JORNADA EXPERIMENTAL RANGE, N.M. Ed Fredrickson is watching every move his cattle make by checking GPS units on their collars and using satellite imagery to see what plants they're eating.
The rangeland scientist wants to know if the herd a variety of ancient criollo cattle he hand-picked from Mexico has what it takes to thrive in the harsh, dry conditions of the West.
"It's going to get harder," he said. "How do we help these ranchers stay viable?"
Fredrickson hopes criollo cattle, which were first brought to the region by Spanish explorers more than 400 years ago, will make it easier for ranchers to turn a profit on rough rangeland with little water and less than desirable forage.
"It's becoming increasingly important that animals match their environments, that these animals can actually make a living here without a lot of extra dinner being put on their plate," Fredrickson said.
With their short horns and small frames, criollo have had hundreds of years to evolve with the region's harsh conditions. They played an important role in the Spanish conquest of what is now New Mexico, and their ties to the Hispanic culture are evident in the statues and murals around the state and south of the border.
The criollo eventually fell from favor after larger British breeds were imported to the United States. The processing and packing industry was built around the larger carcasses, and the criollo were nearly forgotten.
Ranching with the British breeds has worked over the last century, but Fredrickson said the range is getting drier and the prices of fuel and supplemental feed are getting higher.
He said ranchers need an alternative.
Through his research and that of colleagues at the Universidad Autonoma de Chihuahua in Mexico, criollo from the bottom of Copper Canyon have been found to tolerate hot temperatures and eat things other breeds wouldn't touch.
They don't need to eat as much, and their habit of not grazing long in one spot is easier on the land.
"These animals are so good in some of this rough country that we're thinking we can take them and work with them a little bit to see how they are as a beef animal," Fredrickson said.
Consumer spending on beef surpassed $71 billion in 2006 and has grown $22 billion over the last several years, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
Fredrickson highlights possible uses for the animal: They're agile in the roping arena, their colorful hides mean no two are alike, and their lean beef can be used for specialty foods.
"These animals and a whole new way of thinking about how these animals are marketed could allow us to adapt and still be profitable," he said.
Criollos aren't destined to revolutionize the beef industry. Experts say the nation's big processors aren't set up for the lightweights, and spurring interest in the heritage breed would take some serious effort.
The Quivira Coalition, a Santa Fe-based group dedicated to ecologically sensitive ranch management, is developing its own herd of criollo in northern New Mexico. It hopes to create a local market that would allow ranchers to earn more per pound by selling directly to consumers.
"That provides another revenue stream for ranchers to create opportunities for their kids to stay on the ranches," said coalition member Craig Conley. "That's really what we're trying to do, create options."
Rancher Virginia Cates has been raising corriente, another variety of criollo, not for their beef but as stock for other breeders and the roping industry. She and her husband, Jack, got turned on to the small cows in the 1960s and never turned back.
Just as Cates' corriente have survived her rugged ranch near Wagon Mound, Fredrickson is confident that ranchers, too, will find a way to maintain their livelihood in the face of today's challenges.
"Agriculture is a gamble," he said. "That's why people do whatever they can and use whatever technology they can to eliminate a lot of that risk. When it's your livelihood and your family's involved, you do whatever you can."