History of Criollo in America

Criollo have been in the news quite a bit lately as a sustainable and low cost way to ranch cattle. They are well-adapted to their landscape, and quite different in many regards than other old world cattle breeds, such as Angus or Hereford. But few people realize that the reason for the remarkable attributes of these new world cattle is their long 500+ year history in the Americas. There are many types of Criollo all across North and South America, but they are all of a common lineage.

Criollo is an old colonial Spanish name given to people and animals born in the Americas, but that are of European decent. The original Criollo cattle were brought from the Andalusia region of Southern Spain on Columbus’ second voyage in 1493. They first arrived in what is now the Dominican Republic, and were brought into South America and Mexico in the early 1500s.

They were introduced into what is now the United States as the Spanish explored and sent missionaries up the Camino Real and along the Pacific and Gulf coasts. Criollo were the original cattle of much of North America until the late 1800s when European beef breeds were more widely introduced and distributed. These old world breeds were larger and matured more quickly than Criollo, but these larger breeds required more feed and forage inputs while grazing rangelands.

This problem was overcome after World War II when advancements in agricultural technologies resulted in huge grain harvests, which were increasingly fed to cattle. With this advancement, ranchers all across the United States more easily raised bigger beef breeds. Ranchers produced calves that could


be sold ~6 months after birth, and these animals were eventually finished for slaughter in confined feedlots where they were fattened on rations based on inexpensive grains. This production cycle utilizing harvested grains continues to the present day, but some producers are seeking more sustainable and less expensive options and production systems.

It is for this reason that the Jornada Experimental Range was interested in bringing back the Criollo to the rangelands of the Southwest. Unfortunately, Criollo adapted to the desert no longer exist within the United States, which is why Alfredo Gonzalez, Animal Scientist at the Jornada, and his team traveled to the Copper Canyon in Chihuahua Mexico. This is an area were Criollo cattle still exist, as they have for hundreds of years.

Copper Canyon has several climate zones, ranging from hot to cool, and wet to arid. Here they lived in and around isolated villages of the Tarahumara people. Their isolation meant that they were never crossbred with modern cattle breeds, and the fact that they lived there for so many generations meant that they were uniquely adapted to the land. When Gonzalez arrived there, he noticed the cattle grazing on steep canyon walls, a behavior he had never before seen in any other cattle breed. This intrigued him and the team; they knew that these cattle must possess unique genetics that allowed them to thrive in harsh environments. The team decided that these animals were great candidates to bring into the deserts of the American Southwest. Only time would tell whether these animals had the right genes to thrive in a land where our modern breeds often require expensive supplemental inputs.

Read more about the genetics adaptations of criollo.