As the world gets hotter, can cattle survive? A rancher’s quest for drought-proof cows

WINKELMAN, Ariz. —

He calls them his “little project.”

Compared with humans, they’re not little at all. Some weigh 600 pounds. They are smaller than the cattle that are usually killed for beef.

Langdon Hill bought them at auction and gated them in his backyard, an acre covered in sudangrass hay and mesquite, jojoba and palo verde trees in the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness 70 miles northeast of Tucson.

Langdon Hill's cattle on his 18,000-acre ranch.

Langdon Hill’s cattle on his 18,000-acre ranch.

(Cassidy Araiza / For The Times)

Calves, bulls and heifers, they come from breeds that naturally developed long ago in Brazil, England and India. Hill believes that they can be key to the transformation of an industry that feeds the nation but is also a driver for greenhouse gases and a cause behind deforestation in areas like the Amazon and Australia where forests are regularly cleared for grazing.

Across Arizona and much of the U.S Southwest and northern Mexico, droughts and historic heat waves have left cattle with jutted ribs, gasping for life and threatening a food source that was never meant to survive in the desert but has become a key part of its economy. As representatives from the most powerful countries in the world meet in Scotland to discuss climate change, many are concerned about cattle. Their intensive use of water and release of greenhouse gases contributes to global warming. The U.S. and dozens of countries have pledged to reduce methane emissions. Other countries, such as Australia, have declined to reduce methane emissions, citing the beef sector as a reason.

Several cattle on Langdon Hill's ranch

Hill has more than 200 cows on his ranch, which he is crossbreeding in order to find a “drought-resistant” cow.

(Cassidy Araiza / For The Times)

Some believe weaning America — the fifth-largest producer of beef in the world — off cattle would make a significant contribution. There’s also a growing number of ranchers like Hill who believe beef needs to be reimagined in order to survive.

“Our food industry is upside-down,” said Hill, 59, an environmentalist, onetime vegetarian and former industrial engineer-turned-cowboy. We eat too much cheap, processed, and water-intensive corn-fed meat. He insisted that beef could be done better. “And do less of it.”

Hall is experimenting on his 18,000-acre ranch in the dusty mountains of rural Arizona: crossbreeding in hopes of developing smaller, lankier cows that retain less heat, aren’t as thirsty and live off the native grasses and bushes without the massive grain feedlots synonymous with the American cattle industry. He speculates that they may also release less methane.

Langdon Hill rides Rosie, a Mustang, to herd cattle.

(Cassidy Araiza/For The Times )

The average cow emits more than 200 pounds of methane in one year. This is a small fraction of U.S. methane emissions. It’s far more than the fossil fuels burning. But methane is dozens of times better at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, even though it dissipates after a decade compared to the hundreds of years carbon dioxide sticks around. Studies have shown that beef and its nutrients are good for you, even though there are many meat substitutes on the market. The cows can also be used to produce milk and fertilizer. If managed properly, they can help preserve rangeland soil and prevent wildfires by eating plants that could otherwise catch on fire.

Some ranchers in this area, where cows are mostly raised on grass for a few months before being moved to packed feedlots that have higher corn and hormones, are trying to reduce methane production.

They’re also moving toward breeds more accustomed to hotter, dryer climates while turning away from Angus cattle, which have come to dominate restaurant menus and grocery store freezers. Organic, grass-fed cows are also growing, even though they don’t need feedlots.

A cattle.

One of Langdon Hill’s cattle.

(Cassidy Araiza / For The Times)

On one side of the debate are the likes of Impossible Meat and Beyond Meat, companies that use food science to make burgers mimic the fatty marbling and juicy taste of ground beef.

There are also Hill and others like him. Hill says that his beef, which is not yet on the market, will be more expensive. However, it was raised on his farm and sent to slaughterhouses for packaging. He dreams of exporting it to China and Japan, as well as selling it throughout the U.S.

Yet he wonders whether his model is sustainable in a world that wants cheap, plentiful food at the click of a button.

“We’re too late to do so much on this Earth,” he said recently while riding a black Mustang named Rosie into one of his corrals. “Running cattle, I think, still has time.”

Painted Cave Ranch sits on land next to the Aravaipa Creek, one of the few year-round natural streams in this part of the desert. Hill holds a portion of the property, while the Bureau of Land Management leases the remainder.

The Painted Cave Ranch in Arizona's Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness.

The Painted Cave Ranch, Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness.

(Cassidy Araiza / For The Times)

A bumpy dirt road traces its way around the hilly ranch, with Hill’s house set in a canyon. Few hundred cattle are free to roam alongside native desert bighorn sheep, mules deer, and coatimundi. Many cows are Brahmans, with roots in the subtropics and other tough breeds. They eat leaves and beans from mesquite trees and palo verde trees as well as grasses that grow by the creek and after the rains. They drink from long, narrow pools that draw water from large tanks.

Brahmans can better withstand the sun and are less susceptible to parasites than Angus, originally from Scotland and built with sturdy, low set black bodies made to survive harsh winters.

Hill also features Herefords which are an English breed that is known for their fertility. Beefmasters, which are a combination of Herefords Brahmans and Shorthorns, is more tolerant to drought. Charlois, a French-muscled breed with a light butterscotch tone that is popular in areas where temperatures can reach three-digits in summer, and Criollo are two other options. Criollo was brought to America by Spanish colonizers. They are smaller and more able to survive on their own, so they can travel further for food and water, making them more adaptable to the desert.

