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Criollo Cattle?

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Restoring native woody species, along with deep-rooted native (time-tested) grasses and other perennial species can help shift the soil ecological balance away from favoring opportunistic weedy species.

Western U.S. ranchers, including in California, have historically been at odds with woody vegetation, fighting against so-called “woody encroachment”, which, at least in California, likely represents the land/ watershed trying to heal itself from past disturbance.  See Plants in an Ecohydrology Context and California “Grasslands” vs. Altered State(s)

.Could heritage livestock breeds offer a better fit with California’s changing environment while supporting Rainfall to Groundwater?

Most beef raised for meat production in California are large-framed European breeds dependent on uncertain annual forage for their rangeland diets.  Drought has severely impacted production in most California regions in recent years.

Consider desert-adapted “Criollo” cattle who spend less of their time at point water sources and browse, as well as graze, eating mesquite and Opuntia (cactus) species at The Jornada Experimental Range (JER) near Las Cruces, New Mexico, where research on Raramuri Criollo has been ongoing for more than a decade.

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A local foodie following is even emerging (Carswell 2014).  

The following summarizes what is known to date.

Although research on Criollo is limited, certain Mexican cattle have remained isolated in specific areas without the influence of crossbreeding.  Because of the unique genetics of various isolated groups, it is not accurate to refer to Criollo cattle as a breed. [citation] Reference to Criollo cattle as a type (Briggs 1969) or biotype [citation] is more appropriate. It is important that the genetics of these cattle be studied and preserved for maintaining or improving the quality of current domestic breeds for future generations.. . . .  


The Criollo cattle introduced onto the JER came from . . . the Barranca de Septentrion region in the remote area of the Rio Oteros of the Sierra Tarahumara (Copper Canyon) of Mexico, home to the Tarahumara Indians. [Chiapas]  This area is between 200 m to 400 m above sea level and is characterized by hot summer ambient air temperatures. . . .


When members of our team traveled to Mexico to select our Criollo cattle they reported numerous cases in which the owners considered their animals as members of the family and actually allowed them to enter their homes. Geographic isolation of these Criollo cattle has provided animals with substantial genetic diversity.  McTavish et al. (2013) suggested Criollo cattle found in Mexico may represent 80 to 200 generations of unmanaged breeding (natural selection).    (Anderson and colleagues 2015)

The potential to shift rangeland economies to less demanding livestock adapted to the particular flora of each local area, offers the exciting potential for locally adapted livestock “appellations”.  See Livestock Appellations For California?

With Criollo cattle on restored rangelands it might be appropriate to shift terms from “grassfed” to “rangefed” beef.

July 2022 Update:  I haven’t updated this page for some years but just came upon an older reference, new to me, that offers some intriguing insight,  “Low-input grassfed livestock production in the American West: case studies of ecological, economic, and social resilience.” (Barnes 2011).

Within that larger piece is a section on these very cattle at Jornada, “Desert-Adapted Cattle: Harvesting the Past for the Future”  And within that section is a detail I had not come across elsewhere.

In blog post #15. Catchment Restoration for Biodiversity, Climate Change Resilience,  under the heading, Permacultural Beef?  I stated,

Burcham (1957) offers a helpful map, “Figure 5. Movements of livestock into the southwestern United States”, depicting historical movements of cattle from the Caribbean, northward through current Mexico and across the Gulf of California into Baja. My thought upon seeing that was that cattle subjected to natural selection in Baja California would be the ideal stock to try out in California. So I consulted the most current source I could find (Martinez 2011) and learned that no “Criollo” cattle untouched by human breeding efforts apparently occur there in contemporary times.

However, Barnes (2011) shares that,

Using genetic testing, the researchers found two pure populations in northern Mexico: one in the Sierra Tarahumara of Chihuahua, and the other in San Ignacio, a 3-inch precipitation zone in Baja California Sur. The Chihuahuan criollos weigh about 800 pounds at mature size and the San Ignacio criollos, called Chinampo cattle, are even smaller at 600 pounds.I (Barnes 2011)

It would seem that cattle genetically adapted to Baja California Sur might be an ideal fit to introduce to California, but then comparisons with those from the stock now raised at Jornada also seem intriguing.


Further Exploration Encouraged:

Anderson, D. M., R. E. Estell, A. L. Gonzaleza, A. F. Cibils, and L. A. Torell. 2015. Criollo cattle: heritage genetics for arid landscapes. Rangelands 37:62-67

Barnes, M. 2011. Low-input grassfed livestock production in the American West: case studies of ecological, economic, and social resilience. Rangelands 33:31-40. 

Burcham, L. T. 1957. California range land: an historico ecological study of the range resources of California. California Division of Forestry, Sacramento.

Carswell, C. 2014. The desert-friendly cow: a rancher and a researcher search for a better bovine — and think they’ve found one. High Country News. November 10, 2014.  

Huntsinger, L. and J. L. Oviedo. 2014. Ecosystem services are social-ecological services in a traditional pastoral system: the case of California’s Mediterranean rangelands. Ecology and Society 19:8 doi:

Martinez, Jorge de Alba.  2011.  El Libro de los Bovinas Criollos de America.  Colegio de Postgraduados.  Texcoco, Estado de Mexico, Mexico.

McTavish, J., J. E. Decker, R. D. Schnabel, and D. M. Taylor. 2013. New World cattle show ancestry from multiple independent domestication events. PNAS:E1398–E1406.

O’Dowd, P.  Ranchers Fight Drought With Desert Cows  Here & Now (radio).  WBUR, Boston.  Audio: 04:57 minutes.  Aired February 10, 2015

Perez, J. 2014. Criollo cattle on the Jornada. The Jornada Rangeland Research Programs. Las Cruces, NM.  

Rouse, J. E. 1977. The Criollo: Spanish Cattle in the Americas. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK.

Spiegal, S. 2016?  Comparing Raramuri Criollo and Angus x Hereford cattle and their impact on arid rangeland.  Research Animal Scientist / Post Doctoral Research Associate, USDA ARS Jornada Experimental Range. Streaming Video, 18:38 minutes.   Accessed: January 10, 2017.

*  The video above is highly recommended for the latest on current Criollo research at The Jornada.