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Beefing up Cattle Research to Meet Climate Demands of Today and Tomorrow

Posted by William Goldner, Ph.D., Senior Advisor, Renewable Energy, Natural Resources, and Environment, Office of the Chief Scientist in Research and Science
Jul 29, 2021
Criollo cattle at the ARS Jornada Experimental Range
Criollo cattle at the ARS Jornada Experimental Range.

In recent decades, cattle production and ranch profitability have been declining in the desert southwest. Especially during drought conditions, thirsty beef cattle have had to remain close to sources of water (it takes 1,590 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef), greatly reducing the area over which they can graze and causing overgrazing in parts of fragile rangelands. This loss of productive range capable of supporting cattle is one reason why the cattle industry in New Mexico is suffering.

USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are partnering with New Mexico State University (NMSU), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and local ranchers to evaluate and restore arid region rangelands that have supported the beef industry in the Southwestern United States for over a century.

The ARS Jornada Experimental Range is a 257,000-acre field research laboratory in the Chihuahuan Desert with the unit headquarters on the campus of NMSU in Las Cruces, New Mexico. At Jornada, ARS and NMSU scientists are studying the characteristics of recently introduced Raramuri Criollo (pronounced cree-o-yo) cattle from northern Mexico compared to traditional Angus cattle. The goals are to understand the potential benefits of Criollo cattle and identify management strategies to improve ranch profitability and sustainability. The Criollo have adapted over hundreds of years to thrive in arid desert landscapes and require less water compared to Angus cattle, allowing them to graze over greater distances, potentially reducing the need for supplemental feed, avoiding overgrazing, and decreasing beef production costs. Parallel studies are occurring with research partners across the western United States, Mexico, and Argentina.

In conjunction with the cattle research, the Jornada team is developing data-driven approaches and improving technologies for monitoring and assessing agricultural landscapes by evaluating historic, current, and new restoration practices for public and private agricultural lands.

Key to success will be evaluating livestock management practices suitable for conserving and restoring rangelands of the southwestern United States. Improving range management practices, raising Criollo cattle, and cross breeding Criollo and Angus cattle may have the potential to help restore rangelands and increase the sustainability and profitability of the cattle industry in New Mexico.

This research will help support multiple components of USDA’s Science Blueprint (PDF, 2.6 MB) and will build on overall knowledge to better protect our planet’s resources while ensuring agricultural productivity and resiliency.

Category/Topic: Research and Science