Earth Notes: Criollo Cattle

Jun 3, 2015

When most of us hear the word “cattle” we think of an animal that came to the Southwest in the late 1800s. But one breed arrived here long before most other settlers.

Criollo cattle arrived in the New World only a year after Columbus’ first Atlantic passage, and were brought to the Southwest by Spanish conquistadores in the late 1500s. Criollos originated in Spain’s hot, dry Andalusia region, and they took well to the arid region that became the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

It wasn’t until the modern beef industry took off during the late 1800s and early 1900s that criollo cattle were largely replaced by British breeds like Herefords and Angus.

But in today’s environment of drought, climate change, and high prices for supplemental feed, some ranchers are taking a new look at criollos. Proving that bigger is not always better, their small, athletic frames mean that these cattle can easily traverse mountainous and desert landscapes.

Studies have shown that criollo cows spend less time near water than British breeds and graze fewer hours. There’s anecdotal evidence that they eat more shrubs and tougher grasses on degraded grasslands, helping to minimize overgrazing of native grasses.

Criollos also have a higher-than-usual proportion of red versus white muscle fibers, resulting in desirable marbling and tenderness that has placed this beef on many foodie menus in the region and beyond.

Some do argue that no cow belongs in the desert, but criollo cattle might just help make ranching more sustainable in the future Southwest.