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"I'm trying to raise cattle without killing the Earth": Historic drought forces ranchers to innovate

Cattle ranchers innovate amid historic drought
Cattle ranchers innovate amid historic drought 02:53

Paso Robles, California — Daniel Sinton's family has raised cattle on their 18,000-acre ranch outside Paso Robles, California, for 140 years. But he likes to say he's in the grass growing business. 

"When you get so little rain, we're not able to grow grass and we're not able to feed the cattle. That means we ended up having to sell them off," Sinton told CBS News. "We sold off about 40% of the cattle this last year." 

Putting steaks on plates has gotten more difficult, with 87% of the West currently in at least moderate drought. Industry analysts say a majority of California ranchers have had to sell at least some of their cattle because of the drought. 

"In a typical year, you can run about one cow per 40 acres. In a drought year like this, it's more like one to 100," Sinton said. 

But on a ranch in Winkelman, Arizona, one cattleman's herd is growing. 

Langdon Hill, a retired automotive safety engineer, is trying to engineer a breed of cow better suited for the drought-ravaged West. 

"I'm trying to raise cattle without killing the Earth," Hill told CBS News. 

His goal is to breed Brahman cattle, which have a hump on their backs to store water, with Hereford cattle, an English variety that's proven to be climate adaptable while producing quality beef. 

"When these two cattle cross, we're going to be creating a hybrid animal," Hill said. "They're going to be more drought resistant and a better animal for an arid part of the world." 

The success of the crossbreeding will take years to measure. 

Back in California, Sinton's family is relying on income from their vineyard to help sustain the cattle business. In 1972, Sinton's grandfather set aside 120 acres to grow and sell grapes to winemakers. Now the family produces their own. 

"The vineyard is a great source of revenue and it's a low user of water," Sinton said, noting that his family doesn't expect to focus on the vineyard full time because "the purpose of Plan B is to generate revenue to sustain Plan A." 

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