Research at Dugout shows “new” heritage cattle breed may be a beef game changer

by Bill Boyle
San Juan Record Editor
The impact of climate change on arid land is the focus of cutting-edge research at the Nature Conservancy’s Canyonlands Research Center (CRC) at the Dugout Ranch.
The center hosted an open house on a beautiful September day to discuss the research.
Preliminary results suggest that a rare breed of heritage cattle from Spain, via Mexico, may have less impact on arid rangelands than the traditional Angus breeds that are common in the western United States.
The ranch has a small herd of approximately 40 Raramuri Criollo cattle that are helping the researchers understand what the impact would be if they were used in large numbers throughout the West.
Using GPS collars, observations, and other data collection, the scientists and cowboys at the Dugout are finding that the Criollo cattle appear to be more heat tolerant than the Angus breeds. 
In addition, they will travel farther for water and are more likely to graze on the shrubs and bushes that are prevalent in arid climates.
The researchers state that these characteristics suggest that this “new” breed of cattle may be a “game changer” for beef production and improving land health.
The cattle have been in North America for hundreds of years. In fact, cattle originally came to the New World on the second voyage of Columbus in 1493.
Kari Veblen, a professor in the Department of Wildland Resources at Utah State University, said the Raramuri Criollo cattle breed developed over several hundred years in the isolated and arid Copper Canyon area of Mexico. 
During that time, Veblen said they became desert-adapted animals, which impacted their use of water and diet, including the shrubs they eat.
In the meantime, the larger European breeds spread over vast expanses of the West.
The Dugout Ranch is an ideal place to study the Criollo. “The region is experiencing warming, with an increase in the intensity and length of drought,” said Veblen. “Indications are that this will continue and grow. If so, it will be a problem for ranchers to feed animals and maintain rangelands.”
“Grasses are a primary forage for cattle and they will become more scarce and vulnerable to a changing climate,” said Veblen. “Shrubs will do better.”
The Criollo cattle are known to eat shrubs, while the Angus breeds prefer grasses. In addition, because of their smaller size, Veblen said they have “a lighter footprint on the landscape.”
There are only about 400 Criollo cattle in the United States and 40 of them are at the Dugout Ranch.  In addition to the purebred Criollo cattle, the study is also researching hybrid cattle from the Criollo and Angus breeds.
The research includes the use of GPS collars on approximately 60 of the cattle to see where they are going.  In addition, satellite imagery is used to measure grazing patterns, and even DNA analysis of dung is used to see what the cattle are eating.
A similar range experiment is taking place on Criollo cattle in New Mexico, South Dakota, and California.
“We will compare the information we find to get to what the financial bottom line might mean to a rancher,” explained Veblen.
The Criollo study is one of several research projects that are underway at the CRC.
Mike Duniway, of the US Geologic Survey, said, “This research is important because the Colorado Plateau is a hotspot for climate change.”
Duniway said that a recent story in The Guardian listed Grand County Utah as the second fastest warming county in the United States.
“In a rapidly-changing climate, selective breeding can help keep livestock in business,” said Duniway.  “The landscape is getting shrubbery-er and cattle need a wider breadth and more diverse diet.”
The CRC research is focused not only on the cattle and how they do at the Dugout Ranch, but also how they could impact the food supply chain that takes beef from the “pasture to the plate.”
Sheri Speigal, a Rangeland Management Specialist at a similar Criollo study site in Las Cruces, NM, discussed a full supply chain study that is investigating nine different supply chain processes.
Cattle are generally fed out on grass in the northern plains, on grain in Texas, or locally. The study will investigate the costs and the impacts of each option, including transportation, supplemental feed, volume, and processing, across multiple ranches and feedlots.
“The beef tastes very good,” said Speigal.  The study includes taste markers, such as marbling and fat content, and the willingness of consumers to pay a premium for the beef.
Duiaway said, “This is a work in progress” and added it will require several years of research to understand the entire issue.
The massive Dugout Ranch, which is owned by The Nature Conservancy, has approximately 350,000 acres of grazing allotments on public land, with ranch headquarters on the 5,000 acres of private ground at the confluence of Indian Creek and North Cottonwood.
The ranch is entirely in Bears Ears National Monument and includes the largest piece of private deeded ground in the monument.
Kristen Redd, program manager at the CRC, explained that arid land agriculture is a focus of the research center, with work on climate adaptation for agriculture and ranching, restorative practices, the impact of recreation, and the carrying capacity of the land.
Partnering organizations include Utah State University, US Department of Agriculture, US Geologic Survey, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service, Utah Division of Natural Resources, and The Nature Conservancy.
The CRC includes educational outreach programs and partners with universities and graduate researchers from 17 universities, including USU, Brigham Young University, Northern Arizona University, New Mexico State, and the University of Colorado.
Matt Redd, Kristin’s husband, is the project director of the CRC.  Redd, a fifth-generation rancher who grew up on the Dugout Ranch, discussed the ongoing need to adjust agricultural operations to be financially productive and to maintain the integrity and health of the ecosystem.
“It all comes down to our relationship with the landscape and how we manage it,” said Redd.
The Redds both discussed the beauty of the Dugout Ranch.
“It is easy to see, this is a beautiful place,” said Matt. 
“The place is incredibly special to me,” added Kristin. “It is an honor to wake up here.”
Matt quoted Al Scorup, the ranching legend who initially pulled together the Dugout Ranch.
Scorup once said, “This country has been my worst enemy… and my best friend.”
Sasha Reed, a cryptobiotic soil specialist for the US Geological Survey, discussed a climate manipulation experiment on biocrusts that she said is the only study of its type in the world.
Biocrusts are studied in a series of 2x2 meter plots that are warmed two or four degrees higher than the current local temperature.
The results are preliminary but suggest that the biocrusts are impacted in a negative way as temperatures increase.
Reed also discussed the impacts of the growing visitation to the area and the need for education efforts to influence visitor behavior.
Reed said the local area is the “world capital for spectacular biocrust scenery” and described the local soils as “charismatic”.  Redd added that the USGS research is helping shape the global understanding of what biocrusts are doing.
Other research at the CDC includes the development of Precision Ranching Technologies, including drones, cameras, sensors and virtual fencing to monitor animals, grazing, and water levels to provide efficiency and a cost-savings after the initial investment.

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