Two cattle on Langdon Hill's ranch.

Langdon Hill is home to Hereford, Brahman and Beefmaster cattle.

(Cassidy Araiza / For The Times)

In his backyard, Hill has several of these different cattle corralled together. Hill waits for the mate to happen.

“Hopefully by May, I’ll have some good genetics,” said Hill, who dons a cowboy hat, leather chaps and sports a graying beard. Crossbreeding cattle to improve their physique or temperament is not a new practice. Australia, among the world’s largest beef producers, has experimented widely with crosses since the mid-20th century.

What’s different now is the climate crisis.

” As the temperatures rise, more people try to adapt and think about what their cows can do. Rachel Cutrer co-owns B.R. Cutrer is a Wharton, Texas cattle breeder. Her husband and she ship cattle and sperm all over the globe to ranchers looking to crossbreed.

“The average animal gets heat stress when the temperature goes above 80 degrees,” Cutrer said. It’s this temperature almost all the time for a large part of the world. Animals that are heat-stressed will pant and eventually stop eating. Her animals are from a breed with more sweat glands than other breeds.

Joe Paschal is a Texas A&M University animal science professor who studies breeding trends. He described crossbreeding, an old practice that is making a comeback.

“From the 1980s on, everyone wanted to raise and eat Angus. They are being forced to make changes. Crossbreeding creates hybrid vigor. You find two breeds that are very different, combine them and you’ll have the best selection of genes that nature takes out of it.”

In contrast to the corporations that control much of the seed, grain, chicken and pork production in the U.S., most ranches are still run by families. Biology is the reason for this arrangement. The cows can only have one calf per year. This is in contrast to hens and sows who can give birth to offspring and bring them up to maturity in a matter of months.

Corporations play a much bigger role in slaughterhouses and feedlots, where most farmers sell their cattle after they live a few months on the range. There are many 4-H clubs across the country and Future Farmers of America chapters that serve as training grounds for future beef-sellers.

Hill’s path was different, as are his aspirations.

Born in Tucson to a university administrator and a mother who later became a Sedona restaurateur, he grew up riding horses on the family’s 20-acre property. His grandmother, a philanthropist, gifted him the land that would become the Tucson Botanical Gardens. Named after his grandfather, who was a Maine congressman from many generations ago.

As an architecture student at the University of Arizona in the mid-1980s, Hill patented a cheap metal door plate to fend off carjackers after his Volkswagen Golf was broken into six times. Six pairs cost $6 each. He sold them for $59.

Langdon Hill stands on ranch land in Arizona.

Langdon Hill, 59, spent most of his career working as an industrial engineer in Europe.

(Cassidy Araiza / For The Times)

Hill spent the next two decades living in Luxembourg, where he designed and sold aftermarket accessories for Audis and Volkswagens. He bought a block of Tucson houses with his profits and also rented an office building for the city’s hockey team.

” I was getting bored. I didn’t want to live high-stress lives. Hill stated that he didn’t want the pressure of pursuing business deals. “The car industry was wasting precious resources and clearly not as green as it could be.”

In 2005, he moved permanently to Arizona and bought the ranch. At first, the goal was to live a quieter life, to partially retire in his 40s.

Then he signed up for classes on beef at the University of Arizona. In exchange for mentoring, he met ranchers who let him keep his cattle on their land. He purchased cows. This was a new hobby for Hill, a self-described “spiritual wanderer”, who spent a year studying Buddhism at Deer Park Monastery.

Hill sold meat from his cattle to farmers markets for a few years. Hill still has a few packages of frozen meat in his freezer for guests.

But Arizona’s worsening drought forced him to rethink his plans as his herd’s habitat became dry. Hill saw popular meat options that were produced in factories with a fraction his carbon footprint.

Hill was an inventor his whole life and believed there was a better way. Hill searched Arizona’s cattle auctions and bought animals that no one wanted. He then arranged for them to be bred in his yard. For now, he stopped killing cows and began to play with their genetics. This can take many years and may even go back several generations.

He isn’t sure what crossbreeds he will get or when the calves might arrive. Hill has already broken some rules by naming his favorite crossbreeds — Fernando and Bronco. Hill isn’t sure if he will succeed or if his business can even survive his lifetime.

His spouse, Tori works in a Tucson rehab center late at night and seldom visits the ranch. Retired, his father finds his son’s lifestyle unusual, but he can live with it. Hill is a proud owner of three dogs, but no children. Hill considers it a blessing that profit and money are not problems.

“That’s also why it’s my responsibility to try to figure this out and do my small part,” he said. “I have the time to experiment.”

Each Wednesday, he drives an hour-and-a-half to Marana, Ariz., where he attends a cattle auction. He sometimes sells animals that aren’t suitable for the cows he is creating. He is always looking for new breeds to improve his herd.

He thought he bought eight Hereford cattle, but he misidentified them. They were Beefmasters. He was still learning and he used a mantra to keep from getting mad. This is the same mantra he uses when examining the world of cattle, climate and the potential for positive changes. All things happen slowly. It’s just the satisfaction of making a little progress.”

Hill borrows Rosie, a friend's Mustang, to herd cattle on his property.

Hill takes Rosie, a friend’s Mustang, to help him herd cattle on his land.

(Cassidy Araiza / For The Times)

Read More