Ranching is the practice of raising herds of animals on large tracts of land. Ranchers commonly raise grazing animals such as cattle and sheep. Some ranchers also raise elk, bison, ostriches, emus, and alpacas. The ranching and livestock industry is growing faster than any other agricultural sector in the world.

Ranching is common in temperate, dry areas, such as the Pampas region of South America, the western United States, the Prairie Provinces of Canada, and the Australian Outback. In these regions, grazing animals are able to roam over large areas. Some Australian ranches, known as stations, extend more than 10,000 square kilometers (3,861 square miles). The largest, Anna Creek station, covers almost 24,000 square kilometers (9,266 square miles).

Cowboys are responsible for herding and maintaining the health of animals across these vast ranches. Cowboys often work with horses to herd cattle and sheep. Cowboy culture is an important part of the identity of ranching regions. In Mexico and South America, cowboys are known as vaqueros. In Australia and New Zealand, they are called jackaroos. Herding, round-ups, cattle drives, and branding often symbolize ranching and cowboy culture.

Herding is the practice of caring for roaming groups of livestock over a large area. Ranchers and cowboys often herd animals toward favorable grazing areas. Herding also involves keeping the herd safe from predators and natural dangers of the landscape. Grazing is so important to Australian stations, ranchers are known as graziers.

A round-up, called a muster in Australia, is a gathering of all livestock on a ranch. A round-up is usually conducted by cowboys on horseback, ATV, or other vehicle. It can be done for a wide variety of reasons: health care (such as immunization shots) for the animals, branding, or the shearing of sheep.

A round-up is one of the most difficult responsibilities of ranchers and cowboys. Animals often do not want to be rounded up and herded into a small, confined area. Even the most docile cattle or sheep are likely to become aggressive during a round-up. Round-ups also involve a large number of ranch personnel performing different tasks at the same time: veterinarians administering care to the animals, cowboys herding the animals, and wranglers caring for the ranchs horses.

A cattle drive is a massive effort of moving a herd of cattle from one place to another. In the 1700s and 1800s, cowboys on horseback took a year or more to drive cattle thousands of kilometers. Cattle drives start on ranches and usually end near points of major transportation routes, such as a harbor or railroad station. From there, cattle are loaded into vehicles and shipped to slaughterhouses.

Branding is the process of permanently marking an animal to indicate ownership. The traditional brand is known as a hot brand. A rancher or cowboy heats an iron instrument with a design unique to his ranch. Each animal belonging to that ranch has the design burned into its skin. The scar left by the burn is the animals brand.

Hot brands are less frequently used on modern ranches. Ear-tags and ink tattoos are more common. Many ranchers use microchips instead of brands. A microchip is implanted under the skin of the animal. The microchip uses radio-frequency identification (RFID) to not only identify the animals owner, but also to relay information about its location and health.

Livestock raised on ranches are an important part of a regions agriculture. Livestock provide meat for human and animal consumption. They also supply materials, such as leather and wool, for clothing, furniture, and other industries.

Some ranches, nicknamed dude ranches, offer tourist facilities. Some of these sites are working ranches that allow guests to help out in real ranching activities. Others focus on horseback riding, offering lessons and trail rides. Still others allow visitors to hunt native or imported animals. Resort ranches provide a more relaxing experience, with fun activities like trail rides and sing-alongs.

History of Ranching

People raised livestock throughout the Middle Ages, but usually only in small numbers on small areas of land. The practice of raising large herds of livestock on extensive grazing lands started in Spain and Portugal around 1000 CE. These early ranchers used methods still associated with ranching today, such as using horses for herding, round-ups, cattle drives, and branding.

Ranching was only firmly established in the New World of the Americas. When the first Spanish explorers came to the Americas, they brought cattle and cattle-raising expertise with them. A variety of ranching traditions developed in the Americas, depending on the region the settlers came from and the characteristics of the land where they settled.

