When we say the term "ranch," what comes to mind? Saddles, spurs, Stetsons, lassos, pointed boots, horses. A large brick house overlooking endless fenced acres. Huge herds of cattle meandering through dusty pastures, grazing on grasses and shrubs. 

Ranching Ranching

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Table of contents

    Ranching is a major source of food in North America. And in some places, it has become inextricably linked to a sense of place. We'll explain what a ranch is, what types of ranches there are, the impacts of ranching, and the role ranching has played in the history of Texas.

    Ranching Agriculture: Ranching vs Farming

    In AP Human Geography, terms like "agriculture," "farming," and "ranching" may sometimes become muddled.

    Farming and agriculture are synonymous. Farming is the practice of raising living organisms for the cultivation of natural resources. This includes food in the form of meat, produce, grains, eggs, or dairy, as well as other resources like natural fibers, plant oils, and rubber. Crop-based farming (crop cultivation) involves the cultivation of plants, while livestock farming (animal husbandry) involves the cultivation of animals.

    Ranching, a term largely restricted to North America, falls under the umbrella of animal husbandry. Ranching is farming.

    Ranching Definition

    Ranching is a type of livestock agriculture in which animals are left to graze on grasses in an enclosed pasture.

    A typical ranch includes, at minimum, at least one pasture and a fence to enclose the livestock (whereas a pasture is a field in which animals can graze). Many ranches include multiple pastures, at least one barn, and a farmhouse (that is, the ranchers' personal residence).

    Major grazing livestock includes, but is not limited to, cattle, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, llamas, and alpacas. Of these, cattle are most often linked with ranching. You might associate ranching with very, very large pastures, but something as small and simple as a couple of llamas on a single acre of land is technically a ranch.

    Ranching, Ranching Definition, Cattle Ranch, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Part of a cattle ranch in central Texas

    That said, not all livestock agriculture can be properly called ranching. A livestock farm in which the animals are confined to relatively small enclosures is not a ranch. Livestock farms that do not raise grazing animals (think chickens, pigs, honeybees, silkworms, ducks, or rabbits) are not typically called ranches either.

    Ranching is a form of extensive agriculture, meaning there is relatively little labor input proportionate to the land and the resource being farmed. The opposite of extensive agriculture is intensive agriculture.

    Caring for three cows on a single acre of land is extensive agriculture. Growing and maintaining 150 olive trees on a single acre of land is intensive agriculture.

    Livestock-based extensive agriculture also includes transhumance and pastoral nomadism; these are notably different from ranching in that they require voluntary migration. Ranching is mostly sedentary and tied to a plot of land.

    Another form of extensive farming is shifting cultivation. Remember all of these for the AP Human Geography exam!

    Types of Ranching

    We can further separate ranching into three sub-categories.

    Livestock Ranching

    Livestock ranching is the quintessential type of ranching and is more or less what we described above: an enclosed pasture with livestock, often cattle.

    Livestock ranching is also the preferred method of farming large grazing animals that are not fully domesticated, like bison. These animals are less docile so are difficult to contain in the small enclosures used in industrial livestock farming.

    Game Ranching

    Speaking of bison, some ranches are large plots of land where people can hunt privately. These are called game ranches or hunting ranches. Rather than livestock, game ranches tend to feature wild animals, like deer, elk, and bison. Some game ranches prioritize "exotic" species not native to the area. A game ranch in Texas, for example, might feature antelope and wildebeest from Africa.

    Game ranching blurs the line between hunting, farming, and tourism. The animals are not "farmed," but rather "stocked."

    Guest Ranching

    Guest ranches are promoted as vacation and tourist destinations. They capitalize on agritourism, which is agriculture-related tourism, and offer the experience of visiting or staying on a ranch. As such, many guest ranches are not "working farms" because they focus more on the tourist experience and less on the production of resources. Animals are usually more part of the "scenery" at a guest ranch, though some guest ranches do both agritourism and farming. Some guest ranches may even have their guests perform farm chores!

