Mexican border in southeastern Arizona, are Criollos, and about half his herd are purebred Criollo cattle. About one-fourth are Criollo crosses. For a number of reasons – which he’ll gladly explain – he hopes to phase out the other bloodlines and manage a nearly pure Criollo herd.
At Home in the Desert
For the last decade or so, the beef business has been rough on nearly everyone in the West; it wasn’t until last year that the USDA’s numbers began to indicate the nation’s beef herd was on the rebound from years of drought. Livestock is notoriously thirsty, and beef is the thirstiest: According to a 2012 study by Dutch scientists, it takes about 145,000 gallons of water to produce a ton of beef.
According to the USDA, the number of cattle and calves raised in New Mexico fell for the fourth year in a row, to fewer than 1.3 million head, as of January 2014. The inventory of cattle available for slaughter dropped to 387,000 head at the same time, the lowest inventory on record. Lack of water is one of the problems being studied at the Jornada Experimental Range, but according to Rick Estell, a USDA animal scientist, the primary issue is the overall degradation of fragile desert rangelands, dating to a post-World War II era in which cheap and abundant feed supported huge herds. “They just kind of made pavement out of the desert,” said Estell. “So now there’s a great interest in the more sustainable and more environmentally friendly uses of these landscapes, and that’s what our focus is.”
A history of overgrazing, accompanied by drought, allowed for the invasion of much shrubbier plants into New Mexico’s ranges, compounding the challenge of keeping cattle fed, and Jornada’s researchers began looking around for breeds that would work. About a decade ago, Jornada researcher Alfredo Gonzalez took a colleague to Copper Canyon, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, to look more closely at a species that appeared to live independently off the desert. They saw these animals everywhere, on rough and seemingly inaccessible ridges up to 11,000 feet above sea level, and on the canyon floor, where they browsed on scrub or lounged under the clotheslines of the natives – the Tarahumara, or Raramuri people. “We decided,” said Gonzalez, “to get this animal that lived way down on the bottoms, where the temperatures are a little warmer.”
The animals were descendants of the first cattle brought to the New World by the Spanish conquistadors, known collectively, like their human counterparts in South or Central America, as Criollo. Different varieties – descendants of North African desert cattle brought across the Strait of Gibraltar during the Moors’ 8th century conquest of Spain – spread northward from where they’d come ashore in the Americas, cross-breeding and morphing into biotypes such as the Texas Longhorn, the Pineywoods cattle, and the Florida Cracker cattle. The biotype found on the Copper Canyon floor – and literally nowhere else – has lived in relative isolation, generally untouched by beef ranchers. It’s known simply as the Raramuri Criollo.
“These animals can use these poorer lands,” said Gonzalez. “They are known to survive where other breeds cannot. They have the ability to browse.” Browsing, as opposed to grazing, refers to eating leaves, shoots, bark, or fruits – in other words, Criollos eat like goats, not cows. Gonzalez has seen them eat just about everything, from prickly pear to mesquite to chamiso – sometimes called by its less-appetizing name, fourwing saltbush.
After unraveling a mile of red tape, Gonzalez, Estell, and their colleagues were allowed to bring some animals north to build their own herd and see how the cattle lived on the Jornada Experimental Range, a place named for the inhospitable basin in which it lies – the “Jornada del Muerto,” rough translation: “dead man’s day-trip.” According to Gonzalez, the Jornada Criollo herd now numbers around 500, with about 250 mother cows. It’s big enough to study and to help Jornada researchers begin to make the business case for Criollo cattle in the desert Southwest.
In order to make the case for the Criollo, Jornada scientists – and to a lesser extent the handful of ranchers, such as Moroney, who have begun to build their own herds from Jornada breedstock – must prove that its advantages outweigh its disadvantages.
From a rancher’s perspective, the Criollo has a few strikes against it. Compared to traditional breeds, such as the 1,000- to 1,200-pound Angus, the Criollo is small, topping out at about 800 pounds. “We know,” said Estell, “the big packers are not going to want small animals.” Because they spend their entire lives on the open range, Criollo also take longer to finish as beef – up to 30 months, compared to 18 months for an Angus steer. A third major drawback is simply cultural, Estell said: “There’s the traditional mindset that these animals are kind of like goats. They’re not really the classic, traditional beef cattle people are used to seeing.”
