It’s hard to believe now, but Criollo cattle that were brought with Christopher Columbus more than 500 years ago to North America once roamed the harsh Mojave Desert of Southern California.
That nugget came from John R. Beyer, a columnist for the Victorville Daily Press, in a feature about the depleted Route 66 town of Essex, California.
The Criollo cattle link comes from Jim Craig, a Texan who settled in the Essex area more than 100 years ago and worked for the Rock Springs Land and Cattle Co, according to longtime Essex resident John Bentley. Craig started his own ranch in the 1930s with Criollo cattle.
“They used desert cattle that had been here for centuries,” Bentley told me. “They are well used to surviving out here. Crazy, isn’t it?” […]
They are a breed brought to America by Columbus and eventually to the southwest by Spanish conquistadors. A cow that can thrive in the desert. What will those conquistadors think of next?
And thrive they did. But it turns out Criollo cattle need a lot of space to roam and nibble on sparse vegetation, and as they did this, desert tortoises suffered greatly. So by the early 2000s, cattle ranching virtually disappeared from the Mojave Desert. Outdoor groups and the Bureau of Land Management found the grazing to be too dangerous for the endangered tortoise. A move was made to limit or discourage ranching altogether.
Though — and this is just what I have observed traveling remote areas of the Mojave — there are still some ranches out in the desert. I’ve viewed a lot of Criollo walking here and there, looking for something to munch.
The American Criollo Beef Association elaborates on the breed’s history:
Criollo cattle were first brought to the New World with Christopher Columbus, with his second expedition in 1493. Hardy and durable, these cattle came from the desert country of Andalusia, in southern Spain. Having already evolved in a hot, dry climate with scarce feed and less water, these cattle were ideally suited to survive the rigors of an ocean crossing and adapt rapidly to a new environment. The conquistadores brought Criollo cattle with them, for draft, beef and milk, to all areas of the western hemisphere over the next few years. 5,000 head of Criollo cattle were brought with Onate’s expedition through northern Mexico and the New Mexico area of the United States in 1593.
Criollos spread rapidly across the arid and semi-arid regions of the western United States and northern Mexico. They flourished in a hostile environment, learning to utilize all available vegetation and stretch every ounce of drinking water. In villages all over Mexico and the southwest United States, each household kept a criollo cow for milk, and meat from her calves. Each village or two shared a Criollo bull, whose job was to cover all the cows in his area. A docile temperament was critical, as the Criollos were taken out to graze each day by the village boys, on foot.
Other desirable traits of Criollo cattle are long life, excellent fertility and calving ease.
The Criollo breed went nearly extinct decades ago when cattle breeders developed meatier breeds. But it turns out the cattle contain genetics that can prove beneficial. Their meat is leaner, they’re cheaper to raise in desert climates, will cut back on brush in pastureland and are more environmentally friendly.
Alfredo Gonzales is running Jornada Experimental Range in southern New Mexico with those cattle. According to High Country News:
“A lot of people say, ‘Why don’t we go back to buffalo?’ ” Gonzalez muses, bracing himself against the fence. “Well, in dry lands, why don’t we go back to criollo?” Gonzalez is cognizant of the argument that no cow belongs in the desert, but believes that with light stocking rates and large pastures, criollo can have a minimal footprint. For that to be true, Fredrickson notes, landscapes still need ample resting time during and after droughts. And there are trade-offs. Because criollo travel well, they also probably spread shrub seeds more widely. Still, says the animal scientist Estell, “If you’re doing less damage to the landscape and can still produce some beef, it seems like a win-win.”
Here’s a video about the cattle and the Jornada range:
Here’s a breed more familiar to most people: the Texas Longhorn. It turns out longhorns are crossbred descendants of the original Criollo cattle brought to the New World.
I’m not advocating a re-introduction of Criollo cattle into the Mojave, as they essentially are an invasive species. But don’t be surprised to see this rare breed begin to pop up in other areas of Route 66 country in the Southwest.
(Screen-capture image from video of Criollo cattle)