    Ranching System

    How does ranching, as a system, actually work? And why does ranching even exist as a form of livestock agriculture?

    Ranches mostly exist in areas where one or more of the following conditions are met:

    • There is a cultural and/or economic demand for meat, dairy, animal fiber, or agritourism.

    • The land can support hardy livestock, but not necessarily intensive crop cultivation. Therefore, it is easier to feed local people with livestock.

    • Cultural or physical limitations confine livestock farmers to set locations; there is limited ability to practice transhumance or pastoralism.

    • Ranching can also be driven by the cultural or economic desirability of individual land ownership and the value of real estate.

    Ranches are the middle ground between industrial livestock farms (where animals are stuck in small enclosures) and pastoralism (in which animals roam practically free), though some ranches and their pastures are so massive that they are practically pastoral, and livestock may travel for acres without coming near any fences.

    While many fences may be simple wooden posts that dissuade livestock from escaping, other fences are more advanced. Some are even electric. Barbed wire, developed by farmers in the late 19th century, is an effective method of keeping livestock in and predators out.

    Ranches make the most sense in arid grassland climates. To that end, some ranches rely on inventions like the wind pump (a windmill-well hybrid) to ensure that ranchers and their livestock can access enough water.

    Harvesting Resources

    Depending on what the ranch is farming, the systems for harvesting resources can look a lot different.

    If ranchers are specifically raising animals to collect and sell their fiber (e.g. sheep, alpacas), they may invite a team of shearers to the ranch annually or biannually, usually just before the summer. The animals then have their fiber shorn. The best fiber is packaged and shipped to a fiber mill, where it is processed into usable textiles. For most fiber animals, the shearing process is necessary, because their fiber will never stop growing. If left unshorn, these animals may die of heat exhaustion under the weight of their own hair.

    Ranching, Ranching System, Shearing, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Livestock like sheep must be shorn, even if a rancher does not intend to sell the wool

    Ranchers who raise animals for dairy (e.g., cows, goats) have to milk them daily. This milk is loaded into temporary storage vats on the ranch itself. From there, the milk is transferred to tanker trunks, which transport the milk to a factory where it is homogenized, pasteurized, and packaged.

    Lastly, ranchers who raise animals for meat (e.g., cattle, sheep, goats) almost never slaughter their animals on the ranch itself. The livestock are usually loaded onto a trailer and driven to a truck or train that transports them to a slaughterhouse.

    Impacts of Ranching

    Some of the positive impacts of ranching are:

    • Ranching is an effective way to produce food in a relatively dry climate.

    • Ranching generally requires less labor and less machinery than crop-based agriculture.

    • Domestic ranching helps prevent food insecurity.

    • Ranching helps meet local and national food demands (needs AND wants).

    • Ranching causes less agriculture-related pollution than industrial livestock farming.

    • Livestock on ranches experience a better quality of life than livestock on industrial livestock farms.

    • Ranching as a livelihood creates cultural traditions that enrich a country in an intangible way (think: "cowboys").

    While negative impacts of ranching include:

    • New ranches typically require forests to be cleared, contributing to global deforestation.

    • Improperly managed grazing can destroy local vegetation and soil.

    • Very large cattle herds can be a major source of greenhouse gases.

    • Ranch infrastructure can disrupt wild ecosystems.

    • Conflict between ranchers and local predators can drive predators to extinction.

    • Ranches displace or compete with wild animals for grazing territory.

    One of the leading motivations for the wholesale slaughter of the American bison in the early 20th century? Ranchers needed space for their domestic cattle to graze!

    Regenerative Ranching

    Regenerative ranching is an approach to ranching that seeks to address some of the negative impacts we listed above. Specifically, regenerative ranching seeks to improve soil and plant health to increase long-term sustainability and profitability.

    The single most important aspect of regenerative ranching is rotational grazing. This means that livestock are moved to different pastures after some length of time. Some ranchers rotate their livestock multiple times over the course of a day, while others rotate them over the course of a season. It all depends on the sizes of the pastures and the climate that the animals are living in.