Gauchos are cowboys of the grasslands (or Pampas) of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. In Central Mexico, particularly the state of Jalisco, cowboys are called charros, like the charros from Castile, Spain, who settled the region. In Northern Mexico, wealthy ranchers known as caballeros employed vaqueros to drive their cattle. Ranching in the western United States is derived from vaquero culture.

Throughout most of the 1800s, ranchers in the United States set their cattle and sheep loose to roam the prairie. Most of the grazing land was owned by the government. This was the so-called open range. Ranchers only owned enough land for a homestead and sources of water. Twice a year, cowboys rounded up cattle to brand calves (in spring) and gather steers for sale (in autumn).

Several factors contributed to the end of the open range. One was the invention of barbed wire in 1874. Farmers began to fence off their fields to protect them from being destroyed by livestock. This limited access to grazing land. Farmers and ranchers often came into conflict over land and water rights.

Overgrazing was also a problem. As more and more ranchers grazed their animals on the open range, the quality of the land became degraded. Cattle are not native to the Americas, and had to compete with native grazing animals, such as bison, for forage. Grasses did not have time to grow on the open range, especially in winter.

The winter of 1886-87, one of the harshest ever recorded, killed hundreds of thousands of cattle that were already weakened from reduced grazing. Many large ranches and cattle organizations went bankrupt. Afterwards, ranchers began fencing off their land, which they often leased from the American government.

In Western movies, ranchers and cowboys are played mostly by white men like Gene Autry, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood. However, in the 1800s, more than one-third of all cowboys in the United States were Mexican vaqueros. Others were Chinese or Filipino. African Americans, seeking greater freedom in the West, also worked as cowboys and ranch hands during this period.

Working Animals

Ranches include animals other than livestock. These working animals help with the job of herding and rounding up livestock.

Horses are perhaps the most familiar working animal on ranches. If you imagine a cowboy, you probably picture him sitting astride a horse. Horses allow cowboys to travel over rangelands quickly and keep up with moving livestock. Horses are also strong and responsive, making them excellent herding animals.

The sport of rodeo developed from the skills required of cowboys and ranch horses. Informal competitions among ranchers and cowboys tested their speed, agility, and endurance. Today, events such as roping, barrel racing, and bull riding demonstrate those same qualities among professional athletes.

Dogs are also common on ranches. Several types of dogs have been bred for their herding abilities. Many of these highly intelligent, agile animals are simply called shepherds; Australian shepherds and German shepherds are probably the most familiar. Collies and sheepdogs are also used on ranches. Livestock guardian dogs do not herd animals, but are used to protect herds from predators. For example, the Great Pyrenees was bred to protect grazing animals from wolves and other predators native to the Pyrenees mountains in Spain and France.

Ranching Around the World

Today, ranches exist on every continent except Antarctica. South America enjoys an enormous ranching culture. The largest beef-producing company in the world is the Brazilian multinational corporation JBS-Friboi.

The South American ranching industry continues to grow. Many South American countries, led by Brazil and Argentina, are rapidly developing. The growing middle class has expanded the market for beef. Argentina and Uruguay are the worlds top per capita consumers of beef.

In Australia, like the Americas, ranching is a way of life and a strong part of the economy. A typical jackaroo (or female jillaroo) is a young, seasonal employee. Stations may employ their own veterinarians, mechanics, and engineers.

Sheep stations are more common than cattle stations in Australia. The difficult, annual process of shearing sheep is a symbol of Australian livestock culture. A shearing team or company usually moves from ranch to ranch with specialized shearing equipment and machinery.

In Africa, most ranches are wildlife ranches. Wildlife ranches, also known as game ranches, maintain healthy populations of species such as rhinoceros, elephant, leopard, and antelope. People pay a fee to hunt these animals on the ranch. Wildlife ranches also appeal to ecotourists. Ecotourism promotes traveling in a way that has minimum environmental impact and benefits local people.

