Ranching is the practice of raising herds of animals on large tracts of land. Ranchers commonly raise grazing animals such as cattle and sheep.


5 - 12+


Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, World History

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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.

Fast Fact

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.

Fast Fact

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.

Fast Fact

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.

Fast Fact

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

Fast Fact

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.

Fast Fact

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.

Media Credits

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Diane Boudreau
Melissa McDaniel
Erin Sprout
Andrew Turgeon
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther, Illustrator
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

January 5, 2024

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