Their moos sound like a cross between a broken tuba and a brontosaurus in its death throes. Hours ago, the animals were grazing peacefully in this Southern Arizona scrubland near Pearce, as they do all year. But today is roundup day. Cowboys ride in, with their cries of “Yow, yow!” carried by the cold wind, and drive the herd to this remote corral. The cows seem to know what will happen next.
A wrangler lassos a bucking bull calf’s back legs, then flips it to the ground. At a cowboy’s command, I pin down the calf with my knee on its neck and its folded leg in my hand. A man in leather chaps slices a triangle out of the calf’s ear to mark ownership and sex. Inches from my left thigh, a bearded rancher with blood-smeared hands presses an electric branding iron into the squirming calf. Yellowish smoke spews out, tinged with the stench of singed flesh and hair. When the smoke clears, the raw skin reads the name of the ranch: KIL.
A cowboy slices the calf’s testicles and yanks out sinew, stretching it like saltwater taffy, then raking it with the knife. The calf lets out a guttural bellow, its blueish tongue lolling to the side. Another cowboy cuts off its budding horns, and the bearded man cauterizes the stubs with the branding iron. For a strange moment, the calf seems hypnotized. Then they untie it, and it skedaddles off to join the herd.
The men do this over and over as the power generator roars and the cattle unceasingly moan.
Then we go out for burgers.
Humans’ relationship with livestock has always been complex, and that’s particularly true of cattle. They’re central characters in the story of the Wild West and icons of the frontier. They’re also one of our favorite foods. The U.S. is the world’s largest producer and consumer of beef. The industry contributes about $1.7 billion annually to Arizona’s estimated $270 billion GDP.
Most of the country’s beef comes from cows that start on rangeland and are finished on grains in industrialized feedlots. In Arizona, where 73 percent of the land is grazing land, there’s also a growing grass-fed beef industry, numbering at least 18 ranches. But even the more humane, pastoral model is peppered with complexities and controversies – just as this scrubland is pocked with gopher burrows. Cattle historically contributed to widespread desertification. They pollute our atmosphere with planet-warming methane. Many people have branded them an environmental enemy.
Against that backdrop, there’s a movement afoot in Arizona. Ranchers and environmental groups are collaborating on experimental methods to help cattle play an integral role in a healthy ecology and economy. Some even say cattle are necessary for restoring our grasslands to their former glory. Can these two Cs – cattle and conservation – exist in harmony?
Cattle – along with sheep, sugarcane, modern horses and wheat – came to the Americas on Columbus’ second journey across the ocean in 1493. Circa 1521, the conquistador Hernán Cortés ferried them from the Caribbean to Mexico, where cowboy culture first flourished, including rodeos, roundups, branding and cattlemen’s associations. Later, Padre Eusebio Kino established the herbivores in Arizona, converting Native Americans into Christian cattle herders. But bovines didn’t become an economic force in the U.S. until the wake of the Civil War.
Like the Gold Rush and Copper Boom, the beef bonanza lured profit-seeking pioneers west. Between 1870 and 1886, the cattle population in the western states and territories multiplied from 7.9 million to 21.6 million, concentrated mainly in Texas. That state was quickly overgrazed, so cattlemen drove 4.5 million cattle to Arizona.
“When they first brought these cows in, Southeast Arizona was wall-to-wall grassland,” says Peter Warren, a recently retired land protection specialist with the Nature Conservancy. “Nobody had any idea what appropriate land management was. They had no idea how fragile it was. It looked like an endless sea of grass.”
It soon became a dead sea. There were too many cattle, and with no fences or modern mechanisms to move them around efficiently, the cattle trampled and constantly devoured the grass, preventing it from ever seeding. Riparian areas, where cows spend most of their time, were hit particularly hard. Epic droughts in the 1890s compounded the problem, wiping out 65 to 85 percent of the nation’s livestock. Cows dying of starvation desperately denuded the desert of anything they could get their mouths on. It was a stormless perfect storm.
David Griffiths, a botanist for the Arizona Experiment Station, reported in 1901 that Southern Arizona’s rangelands were more degraded than any place he’d seen in the West. “The free-range system has led to the ruthless destruction of the native grasses which once covered the magnificent pasture lands of the West,” Griffiths wrote in a bulletin for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “The San Pedro Valley in 1870 had an abundance of willow, cottonwood, and mesquite timber… The river bed was shallow and grassy and its banks were beautiful with a luxuriant growth of vegetation. Now… its banks are washed out [and] the trees and underbrush are gone.”
The decimation of the herds collapsed the cattle industry. Bank accounts, like those denuded grazing pastures, went fallow. For the next few decades, political turf wars raged about how to prevent another tragedy of the commons. Some people called for federal oversight. Some called for total freedom. Congress compromised by doing nothing.