Large-scale cattle ranching is rare in Asia but fairly common throughout the islands of the South Pacific. In the U.S. state of Hawaii, cowboy culture was born when Mexican vaqueros were brought in to help herd cattle in the 1830s. Cowboys in Hawaii are called paniolos.

In Europe, few ranches exist outside Spain and Portugal. Most countries in Europe are too small to support ranches. In fact, Australias Anna Creek station is only slightly smaller than the entire nation of Belgium.

Ranching and the Environment

Ranching is an efficient way to raise livestock to provide meat, dairy products, and raw materials for fabrics. It is a vital part of economies and rural development around the world. However, the livestock industry has major, disruptive effects on the environment.

In South America, ranching has expanded beyond grasslands into rain forests. Ranchers clear large swaths of forest in order to create pastureland for their cattle. This clearcutting reduces habitat for native species such as monkeys, tropical birds, and millions of species of insects not found anywhere else in the world. During the past 40 years, about 20 percent of the Amazon rain forest has been cut down, much of it for cattle ranching.

Ranches established on former rain forest lands are usually not economically productive. Cleared rain forest land usually makes poor grazing land. A rain forests biodiversity exists in its above-ground canopy, not the earth beneath. Grasses do not thrive in the thin, nutrient-poor soil.

Even outside of the rain forest, many ranching practices have significant effects on the environment. Overgrazing, a threat throughout the Great Plains of the United States and Canada, puts the native tallgrass prairie ecosystem at risk. This can lead to soil erosion. The loss of valuable topsoil can reduce the agricultural productivity for crops and grazing lands. Poor agricultural practices contributed to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which destroyed hundreds of ranches throughout the Great Plains.

Compaction of the soil from animal hooves further degrades the land. This is unique to introduced species. Bison, native to the Americas, have small, sharp, pointed hooves. Their stampeding aerates the soil and actually contributes to the prairie ecosystem. Cattle have heavy, flat hooves that flatten the soil and reduce its ability to absorb water and nutrients.

Drylands are especially at risk for overgrazing and reduction in the quality of soil. In fact, ranching can be a key cause of desertification.

Livestock ranching also contributes to air and water pollution. Runoff from ranches can include manure, antibiotics and hormones given to the animals, as well as fertilizers and pesticides. Chemicals from tanneries that treat animal hides can also seep into water.

Ranching is also a major contributor to global warming. In fact, livestock are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than transportation. Carbon is released when forests are cleared for pastureland. Manure produces nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. Cattle release large amounts of methane from their digestive systems.

Scientists, governments, and ranchers are working together to find ways to reduce these problems and make ranching a sustainable economic activity.

ranching

Ranches like this one in the Pampas are called estancias.

Ranch House
A ranch house is a popular architectural design throughout the western United States and Canada. Ranch houses are typically one story, with a low roof and attached garage.

Ranchos
Before California became a state in 1850, the region was largely divided into huge land grants, called ranchos. Wealthy Spanish and Mexican landowners worked with native California Indians to manage these huge cattle and sheep ranches. The largest rancho, Los Nietos, stretched through what are today Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Deep Hollow Ranch
The oldest ranch in the United States may be Deep Hollow, in Montauk, New York. English and Dutch settlers, as well as native Montauk Indians, established the area as a cattle ranch in the mid-1600s. Deep Hollow remains a working cattle ranch, offering trail rides and living history events.

Ranchera
Ranchera is a type of Mexican popular song. Rancheras that developed in the rural, ranching state of Jalisco are often played by mariachi musicians.

Jewish Gauchos
In the late 1800s, thousands of Jewish refugees fled oppression in Eastern Europe. Many of them settled in the pastures of Argentina and quickly adapted to the gaucho, or cowboy, culture. These Jewish ranchers established the town of Moises Ville and developed their own dialect, a combination of Spanish and Yiddish. A second wave of immigrants relocated to Moises Ville to escape Nazi persecution during World War II.

