Can heritage cattle protect ecosystems and economies in the changing rangelands of the western United States?

TitleCan heritage cattle protect ecosystems and economies in the changing rangelands of the western United States?
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2018
AuthorsSpiegal S., Estell RE, Cibils AF, Gonzalez AL, McIntosh WC, Nyamuryekung'e S., Bestelmeyer BT
Conference NameEcological Society of America
Date Published08/2018
PublisherEcological Society of America
Conference LocationNew Orleans, LA
ARIS Log Number355850

Pastoralism may be our best bet for preserving biodiversity and soil carbon in the rangelands of the western United States. Early grazing practices triggered persistent ecological transitions in many US rangelands, but going forward, maintaining these lands as semi-natural systems with opportunities for restoration ultimately relies on sustainable ranching that serves as a bulwark against development to more intensive uses. Yet for ranching to be sustainable, it must simultaneously achieve multiple targets: economic profitability, environmental quality, and social connectivity. Climate change complicates chances for achieving these sustainability targets. For instance, rangelands in the southwestern United States are projected to become hotter and drier with greater variability in annual precipitation and later onset of monsoon rains, and the sustainability of desert ranching will depend on its ability to adapt to these emerging conditions. An adaptation strategy gaining momentum entails raising drought-adapted, low-input beef cattle biotypes. In the Chihuahuan Desert of Texas-New Mexico-Mexico, a number of studies are underway to assess whether ranching with Raramuri Criollo, a heritage biotype with 500 years of evolution in nearby harsh desert environments, may provide viable options for pastoral communities as conditions change. Evidence from four independent studies suggests that heritage Raramuri Criollo differ from conventional breeds (i.e., Angus crossbreds) with regard to use of large desert pastures. When vegetation is greener and more abundant, the two types exhibit similar spatial distribution and landscape use patterns. Conversely, when forage is scarce, the heritage cattle traverse greater distances, and farther from water, to access forage. These different seasonal use patterns have different implications for ranch economics as well as for desert soils and vegetation. Further, hourly movement patterns suggest that the heritage breed has a higher tolerance for hot summer temperatures, which could translate into expanded opportunities for pastoralism in a warming climate. Importantly, one option for producing the heritage cattle entails grass finishing, with economics and environmental footprint differing from that of conventional production, which involves grain-finishing hundreds of kilometers away. Improved estimates of environmental and economic outcomes of the conventional and alternative production systems would enhance understanding of ecosystem service flows under the two systems, which could ultimately inform policies that incentivize adoption of the heritage breed. This talk will review preliminary findings of the research program and implications for sustainable ranching in the changing rangelands of the western United States.