Domestic cattle have been present in the New World for 500 years, and have
been an important component of California’s economic and social fabric since the
establishment of the first Spanish mission in San Diego in the early 1700’s. By
1834, California’s missions operated a herd of beef cattle estimated at 400,000
head. Under Mexican rule, large "ranchos" were established, and cattle hides and
tallow fueled the state’s economy. The Gold Rush during the 1800’s brought
hundreds of thousands of new citizens to the state, as well as new demand for
beef. Many of today’s ranches were established prior to or just following the
discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848.
Today, California’s ranching enterprises are as diverse as any in the world.
Ranchers own and/or manage approximately 38 million acres of privately and
publicly owned rangelands. Most California ranches are family owned and
operated, and many have been in the same family for four or five generations.
The long-term success of ranching operations requires the careful stewardship of
animals and the environment.
Today's Beef Cattle Industry
Regional and operational factors, as well as cattle breed, nutritional
requirements, reproductive status and behavioral characteristics influence beef
cattle production in California. California’s geographical diversity, along with
its climatic and environmental variability, has resulted in the state’s highly
complex livestock production industry.
California has more than 100 million acres of land, 38 million of which are
range and pasture lands. Of these 38 million acres, approximately half are owned
by the federal government, making many California ranchers heavily dependent on
the availability of federal grazing permits. California’s rangelands are
classified as Mediterranean, desert, and intermountain, and are among the most
productive in the West.California’s predominant range type is Mediterranean
annual rangelands, which encompass all of the Central Valley, as well as the
coastal and foothill ranges. Annual forage production in these regions is
seasonal, but grazing of green or dry forage occurs year round. The
Mediterranean grasslands of the North Coast, because of the region’s moderate
climate and increased rainfall, produce forage for a longer period.
The state’s desert rangelands are located primarily in the southeastern region
of California. A mixture of annual vegetation, perennial grasses and shrubs
provide forage for domestic livestock and many species of wildlife. Winter and
spring rains support annual plant growth; however, rainfall can be erratic and
shrubs provide feed for livestock during dryer periods.Intermountain rangelands
are located in the northern and eastern regions of the state. Winter dormancy
and spring-summer growth dictate livestock management systems vastly different
than in other regions of the state.
Cattle typically graze lower elevation forage in the spring, and are then moved
to higher elevation pastures during the summer months. Ranchers in the
intermountain areas generally harvest and store forage during the summer for
winter-feeding. During the fall, cattle may graze crop residue, residual
rangeland, or pasture forage. Cattle may be fed hay or transported out of the
region during the winter months.