Ranch Dressing
Ranch dressing, a rich combination of buttermilk, yogurt, sour cream, mayonnaise, green onions, and garlic, was invented at a dude ranch in California in the 1950s. The ranchs name? Hidden Valley.

absorb
Verb

to soak up.

administer
Verb

to oversee, manage, or be in charge of.

aggressive
Adjective

forceful or offensive.

agility
Noun

ability to move quickly, easily, and with flexibility.

Noun

the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

alpaca
Noun

domesticated mammal related to the llama, native to South America.

annual
Adjective

yearly.

antelope
Noun

grazing mammal.

antibiotic
Noun

substance that can stop or slow the growth of certain microbes, such as bacteria. Antibiotics do not stop viruses.

athlete
Noun

person who participates or competes in sporting events.

ATV
Noun

(all-terrain vehicle) vehicle designed to move across difficult, unpaved terrain as well as on roads.

Australian Shepherd
Noun

breed of dog originally bred to herd sheep and cattle.

bankrupt
Adjective

unable to pay debts.

barbed wire
Noun

twisted metal with sharpened points, often used for fences.

barrel racing
Noun

rodeo event where athletes on horseback race in a pattern around three barrels or drums placed in a triangle shape.

beef
Noun

flesh of a cow used for food.

Noun

all the different kinds of living organisms within a given area.

bison
Noun

large mammal native to North America. Also called American buffalo.

caballero
Noun

rancher from Mexico or the Southwestern United States.

canopy
Noun

one of the top layers of a forest, formed by the thick leaves of very tall trees.

carbon
Noun

chemical element with the symbol C, which forms the basis of all known life.

carbon dioxide
Noun

greenhouse gas produced by animals during respiration and used by plants during photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide is also the byproduct of burning fossil fuels.

cattle
Noun

cows and oxen.

cattle drive
Noun

effort to herd cattle from one place to another.

characteristic
Noun

physical, cultural, or psychological feature of an organism, place, or object.

charro
Noun

cowboy of Central Mexico.

Clint Eastwood
Noun

(1930-present) American actor and director.

collie
Noun

type of dog with a long coat, originally bred for herding sheep.

conflict
Noun

a disagreement or fight, usually over ideas or procedures.

consumer
Noun

organism on the food chain that depends on autotrophs (producers) or other consumers for food, nutrition, and energy.

Noun

one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

cowboy
Noun

person who herds cattle on a ranch, usually on a horse.

dairy
Adjective

having to do with the production of milk, cream, butter, or cheese.

Noun

destruction or removal of forests and their undergrowth.

degrade
Verb

to lower the quality of something.

demonstrate
Verb

to show how something is done.

desertification
Noun

rapid depletion of plant life and topsoil, often associated with drought and human activity.

destroy
Verb

to ruin or make useless.

develop
Verb

to expand or grow.

digestive system
Noun

series of organs and glands responsible for the ingestion, digestion, and absorption of food. Also called the alimentary canal.

disruptive
Adjective

distracting or preventing an orderly or planned flow of events.

docile
Adjective

gentle and easily led.

draft animal
Noun

animal used for pulling or carrying cargo.

dude ranch
Noun

large livestock farm used as a tourist destination.

Dust Bowl
Noun

(1930-1940) term for the Great Plains of the U.S. and Canada when severe dust storms forced thousands of people off their farms.

ear-tag
Noun

identifying marker attached to an animal's ear.

earth
Noun

soil or dirt.

economy
Noun

system of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.

Noun

community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

ecotourism
Noun

act and industry of traveling for pleasure with concern for minimal environmental impact.

elephant
Noun

large mammal with a long trunk, native to Africa and Asia.

elk
Noun

large species of deer native to North America. Also called American elk and wapiti.

emission
Noun

discharge or release.

emu
Noun

large, flightless bird native to Australia.

endurance
Noun

ability to accept and deal with hardship.

engineer
Noun

person who plans the building of things, such as structures (construction engineer) or substances (chemical engineer).

enormous
Adjective

very large.

environment
Noun

conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

environmental impact
Noun

incident or activity's total effect on the surrounding environment.

