Two New Mexico Heritage Livestock Breeds

By Rick Hendricks

Two modest experiments with historical dimensions and big promises for the future are currently underway in New Mexico. On just under twenty acres of the original Belen land grant, Donald A. Chavez y Gilbert is working to establish a viable flock of New Mexico Dahl sheep. Chavez, a fifteenth-generation New Mexican, operates Terra Patre Farms in Valencia County in central New Mexico. He traces these animals back to Francisco Vázquez de Coronado’s 1540 expedition to New Mexico and, beyond that, to the Canary Islands and ultimately West Africa. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, ships leaving southern Spain for the Americas typically stopped in the Canary Islands, where they took on livestock destined for the New World colonies. Among the first sheep that Spaniards transported across the Atlantic were hair sheep. Documents indicate that Coronado brought five thousand live ewes and rams as part of his commissary, meant to feed the members of his expedition. When Coronado departed New Mexico in 1542, he left a flock of sheep with the Franciscan father at Pecos, fray Juan de Escalona, but he did not long survive.

Chavez believes that Coronado’s sheep were not Churros, the wool-producing breed most associated with Spanish exploration and settlement in the Southwest, but a breed of hair sheep raised for meat and hides. Coronado’s aim was not to establish a colony, so he and his men needed sheep for meat and not for wool. Chavez further believes that some of the sheep Coronado left at Pecos survived and interbred with Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) and now constitute a new, genetically unique subspecies, which he would like to see named Ovis novomexicanus.

Colonial New Mexico was sheep country, and mutton was a common meat in the diet of the Hispanic and Native populations. During periods of famine, such as the 1670s, Franciscans distributed large quantities of mutton from their mission flocks. New Mexico opted for sheep over cattle for several reasons. By the middle of the eighteenth century, most New Mexicans lived on small subsistence farms far more suited to raising sheep than cattle. Native American raiding targeted cattle more frequently than sheep, with only Navajos preying on ovine stock to add to their flocks. Among the Navajos, mutton stew is considered a traditional dish.

State and local governments have acknowledged Chavez’s work and that of his fellow sheep ranchers. In 2013, the New Mexico State House of Representatives issued a memorial “recognizing New Mexico Dahl hair sheep’s integral role in the tradition and heritage of New Mexico communities” and called for the creation of a task force to study ways to protect and preserve all New Mexico heritage breeds of livestock. The following year, Bernalillo County formally recognized Chavez and others for their work to rebuild the New Mexico Dahl sheep breed. The county uses a depiction of eight sheep on its official seal, symbolizing land grants and sheep ranching, and acknowledging the importance of sheep to New Mexico.

Chavez is one of a dozen individuals in central New Mexico raising New Mexico Dahl sheep. The focus now is on building up sustainable herds, and there are around a hundred head of these sheep in New Mexico. The United Horned Hair Sheep Association has established New Mexico Dahl sheep breed standards, and many breeders register their sheep. Chavez is not encouraging marketing the meat for now, but there is great promise for commercialization of the meat, particularly to consumers who want locally produced food. One entrepreneur is purchasing lambs and marketing the meat to Middle Eastern customers in Texas.

Annual per capita consumption of lamb in the United States is less than a pound. That contrasts with around twenty-five pounds a year in Australia and New Zealand. Lamb, a staple of the Mediterranean diet, has a delicious flavor and an interesting nutritional profile. It is rich in vitamins B3 and B12 and in selenium. Surprisingly, lamb is also a good source of omega-3 fats, the healthy fats typically found in cold-water fish. The meat of hair sheep, such as grassfed New Mexico Dahl, lacks the characteristic flavor and smell of mutton. Relative to the meat of wool sheep, hair sheep meat is lower in fat and does not have the disagreeable taste of lanolin. The meat, which is best cooked slowly, has a very mild flavor. If all goes well, it will not be long before more locally produced lamb will be available in area stores and restaurants. As Chavez says, “Eat sheep! One hundred thousand coyotes can’t be wrong.”