Both Gonzalez and Estell warn that research on Criollo has just begun, and it’s too early to draw conclusions. But there is some preliminary data, and observations from herdsmen such as Moroney, to support the idea that Criollo may be at least as good a choice, if not better, for ranchers in the Southwest:
Criollo are easier on the landscape. As browsers, they don’t need as much forage. Estell has fitted several animals with GPS trackers and observed that, unlike traditional cattle, which tend to congregate and trample the range around water sources, Criollo travel farther and into a greater variety of areas. Because they’re smaller and lighter, they cause less damage in their travels.
Because they browse, they don’t need additional feed. Supplementation tends to be a huge cost for beef ranchers – and it costs nearly zero for Criollo, both at the Jornada and on Moroney’s ranch. “During the cow/calf operations,” Gonzalez said, “they really don’t need supplementation because they eat the shrubs, and those shrubs have enough protein and energy for their requirements.” At 47 Ranch, Moroney supplies a little salt for his Criollos, but no extra feed.
They are drought resistant. The fact that Criollo can thrive in the Jornada, which averages just over 9 inches of rain a year, means they’re less susceptible to fluctuations in precipitation. “These cycles are killers for ranchers,” Estell said. “If you have two or three of these [drought years] in a row and you have to destock, you know, it takes generations to build the herd back up. What we’ve found with conservative stocking is that we haven’t had any ‘death droughts.’ In the last few years, we haven’t had to destock at all.”
They don’t get sick as often. “I only vaccinate for the Clostridium perfringens organism at branding time,” said Moroney, “and we give our replacement heifers the BRD [Bovine Respiratory Disease], basically to give them a lifetime immunity for some reproductive issues. But we don’t do any insecticides. No wormers, no implants, no antibiotics in feed, or anything like that. We have absolutely zero sickness.”
They’re docile around people, but defend fiercely against predators. “Just because they have horns,” Gonzalez said, “everyone thinks they’re wild.” In Copper Canyon, he saw some cattle wander freely and in close contact with the Tarahumara – in some cases, in their homes.
In Arizona – where the federal and state governments are collaborating on the reintroduction of Mexican wolves to their historic range – traditional cattle breeds typically abandon calves to predators. But Moroney has seen the Criollos launch counter-attacks. “The bulls and the big steers, and even some cows, will charge predators and hook them and throw them,” he said.
Many retail customers prefer Criollo beef and are willing to pay a premium for it. While cattle that remain on the Jornada are typically finished with hay, some have been sent elsewhere – to South Dakota, for example – to be grass-finished. These animals end up with a finished weight of 1,000 pounds or more. As you might imagine, an animal that lives mostly off prickly pear and mesquite tastes different from a corn-fed Hereford, but many prefer the Criollo’s leanness and more complex flavor, which Gonzalez compares to bison.
“If we were to take these cattle to auction,” Moroney said, “we wouldn’t do that well, because there’s still a lot of bias regarding cattle that look like Longhorns or that have spots or horns.” But his direct-marketing customers ask for Criollo beef by name. “They prefer Criollo because the amount of marbling and the tenderness is just noticeably better.” Gonzalez is spreading the word and drumming up interest among specialty retailers – organic markets and health food stores – throughout the Southwest. Criollo beef will probably never be a mass-market commodity – and that’s fine with its sophisticated, niche-market customers.
While the anecdotal evidence is strong, it will fall to agricultural economists such as Alan Torell, a professor of agricultural economics at New Mexico State University, to turn these costs and benefits into numbers and give ranchers an idea of how the profits of a Criollo beef operation might compare to traditional breeds.
“The numbers we’ve put together are preliminary and based on the Jornada herd,” said Torell. At a meeting on the Range last year, he revealed his preliminary analysis: Despite its smaller size and longer finishing period, the overall return for the Criollo is almost identical to the Southwest’s traditional Angus-Hereford cross, due to its lower costs for feed, medication, and insect control. Given its other advantages, the Criollo may be a better choice for some ranchers.
So far, very few ranchers in the Southwest are convinced, but Moroney is one of them, and he’s all in. “It seems like we spent a lot of years kind of forcing cattle to fit the environment that we were in,” he said. “And now we have cows that really evolved genetically to thrive in this environment. We’re really enthusiastic about the breed – and I honestly feel they’re going to be a game-changer for ranching in this kind of semiarid desert grassland. I’m very thankful that I’ve had the privilege of getting to work with them.”
Caption for top photo: A Criollo steer with Navajo Churro sheep. Criollo cattle are uniquely suited to the semi-arid landscapes of the American Southwest. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dennis Moroney
This article was originally published in the 2016 edition of U.S. Agriculture Outlook.