Noun

act in which earth is worn away, often by water, wind, or ice.

expertise
Noun

outstanding or expert knowledge about a specific subject.

extensive
Adjective

very large.

fabric
Noun

cloth.

factor
Noun

element contributing to an event or outcome.

familiar
Adjective

well-known.

fertilizer
Noun

nutrient-rich chemical substance (natural or manmade) applied to soil to encourage plant growth.

forage
Noun

fodder, or food for horses or cattle.

forest
Noun

ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.

game ranch
Noun

area of land filled with wildlife and preserved for hunting or tourism. Also called a game reserve.

gaucho
Noun

South American cowboy.

Gene Autry
Noun

(1907-1998) American entertainer and businessman.

German sheperd
Noun

breed of dog originally bred to herd sheep and cattle.

Noun

increase in the average temperature of the Earth's air and oceans.

government
Noun

system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

grassland
Noun

ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.

grazier
Noun

Australian rancher.

grazing animal
Noun

animal that feeds on grasses, trees, and shrubs.

Great Plains
Noun

grassland region of North America, between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River.

Great Pyrenees
Noun

breed of dog originally bred to herd and protect livestock.

greenhouse gas
Noun

gas in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, and ozone, that absorbs solar heat reflected by the surface of the Earth, warming the atmosphere.

Noun

environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

Noun

part of a body of water deep enough for ships to dock.

harsh
Adjective

extreme.

health care
Noun

system for addressing the physical health of a population.

herd
Noun

group of animals.

Noun

practice of caring for roaming groups of livestock over a large area.

herding animal
Noun

animal, such as a dog, bred to keep a herd of livestock safe and together.

hide
Noun

leather skin of an animal.

homestead
Noun

area of land including a dwelling and any outbuildings, such as barns.

hormone
Noun

chemical that helps regulate some human processes, including growth and reproduction.

hot brand
Noun

identifying mark burned into an animal's skin.

hunt
Verb

to pursue and kill an animal, usually for food.

identity
Noun

how a person defines themselves, or how others define them.

immunization
Noun

process of becoming immune to a disease.

indicate
Verb

to display or show.

introduced species
Noun

a species that does not naturally occur in an area. Also called alien, exotic, or non-native species.

iron
Noun

chemical element with the symbol Fe.

jackaroo
Noun

Australian cowboy.

jillaroo
Noun

Australian cowgirl.

John Wayne
Noun

(Marion Morrison, 1907-1979) American actor.

Noun

the geographic features of a region.

leather
Noun

skin of an animal, prepared for use as clothing, protection, shelter, or other use.

leopard
Noun

large, spotted cat native to Africa and Asia.

livestock
noun, plural noun

animals raised for sale and profit.

machinery
Noun

mechanical appliances or tools used in manufacturing.

maintain
Verb

to continue, keep up, or support.

manure
Noun

animal excrement or waste used to fertilize soil.

market
Noun

central place for the sale of goods.

massive
Adjective

very large or heavy.

meat
Noun

animal flesh eaten as food.

methane
Noun

chemical compound that is the basic ingredient of natural gas.

microchip
Noun

small semiconductor with electrical circuits that carry information.

Middle Ages
Noun

(500-1500) period in European history between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance.

middle class
Noun

people and culture characterized by incomes between the working class and the wealthy.

multinational corporation
Noun

business that manages the production of goods or delivers services in several countries.

muster
Noun

gathering of all the livestock on a ranch. Also called a round-up.

native species
Noun

species that occur naturally in an area or habitat. Also called indigenous species.

New World
Noun

the Western Hemisphere, made up of the Americas and their islands.

nitrous oxide
Noun

greenhouse gas used in medicine and the manufacture of rockets. Also known as laughing gas or happy gas.

Noun

substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

open range
Noun

large area owned by the government where many owners' livestock may graze, usually referring to the situation in the late 1800s in the western United States.

ostrich
Noun

very large, flightless bird native to Africa.