The other experiment with a heritage breed that holds bright prospects is taking place north of Las Cruces at the USDA
Agricultural Research Service’s Jornada Experimental Range (JER). The objects of study are Criollo cattle, descendants of bovines that originated in southern Spain and North Africa and first came to North America in Christopher Columbus’s ships on his second voyage, in 1493. There were likely Criollos among the five hundred head of cattle that Coronado brought to New Mexico in 1540, although it is doubtful that any survived for long. Juan de Oñate brought thousands of head of cattle with his colonizing expedition in 1598. The Criollo was one of only two cattle breeds in colonial New Mexico. The other cattle were Black Andalusians, but the more numerous Criollos eventually overwhelmed them.   

Criollo cattle, which are typically raised for beef, have also been developed into several breeds specifically adapted to different environments, among them the Texas Longhorn and the Corriente, which is a common rodeo animal. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, British breeds such as Angus and Hereford replaced the Criollos in New Mexico, but these imported breeds did not adapt well to the harsh desert environment. They are larger animals that require more food. The extensive grasslands of New Mexico that once made raising these cattle economically sound have largely disappeared; the range has been degraded; the climate is becoming warmer; and water is less plentiful. Given this recipe for a cattleman’s disaster, Ed Fredrickson, a former researcher at JER, began a search for an alternative. Fredrickson hired Alfredo Gonzalez, who had experience managing large ranches in Brazil and Paraguay.

In 2003, members of the JER team traveled to the area surrounding Chínipas, Chihuahua, in the rugged Sierra Tarahumara, and carefully selected thirty Criollo cows and three bulls. These Tarahumara Criollos are one of only two isolated populations of cattle that have not been subjected to cross-breeding, and therefore constitute a unique gene pool. The JER’s immediate goal is to develop a herd of purebred cows for research purposes and to disseminate the results of their investigations. Of particular interest is the Criollo’s apparently superior adaptability to arid environments. According to JER animal scientist Rick E. Estell, “There are a lot of anecdotal claims that the meat tastes great, that they eat a wide variety of plants, and that they travel great distances, but none of this has been documented, and that is what we want to study.” Preliminary data show that Criollos do appear to have a less severe ecological impact than other breeds.

Estell is enthusiastic about the potential of the Criollo for a number of reasons. British breeds weigh more than a thousand pounds and have a large water footprint. Cattle producers in the Southwest face soaring prices for alfalfa, which is an even larger water hog. Criollos, by contrast, weigh, on average, seven hundred pounds; consume less water; and are said to forage on prickly pear cactus, shrubs, forbs, and other plants that most cattle will not eat. In short, they have a less destructive impact on the fragile desert environment. This is very appealing to cattlemen in New Mexico, but Estell also sees exciting possibilities for Criollos in other arid environments around the world. He has recently fielded requests for embryos from Australia, which is facing catastrophic drought conditions. Criollo herds may be a short-term solution for local cattlemen, but Estell believes that Criollo cows may well prove, in the long term, to be ideal mother cows. The current preference in the marketplace is for Black Angus cattle, so breeding Criollo cows to Angus bulls may pass along the desired traits of desert environmental adaptability to larger offspring, which meatpackers prefer.

Estell affirms that the Criollo meat is lean, tender, and delicious. That sounds ideal for the Southwest’s growing population of immigrants from Mexico, who typically grow up eating smaller cuts of beef that have less fat. Much serious research on such things as fatty acid profiles and shelf life of Criollo meat remains to be done, but Arizona ranchers Dennis and Deborah Moroney already run a herd of Criollos on The 47 Ranch. The Moroneys, who were profiled in edible Baja Arizona (November/December 2013), acquired their Criollos from Erickson. Under the name Sky Islands, they market their grassfed meat to commercial customers and directly to consumers throughout southern Arizona.

Chavez, Estell, and their colleagues provide evidence that combining an understanding of the history of place with a commitment to environmental stewardship can offer the promise of a future for raising livestock in the desert Southwest. Their work also means that in the not-too-distant future, more healthy, delicious grassfed lamb and beef may be served in restaurants and homes throughout the region.

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