Finally, America’s Dust Bowl – caused by overfarming and drought, as well as overgrazing – became so bad that brown clouds blew all the way to the Capitol. These grim “lobbyists,” as one senator called them, so worried Congress that within a month, it passed the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. The act regulated grazing on public lands for the first time.
These historic cattle scars are “where all of our attitudes about whether or not cows belong in a landscape – a conservation landscape – came from,” Warren says. “We’ve been struggling to recover from that ever since, both on the ground ecologically and with people’s attitudes. Everything is blamed on cows.”
That’s an oversimplification, say both ranchers and environmentalists.
“When we began, there were a couple of slogans: ‘Cattle-free by ’93’ and ‘No Moo in ’92,’” says Bill McDonald, executive director of Malpai Borderlands Group, a coalition of ranches straddling Southeast Arizona and New Mexico. Environmental groups were campaigning to remove cattle from public lands. Some activists even vandalized ranches. Cattle folk felt under attack. They worried their land was slipping out from beneath their feet. Ranches were being subdivided. Grassland was morphing into scrubland.
McDonald recognized that conflict and the “dig in your heels” approach were leading nowhere. So starting in 1991, a group of ranchers, environmentalists and a scientist met to reach across the figurative aisle. “We were able to start with the values we had in common,” the fifth-generation rancher says. “How do we keep this land open? How do we keep the habitats healthy? How do we keep the grasslands from continuing to shrink?”
The group came up with solutions that are grounded in science, saturated with a conservation ethic and that cultivate economic benefits.
They acquired conservation easements on 78,000 acres of ranch land and permanently protected more than half the region’s private land from subdivision and development. They initiated prescribed burns to counteract a century of fire suppression, encouraging a sea of grasses to drown out the woody shrubs. They restored about 33 miles of watersheds, reducing runoff, curbing erosion and nurturing vegetation. They worked to make endangered species protection compatible with ranchers’ business needs.
They invented grassbanking – the opposite of the tragedy of the commons. The group collected money from members and donors to set aside common land. Ranchers suffering from drought could move their cattle to this land and rest their ranches for a few years, in exchange for putting their private land into conservation easements. Ranchers typically returned cattle to their ranches in smaller numbers and found that their newly flourishing forage fattened the cows even more. “Some ranchers said it’s costing them less to maintain the cattle,” McDonald says. “And the cattle are putting on enough pounds that they’re actually making more money than when they had more cattle.”
The grassroots collaboration grew slowly as they converted one person at a time. McDonald once sat in a pub with a woman from a conservation organization who peppered him with hard-hitting questions; eventually she became a strong ally. The ranchers transformed their relationship with governmental agencies from a hierarchy into a partnership. “There were people on the ranching side who thought we were turncoats for even talking with the environmentalists or trying to work with the agencies this way, that the only way you could go forward was to fight everybody,” McDonald says. The Malpai Group won those people over, too.
In 1998 McDonald earned a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” for his “efforts to create ecologically responsible cooperation.” Over the years, the concept of grassbanking spread to other states. Recently, psychologists with Arizona State University’s Human Generosity Project started studying the Malpai ranchers’ support systems and shared economy.
The nonprofit calls its efforts to find common ground, base methods on science and steward the land “working in the radical center.” It’s neither left nor right, old nor new.
Cattle remain polarizing, particularly regarding their high methane and water footprint. At one pole are perspectives like the documentary Cowspiracy, which advocates veganism and significantly shrinking the cattle industry. At the other pole are voices like controversial ecologist and TED Talk sensation Allan Savory, who calls for saving the world by adding cows.
At the same time, the “radical center” is growing, and the Malpai’s methods have become more mainstream, McDonald says. That’s definitely true in Arizona, where this emerging type of philosophy is benefiting cattle, grasslands, rivers, ranchers and consumers.
Just outside Winkelman, Double Check Ranch stretches across 215 acres skirting the birdsong-soundtracked San Pedro River. About 20 cattle at a time come here from the Schwennesen family’s 11,000-acre Cold Creek Ranch to finish on fields of thickly thatched green and flaxen grass.
The family has sold grass-fed beef for 20 years, motivated by a burgeoning market for local, healthier meat. But five years ago, Paul Schwennesen started taking the ethos further at Double Check. He invested in a seed mix of cane beardgrass, sideoats grama, blue grama, green sprangletop and other evocatively named species. And he attempted to resurrect the native grasses that had all but disappeared a century ago.
Like the “radically centrist” Malpai Group, Schwennesen cannot be easily categorized. He cuts the classical figure of a cowboy, yet he has a master’s degree in government from Harvard and is earning a Ph.D. in 16th century Spanish history. He promotes biodiversity, yet he’s skeptical of environmental activism. “I come at it from what I consider a deeper, older-fashioned kind of environmental ethos that goes back to this landed yeoman idea of a Jeffersonian republic,” he explains. “Which is that people maintain their land and improve their land because there is both an economic incentive to do so, as well as a sense of obligation to the land itself.”