    Ranching, Regenerative Ranching, Cowboys, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Cowboys in Montana round up cattle to move them

    Animals like cows, goats, horses, and sheep often pull up grasses by their roots to consume them. The plants do not have an opportunity to grow back; an entirely new plant must fill that soil. Additionally, animals with hard hooves, if they remain in one place for too long, can compact the soil, making it difficult for plants to grow. Essentially, if you leave livestock in one confined pasture for too long, they will deplete their own food source.

    However, on a large ranch where cattle have free rein over 100 acres, regenerative ranching will have a negligible impact.

    Ranching in Texas

    If we had to guess which part of the United States you most associate with ranching, there's only one answer: Texas.

    Spanish Texas

    The Spanish introduced ranching to the New World in the 16th century. Mexican farmers began establishing Texas' ranching systems in the late 17th century. Livestock were mostly associated with Catholic missions that had been set up to convert local Indigenous groups to Christianity. The ranches that were related to these missions enabled the mission population to feed itself and generate an income.

    Management of those early ranches was often haphazard. Horses broke loose, turned feral, and roamed the Texas plains at will. Cattle were left unbranded and allowed to graze wherever they pleased. Spanish colonial official Teodoro de Croix issued an ultimatum in the late 18th century: animals found unfenced and unbranded would become the property of the Spanish crown. This ultimately helped establish the more organized ranches we know today.

    The American Cowboy

    After the US Civil War (1861-1865), Texans began to optimize their cattle ranching industries. Great Cattle Drives exported millions of cows to other states like Kansas, enabled by horseback-riding ranch hands colloquially called "cowboys." Ranches began to be consolidated; as the Spanish and Native American presence and influence in the region grew ever smaller, property ownership began to take more concrete shape under the governments of Texas and the United States.

    Now, Texas is responsible for producing more beef than any other state. Around 250,000 farms are located in Texas alone (most of them ranches), covering over 130 million acres. The largest ranch in the United States, King Ranch, is about 825,000 acres and is located near Kingsville, Texas. Much of Texas culture revolves around the imagery of cattle, cowboys, and ranch life.

    Ranching - Key takeaways

    • Ranching is a type of livestock agriculture in which animals are left to graze on grasses in an enclosed pasture.
    • Most ranches revolve around livestock, but some ranches may revolve around hunting (game ranches) or agritourism (guest ranches).
    • Positive impacts of ranching include food security, animal welfare, and efficiency in climates that do not support other forms of agriculture.
    • Negative impacts of ranching include soil degradation, deforestation, and conflict with local ecosystems.
    • Texas is a focal point of the ranching industry. Texas produces more beef than any other state.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Ranching

    What is cattle ranching? 

    Cattle ranching is the practice of letting cattle graze in enclosed pastures. 

    How does cattle ranching cause deforestation? 

    Cattle ranching causes deforestation if/when ranchers clear forestland to expand their ranches or establish new ones. 

    What are the benefits of cattle ranching? 

    Benefits of cattle ranching include: providing an effective way to produce food in a relatively dry climate; meeting local and national food demands; and less pollution and greater animal welfare than industrial livestock farms.

    Why did the inventions of barbed wire and the wind pump help the development of ranching?

    The barbed wire helped keep predators out and livestock in. The wind pump is an efficient way to get water to help meet the needs of ranchers and their herds. 

    What are the impacts of cattle ranching? 

    Impacts of cattle ranching include deforestation; soil degradation; vegetation degradation; and conflicts with local wildlife, especially predators. 

    How did the Spanish influence ranching in texas? 

    The Spanish more or less laid the groundwork for the ranching system in modern-day Texas. Catholic missionaries brought livestock with them to Texas and used them for food and trade. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following does ranching best correspond to? 

    Which of the following agricultural developments or practices have helped enable ranching?

    Which of these animals are most associated with ranching? Select all that apply. 

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