Science Moab: Building beefy sustainability plans

As the climate becomes warmer and drier in the Colorado Plateau, traditional Angus-cattle ranching is facing challenges. This week, we talk with Utah State University Ph.D. students Will Munger and Maria Stahl about their work with Criollo cattle at Dugout Ranch in San Juan County: Criollo are better adapted to arid climate, can forage for more native vegetation, and are able to travel farther from water sources than Angus cattle. 

Munger and Stahl’s research on the cattle is part of an effort to move toward more sustainable ranching in the desert southwest.  

Science Moab: What’s been happening recently at the Dugout Ranch?

Will Munger: As part of my internship with the climate adaptation science program, I’ve worked on the Dugout Ranch as a cowboy. Something that’s very unique about Dugout Ranch is the Canyonlands Research Center. This supports students from all over the Intermountain West. This summer, they had one of their first rounds of Indigenous students who participated in ecological restoration and research. This is also a gathering place for a number of different groups, including local ranchers, ranch managers from the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, and the Diné College Range Club who came up to learn about the Raramuri Criollo cattle project. That meeting brought together ranchers who are interested in developing more climate-adaptive ranching practices that are lighter on the land and cognizant of the changes occurring under a warming climate.

Science Moab: Can you share a little bit about the Criollo cattle and what’s going on with them?

Maria Stahl: These cattle are descended from cattle that were brought over from Spain in the 1400s. This Spanish expedition brought these cows to Mexico, and then let them do their own thing. These cattle became really well adapted to hot dry climates, like those found in Mexico. So these are what we call a heritage breed, a really old breed that developed on its own and adapted to a particular climate. The Colorado Plateau is a hotspot for climate change, so it’s becoming really hot and dry faster than most other places in the country. This makes the Colorado Plateau a really difficult place to produce livestock using conventional means. If we can bring in this heritage breed that is well adapted to these climates, they might do really well on the Colorado Plateau with fewer inputs from ranching. We’ve seen at the Jornada Experimental Range down in New Mexico, that they can have a more diverse diet. They’re not just selecting for particular grasses, and they can navigate more rugged terrain than conventional breeds like Angus.

Science Moab: How do you study their movements and behavior?

Stahl: Will and I work closely with Matt Redd at the Ranch, and several professors here at Utah State University, to answer those questions. We put GPS collars on these cows before turning them loose. Using the data from these GPS collars, I can build models of which particular landscape factors are influencing their movement.

Munger: The hypothesis is that Criollo cattle are eating more shrubs as opposed to just grass, they’re moving further from water and utilizing terrain that’s more steep and rugged than conventional breeds could use. When I have been traveling out there, I have certainly seen some of that. By partnering with scientists, we get other ways to validate that data. So the spatial models are part of that, and another part is that we’ll take fecal samples while we’re collaring them. We can use genetic analysis to understand what species they’re eating as well.

Science Moab: Are you also monitoring other breeds of cattle?

Munger: The Red Angus that have been on the ranch for several decades now do have GPS collars on them, so there is some monitoring of their spatial movement. And we’re trying to understand if there is a difference between these Red Angus and these Criollos. So those are kind of the two sample populations that will be compared in the study.

Stahl: So we have 20 Red Angus collared, and we have 20 Criollo collared, so an equal sample size of each of the breeds that we can compare, and all of these different metrics of movement, fecal samples, etc. We’re focusing on one particular pasture that’s all native vegetation. We have very fine GPS data on this pasture. We leave these collars on year-round, so we can use the data from these other pastures that Will just mentioned to get a broader idea of their movements year-round.

Science Moab: Do you have any results yet about what the Criollo might be doing?

Stahl: I haven’t analyzed any of the data I’ve collected yet, but when I built some spatial models last fall with older data, we didn’t see a whole lot of spatial partitioning: the areas that the Angus were using were kind of the same areas that the Criollo were using. The Red Angus herd has been here for decades, which means that they really know the landscape. They’re familiar with the best patches to graze on, whereas Criollo are not as familiar with the terrain. They might follow the Angus around the pasture. We got new Criollo this past spring, and I’m curious to see if those Criollo behave differently than the Criollo that have been here longer.

Munger: The reason that these cattle might be more climate-adaptive and light on the landscape is that they’re ranging further from water. Cows have a tendency to hang out around water, but if cows left to their own devices are just sitting on the creek bank, you can see some real degradation of riparian conditions. And this is the importance of having cowboys and cowgirls out on the range constantly moving these cows because you’re able to take advantage of spatio-temporal heterogeneity, which is a fancy way of saying feeding in different pastures. I think the main point here is that we need to be developing cattle genetics that are locally adapted to ecological conditions and have active range management to get the best of both worlds.

​​Science Moab is a nonprofit dedicated to engaging community members and visitors with the science happening in Southeast Utah and the Colorado Plateau. To learn more and listen to the rest of this interview, visit www.sciencemoab.org/radio

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