He’s not restoring native grasses solely out of poetic nostalgia. Rather, he sees it as a smart business and environmental decision.
When the grasslands were denuded – first by the cattle-drought confluence, and later by tractor blades – they were replaced with desertified scrubland and nonnative grasses. Scrubland is terrible grazing land. And while nonnative grasses proliferate, they often have shallow roots and die just before the monsoons. So they are poor replenishers of the landscape.
By contrast, native Southwestern grasses evolved to survive in our desert. Many are perennial, slowly absorbing our rationed rains throughout the year and multiplying in monsoon season to reap the watery windfall. They frequently have root mats 12 to 20 feet deep – natural sponge systems that stabilize soil, feed rivers and groundwater, and prevent floods and erosion. Healthy soil also sequesters carbon dioxide, keeping it out of the atmosphere and offsetting some of the cattle’s methane production.
Schwennesen knew that many people struggled to restore these persnickety plants. “I frankly didn’t expect much,” he says. “But in one season… we established native grass all over our pastures. I was absolutely floored. It was almost like it was waiting to happen.”
In addition to the use of irrigation, he credits his success – ironically – to cattle. The ungulates’ hooves plant the seeds and muddle the soil with manure and urine that stimulate growth, he explains. He prevents over-trampling and overgrazing by practicing management-intensive grazing.
Operations manager Garrett Schulze points to a pasture and explains: “We’re trying to get them to graze lightly over this pasture and eat the seed off the tops before they seed out, then rotate them again, get them out of here and hit [the pasture] with water and perk it back up. If we leave them in too long they’ll mow it down like a lawnmower and may damage the plants to where they won’t recover.”
Moving the herd every few days also prevents parasites from infecting the cattle. So the ranch has no problems with disease. Plus, Schwennesen says, beef raised in natural range conditions has a complex flavor other beef lacks – like a Super Tuscan compared to a White Zinfandel.
Not far away in the Nature Conservancy’s stunning Aravaipa Canyon Preserve, preserve manager Mark Haberstich is also recruiting cows to foster native grasses. But because these plants can struggle to reproduce if they’re simultaneously grazed, he makes native grass hay. He feeds the hay to his cattle, and the animals spread the native seeds in the time-honored manner.
“That’s a tool other ranchers can use,” Haberstich says. He wants to show ranchers “that substituting native grass hay for alfalfa is a range restoration or grass restoration tool and not just something for the cows to eat.” That can benefit ranchers, he adds. Boosting grass biodiversity makes landscapes more abundant in cattle forage and more resilient to drought, grazing and climatic changes.
Haberstich and Schwennesen also hope native grasses will revitalize their riparian zones. “Grass is the best type of vegetative cover for getting water to percolate down through the soil and recharge [an] aquifer,” Haberstich says.
Schwennesen has partnered with the Arizona Land and Water Trust, which has been paying ranchers to turn off their irrigation pumps in an attempt to restore the San Pedro and Gila rivers. But doing so nearly wiped out Schwennesen’s native grasses. So he proposed reducing his water consumption by half instead. The idea is that creating spongy, root-laced grassland contributes a net positive amount of water to riparian zones. So far, he says, “it’s worked brilliantly.”
Schwennesen emphasizes that he’s gently experimenting, because nobody knows the “right” way to manage cattle, grasslands and riparian corridors. He likes to quote ecologist Frank Egler: “Ecosystems are not only more complex than we think, but more complex than we can think.”
“Cattle are no more than a tool,” Schwennesen says. “It’s akin to a hammer. You can certainly tear apart a house and break all its windows with a hammer. But you can also build a house with a hammer… We’re still trying to figure out how devastating is this hammer, can it be used effectively, can it be used positively? And we’re finding that yeah, with careful, moderate use and frankly a humble approach to it, you can in fact do very positive things on the landscape using cattle.”
Some 200 miles away, McDonald says Malpai’s ranchers have also had success with a multifaceted, nuanced approach. They recognize that countless variables combine to make ranch management infinitely complex – rainfall, fire, the patchwork of topographies, the peculiarities of each plant species, the contours of a shifting climate. Each cattle ranch, even each pasture, must be approached with a fresh mindset.
“Simplistic answers for something as complex as the landscape we live on and sustains us are not going to get us anywhere,” McDonald says, referring to stewardship of both cattle ranches and the Earth. “When we start pointing fingers and looking for easy answers, we’re doomed. It’s going to take everything we have and all of us working together to figure out how we’re going to continue living on this planet in a sustainable manner.”