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History of American Cattle Ranching

Posted by Brit Ellerman on

Cattle ranching is essential to our economy and life here in the United States of America. Texas alone holds 130.2 million acres devoted to farms and ranches and generates billions in revenue each year. According to the USDA, “Cattle production is the most important agricultural industry in the United States, consistently accounting for the largest share of total cash receipts for agricultural commodities” and would bring in $391 billion in 2021. With such a monumental industry in our own backyard, do you wonder how it all began? 

Spanish Origins

The practice of cattle ranching in the western world actually started a bit more “wild and free” on the open range. In 1493, Christopher Columbus brought the first round of cattle from Spain to the Spanish colonies, more specifically the island of Hispaniola. From there, raising and herding cattle became common practice and slowly swept across what is now Mexico and the Southern United States. Early Spanish missionaries though, were the first to establish cattle ranches until the eventual closing and abandonment of the Spanish missions. 

The 18th century is where we start to see cattle ranching as an industry. Competing private ranchers began to exercise traditional ranching practices for gain and cattle ranching became a fairly popular operation in Mexico. Unfortunately, there were quite a few hardships for the cattle market, including the Mexican War of Independence, and soon the demand for cattle and ranching would be largely eliminated. This is where the Great Lone Star state and that image of Texas Longhorn cattle grazing on the open plains of the Wild West comes into play. 

Why the Texas Longhorn? 

The Texas Longhorn has become synonymous with cattle ranching and is in part a large symbol of Texas itself. As the practice of ranching fell to the wayside in Mexico, lots of Spanish cattle were left roaming free. When homesteaders began making their way west, they brought with them English cattle. The combination of the two breeds gave rise to the Texas Longhorn, which thrived at the time since “the Texas longhorn was uniquely suited to this style of ranching. Lean and sturdy, it was self-sufficient on the range and could withstand long, hard drives” (Bullock Museum). Eventually, the Longhorn presented its own issues in the ever-changing cattle market and at one point faced extinction; but the Texas Longhorn stood strong and is still vital to the cattle industry today. 

Texas’ Impact and the Many Obstacles Faced by Cattle Ranching 

While Texas is not the only state to engage in cattle ranching today, it does play a large role in its history. Texas became a state in 1845, which opened up land for both settlement and potential railroad expansion. With so many moving west in the hopes of promised opportunities and riches, the cattle market was up for grabs and held the possibility for large profits. Enter the age of the cowboy. Jobs were plenty for cowboys since cattle needed constant attention during herding, grazing, long drives, branding, etc. and business was on the up – that is until the Civil War. 

The war left large herds of cattle free to roam unattended and the battles fought on Southern land left it unsuitable for grazing. Furthermore, the Southern economy took a dive after the war and the market price for meat plummeted. Ranchers would have to start from scratch - rounding up cattle and finding good land - all for a low payday. However, the demand for meat in the North was substantially higher and luckily the expansion of railroads would make this a more manageable feat. In order to gain access to the northern market though, ranchers had to overcome a few more obstacles. 

Due to Texas Fever (a disease spread to cattle through ticks), homesteaders did not want cowboys bringing cattle through their land in Kansas and Missouri. This led to tension and quarantines blocking trails and causing difficulties for ranchers. Furthermore, there was no railway system established yet in Texas, so ranchers were forced into more difficult and dangerous means of transporting cattle. 

To better access the market, an entrepreneur named Joseph McCoy took advantage of the Kansas/Pacific railway and was able to build the first cattle stop in Abilene, Kansas - providing ranchers a sure way to transport cattle to Chicago. Cowboys would drive cattle to Abilene where they would be loaded onto a railcar and taken to slaughterhouses. Additionally, to avoid upsetting homesteaders, it was decided upon to use the Chisholm trail for access to Abilene as it bordered but did not encroach on homesteader’s land. 

The End of The Open Range and A New Future for Ranching

New railways, refrigeration techniques in rail cars, and land expansion helped cattle ranchers continually turn a profit. However, emerging developments, hardships, and inventions would soon change the landscape of open-range cattle ranching for good. Ranchers encountered droughts and harsh winters killing off livestock, the continual spread of disease in cattle, transportation issues, cattle market monopolies, and limited land due to overgrazing and an influx of settlers. 

The life of cattle ranching was again looking grim, but cattle ranchers are resilient. Advancements in water supply and fencing made it possible for ranchers to corral and regulate cattle production and even gave rise to the induction of new breeds into the industry. Legislation was also passed in 1921 to ensure a fair market for ranchers, farmers, and consumers alike. Even evolution and innovation amongst the auto, veterinary, and technological industries contributed to the progression of cattle ranching. 

Cattle ranching is an industry riddled with both challenges and constant growth but is maintained by dedicated, resourceful individuals. While keeping pace with the modern world, cattle ranching still holds many of the traditions and practices it was founded upon, an experience in which you can immerse yourself at rodeos and tourist destinations. Just a glimpse allows you to revisit the Wild West and all it represents and brings greater appreciation to a hard day’s work. These past practices and traditions have laid the groundwork for the future of cattle ranching and led to a dominant industry here in America.   

Now the next time you enjoy some delicious beef, drive past a cattle ranch on a road trip, or find yourself playing a round of trivia – you can show your appreciation and impress your friends and family with your vast knowledge on the origins of cattle ranching. I bet they’ll never see it coming!

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