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Are Criollo Cattle a Regenerative Solution to a 1,200-Year Megadrought?

Tucked high in a mountain range in San Diego County, California, ranch managers Rob Paulin and Jeremey Walker rely on “spunky” cows to mitigate wildfire by grazing on the chaparral brush and shrubbery that traditional market cattle won’t seek—let alone eat.

“Spunky,” Paulin said with a smile as he surveyed his herd coming into a valley from mountain foraging. “That’s one way to put it.”

Originally from the Andalucía region of Spain, these Raramuri Criollo cattle are small and trim—weighing about 800 pounds each, compared to a 1,200-plus-pound Angus cattle. After being brought from Spain 500 years ago, they evolved in the mountains of Chihuahua, Mexico, where they learned to survive by searching for food in the far corners of the rough landscape. For centuries, the Tarahumara people have successfully bred Criollos with little husbandry, taking advantage of the cattle’s ability to forage and thrive in arid climates to produce meat, milk, and more.

The cattle travel further and for longer periods than other breeds—even away from water—and will eat brushy shrubs when grasses run low due to drought. These unique grazing habits support native vegetation and reduce fire fuels at a time when California and the U.S. Southwest are facing a megadrought that could last another eight years. California is the driest it has been in 1,200 years, and this year wildfires have already burned more than 53,000 acres in the state.

Some Western ranchers are responding to the crisis, reducing wildfire risk, and conserving water by restoring native grass ecosystems and reducing overgrazing to avoid thinning herds.

Paulin has spent the last 10 years trying to improve the ecological footprint of the 4,500-acre Corte Madera Ranch by reducing biodiversity loss and ground compaction, which makes it difficult to retain water, without downsizing the ranch and jeopardizing his profitability. The profit margin from raising cattle is tight, so ranchers often trim costs by culling their herds during drought.

Rob Paulin and Jeremey Walker checking on their Criollo cattle grazing. (Photo by Jacqueline Covey)

The Criollo’s foraging patterns helped to manage fire-prone rangeland and restore native vegetation, while providing a cheaper alternative to conventional English beef cattle.

Since 2005, researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and New Mexico State University (NMSU) have studied the Raramuri Criollo’s potential to produce more sustainably in the drought-prone Southwestern states. In 2015, Corte Madera Ranch became one of five ranches across the U.S. participating in the Sustainable Southwest Beef Coordinated Agricultural Project—adding Criollo heifers and a bull into its Angus herd.

The federally funded study compares the economic and environmental impacts of Angus-Hereford and Raramuri Criollo cattle in arid places. So far, researchers found that the Criollo are better suited to shrubby landscapes and have a lower footprint than Angus and other commercial cattle. At the Corte Madera Ranch last year, the drought forced its owners to reassess operations.

“Between all the Angus we had and the Criollos, there was just a little too much, and we were getting some overgrazing that we didn’t like,” Paulin said, who decided to sell the last remaining Angus. “We have nothing but Criollo mother cows now,” he said.

Heritage Cattle on Arid Lands

With their Loki-style horns, the Raramuri Criollo are cousins to the Texas Longhorn, which grew larger as they evolved alongside commercial English Angus production.

It is believed that the Raramuri Criollo were on the “first shipment of domestic livestock destined to inhabit the New World”—somewhere in the West Indies—during Christopher Columbus’ second voyage between 1493 and 1496. The cattle underwent a “semi-natural selection” over the course of nearly four centuries, according to NMSU scientists, as red meat consumption in the U.S. favored larger, faster-growing English breeds.

With little demand for Spanish cattle, the Criollo largely remained isolated in Mexico’s Copper Canyon for centuries. They were forced to adapt into nimble-footed foragers with a willingness to venture away from water sources—the ideal characteristic for a desert rancher.

Raramuri Criollo “had to fend for themselves, and so they became resilient,” Paulin said.

Regenerating Landscapes, Preventing Wildfire

On a June day, cooled by the fire-exacerbating Santa Ana winds, Paulin and Walker looked out to the site of a prescribed burn carried out by Cal Fire on Valentine’s Day, part of an ongoing effort to reduce wildfire risk in the high desert of Southern California. It’s hard to decipher between the treated and untreated acres—the fire-treated land is lush with growth—but after a second look, the vegetated area appears almost swept clean, even months after the burn.

“That’s less of the ladder fuels to lead into the tree so the tree catches fire,” Paulin said, referring to shrubs, low-lying tree branches, and other fuels that can spread fire burning to taller vegetation.

“Conventional grazing can be more devastating to the land than fire, because fire comes through and doesn’t stay. [Fire] doesn’t keep hammering the same grass over and over again the way that a stocked animal will.”

Once given some time to regenerate, Corte Madera’s Criollo cattle will scour the Cal Fire-managed areas for new sprouts and rid the ranch of fire-fueling shrubs such as Mountain Mahogany. These fire management plans help landowners lower the likelihood of wildfires getting out of control. Fires that burn at very high temperatures for too long can sterilize soil and inhibit new grass and tree regrowth.

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