Outback
Noun

remote, sparsely populated interior region of Australia.

overgrazing
Noun

process of too many animals feeding on one area of pasture or grassland.

Pampas
Noun

flat grasslands of South America.

paniolo
Noun

Hawaiian cowboy.

pasture
Noun

type of agricultural land used for grazing livestock.

per capita
Adjective

for each individual.

permanent
Adjective

constant or lasting forever.

personnel
Noun

employees or all people working toward a common goal.

pesticide
Noun

natural or manufactured substance used to kill organisms that threaten agriculture or are undesirable. Pesticides can be fungicides (which kill harmful fungi), insecticides (which kill harmful insects), herbicides (which kill harmful plants), or rodenticides (which kill harmful rodents.)

Noun

introduction of harmful materials into the environment.

potential
Noun

possibility.

Noun

large grassland; usually associated with the Mississippi River Valley in the United States.

Prairie Provinces
Noun

Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Also called the Prairies.

predator
Noun

animal that hunts other animals for food.

radio-frequency identification (RFID)
Noun

technology that uses tiny computer chips to track items from a distance.

Noun

area of tall, mostly evergreen trees and a high amount of rainfall.

rancher
Noun

person who owns or manages a livestock farm (ranch).

Noun

practice of raising livestock for human use, such as food or clothing.

reduce
Verb

to lower or lessen.

Noun

any area on Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

rhinoceros
Noun

endangered animals native to Africa with leathery skin and one or two upright horns on their snout.

rodeo
Noun

display and competition of cowboy skills, such as roping and horse riding.

round-up
Noun

gathering of all the livestock on a ranch. Also called a muster.

route
Noun

path or way.

Noun

overflow of fluid from a farm or industrial factory.

rural
Adjective

having to do with country life, or areas with few residents.

scientist
Noun

person who studies a specific type of knowledge using the scientific method.

seasonal
Adjective

likely to change with the seasons.

seep
Verb

to slowly flow through a border.

settler
Noun

person who migrates and establishes a residence in a largely unpopulated area.

shear
Noun

to remove the fleece or hair of an animal with sharp scissors or an electric razor.

sheep
Noun

type of mammal with thick, strong wool used for cloth.

sheepdog
Noun

type of dog originally bred to herd and gaurd sheep.

significant
Adjective

important or impressive.

slaughterhouse
Noun

building or series of buildings where animals are taken to be killed and butchered.

soil
Noun

top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.

station
Noun

Australian ranch.

sustainable
Adjective

able to be continued at the same rate for a long period of time.

swath
Noun

path or line of material.

symbolize
Verb

to represent an object, idea, organization, or geographical region.

tallgrass prairie
Noun

plain where grasses grow up to 2 meters (6 feet) tall.

tannery
Noun

building or series of buildings where skins and hides are prepared as leather.

tattoo
Noun

permanent ink decoration on skin.

temperate
Adjective

moderate.

topsoil
Noun

the most valuable, upper layer of soil, where most nutrients are found.

tourist
Noun

person who travels for pleasure.

tract
Noun

area of land.

transportation
Noun

movement of people or goods from one place to another.

tropical
Adjective

existing in the tropics, the latitudes between the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south.

valuable
Adjective

worth a considerable amount of money or esteem.

vaquero
Noun

Latin American cowboy.

vast
Adjective

huge and spread out.

veterinarian
Noun

person who studies the health of animals.

water rights
Plural Noun

right of a consumer (person, business, or government) to use water from a specific source. Sometimes, water rights include the amount of water a consumer is allowed to use.

wildlife ranch
Noun

area set aside and protected by the government or other organization to maintain wildlife habitat. Also called a nature preserve.

wool
Noun

thick, soft hair of some animals, such as sheep.

working animal
Noun

domesticated animals bred to help a person do a job.

wrangler
Noun

cowboy who is responsible for a ranch's horses.