The History of Ranching in Arizona


Ranching is an important part of Arizona’s history. Due to its consistently mild climate and rolling grasslands, Arizona has attracted many ranchers over the years. However, ranching has become a long-forgotten way of life for many Arizonians and as time passes, you hear less and less about people being raised on ranches. Despite the fact that it is becoming less commonplace, ranching forms an important part of Arizonian identity. Many of the ranches found in Arizona today are guest ranches where cattle and horses are grazed. Guests at these ranches can enjoy outdoor activities like horseback riding, birding, and hiking.

Why Arizona?

Much of Arizona is arid and while it’s true that droughts have made ranching difficult for many, Arizona is a desirable ranching spot because of its great grass coverage and favorable climate. Grass protects the pastures because it allows them to hold moisture well, keeping the soil rich. Rich soil leads to further growth of grass. Grass cover also saves ranchers money because it eliminates the need for having to feed livestock by other means. However, due to the aridness of Arizona’s landscape, there is a limit to the number of livestock it can support.

The History or Stock Raising in Arizona

In around 1690, people began raising stock in Arizona. Spanish ranchers settled in the headwaters of the Santa Cruz River in the Huachuca Mountains. Around the same time, Jesuit missionaries gave the O’odham Indians livestock after they agreed to live in mission communities.

Ranching began in earnest in the 1730s around the time of the mining boom and revival of Jesuit missions. Ranching became more common in the Santa Cruz Valley as the demand for beef grew along with the population. For several years, Apache Indians had prevented ranchers from settling outside of the Santa Cruz Valley.

At the end of the American Civil War in 1865, large scale ranching began to take place in Arizona. Due to disruptions from the Civil War, cattle had overgrazed the pastures of Texas and many ranchers moved to north and west into Arizona. Cattle numbers in Arizona grew exponentially as a result. By the 1890s, there were about 1.5 million cattle in Arizona. Once a windmill that pumped groundwater into storage ponds and two transcontinental railroads were introduced, an increasing number of businessmen began investing in Arizona ranches.

The vast Arizonian countryside was converted into a large livestock ranch in a short amount of time. The climate was favorable, enabling plenty of forage to grow. However, ranchers overgrazed the pastures in a period of 20 years. After a drought took place, around 50 to 75 percent of the cattle population in southern Arizona perished. Ranchers in Arizona learned their lesson after this fiasco. While in the past they had as many as one cow per five acres, nowadays they only have around one full grown cow per 65 acres in order to protect the landscape from being degraded again. Furthermore, many ranchers ensure that the livestock only consume around 60 percent of the forage in case of drought.

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