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Cattle Ranching

Arizona’s Cattle Community

Winning female Brahman at the 2011 Arizona National Livestock Show.

Like mining, cattle ranching brought people to Arizona. Also like mining, it is an industry that must constantly adapt to a changing environment and limited resources. Cattle ranching is now about half what it was during its peak, but this "Arizona C" remains a large source of revenue. Did you know that Arizona ranchers produced enough beef to feed 4.6 million Americans in 2010? That year, the state’s 391.2 million pounds of beef made a total economic impact of $3.2 billion*—almost a third of the state’s $10.3 billion dollar agriculture industry.

Cattle ranches dot every county. Each year about 870,000 head of cattle are raised on 3,800 Arizona ranches. Many ranchers are third and fourth generation Arizonans with a stake in the land and a stake in the community. Rodeos, county fairs, and Arizona National Livestock Show, the largest livestock show in the southwest, held annually in Phoenix, are just some ways we remember our ranching roots.

300 Years of Ranching

Ryan Brothers Cattle Ranch in the White Mountains in 1912.

Cattle and other livestock came to Arizona over 300 years ago. After Coronado explored the American Southwest, Spanish conquistadors grazed cattle in the Huachuca Mountains and the Santa Cruz River valley as early as 1690. Around that time, Spanish missionaries introduced ranching to the Tohono O’odham Indians.

After the Civil War, overgrazed pastures in Texas led ranchers to the Arizona Territory and began the state's cattle boom. Around the same time miners discovered gold near Prescott, ranchers were moving stock onto Arizona’s grasslands.

Railroads and windmill technology used to fill ponds brought an explosion of ranches and cattle speculators from the East Coast. By the 1890s, about 1.5 million cattle roamed in Arizona. However, cattle boom faded quickly. The rapid growth of the cattle industry did not consider the limits of the land. Ranchers overgrazed the pastures in only 20 years, permanently changing the landscape. Scrub plants replaced many of the original grasses that never grew back as the topsoil eroded from overgrazed lands. When a drought hit in the early 1900s, between half to 75% of the state’s cattle were lost. Since that time, ranchers have become more respectful of the land’s natural limits.

Land Stewardship

Arizona ranchers talk about their cattle, their community, and their responsibilities as land stewards.

Ranchers have big jobs. In addition to raising one of the nation’s most popular foods, their livelihoods influence communities, the economy, public health, and the environment. They must care for their animals responsibly, minimize their exposure to disease, manage grazing land, and work to decrease water consumption. In many ways, the future of our land is in their hands.

According to National Geographic Online, it takes 338 gallons of water to produce just one three-ounce serving of beef. However, cattle ranching is much more sustainable than it was 30 years ago. Compared with beef production in 1977, each pound of beef produced today produces 16% less carbon emissions, takes 33% less land, and requires 12% less water.

Together, farming and ranching families manage more than 26 million acres of Arizona’s land. Many ranchers practice Coordinated Resource Management (CRM), a conservation practice that adjusts grazing and cattle movement to optimize renewal of grasslands, soil, and wildlife habitat.

Many cattle graze on U.S. rangelands, about 85 percent of which are unsuitable for crops. Most ranchers work to prevent overgrazing of these areas, as overgrazed land no longer offers food.  Ranchers may plant trees for windbreaks, improve plant density and work to decrease invasive plant species, manage overgrowth to prevent fire, or plant cover crops to decrease erosion. Some areas become habitats for threatened species. The Mexican Grey Wolf was introduced on rangeland areas, as was the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher.

Many ranchers utilize technology to help reduce energy and water use. Some harness solar power for electric water pumps or utilize biofuels in equipment. Many also actively work with our state universities to evolve the science of resource management.

Guest Ranches and Cowboy Culture

Cowboy culture caught America’s imagination in the 1920s and ‘30s. “Singing cowboys” on the Silver Screen (including Arizona’s own Rex Allen and western-themed penny novels) marked the rise of one of America’s most persistent icons. Arizona’s open ranges, rugged landscape, and rough-and-tumble settlement history beckoned visitors to experience “wild” western culture. Guest ranching, or “dude ranching,” gave city slickers a chance to take in the range without the danger. These establishments became popular in Arizona as some homesteaders sold their land after dry spells. Today, dude ranches all over the state offer fun and unique adventure opportunities.

*Information from the Arizona Beef Council.