The history of modern cattle feeding began in the Imperial Valley around the early 1900’s. With newly abundant water and rich soil to grow nutritious forage, the Imperial Valley was transformed from a desert into the one of the greatest producers of cattle. The product was shipped to hungry eastern markets via the new railheads in Southern California.
The Imperial Valley’s rich ranching history was first developed by the Spanish after practices in their homeland, Spain. After annexation by the United States, water from the Colorado River fed the new irrigation systems that expanded acreage throughout the valley. During the Dust Bowl and The Great Depression, thousands of migrants were drawn to the Valley because of its abundance and healthy agricultural industry. They too contributed to the growth of agriculture and ranching.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the smaller, family owned Los Angeles packing houses fell victim to the emerging super-efficient large packing plants being built out in the country close to the cattle supply. At the same time, the nation’s Midwest corn crop was growing; and, as a result, feed yards began moving to the Midwest to be closer to the cheaper corn supply. This left the Imperial Valley feed yards with excess capacity.
Around the same time, in the 1980s, the aggregate California cow herd began transitioning from mostly beef-bred cows to a majority of Holstein dairy cows. The supply to local feedlots were an ample supply of an animal not needed in the dairies — the Holstein bull calf. Unfortunately, the Holstein bull didn’t come with directions on how to feed it to be a quality beef product, if that was possible at all.
Through much trial and error, area feeders figured out how to feed a Holstein for beef. The cattle feeding industry in the Imperial Valley was reborn. In addition, because the Holstein cattle went on a higher energy ration at a younger age than a native beef steer and therefore finished at a younger age than the beef steer, the flavor and the tenderness of the beef was of higher quality than the native beef steer.
Today, we often think of corn-fed beef from the Midwest, but the truth is otherwise. The scientific methods for efficiently raising cattle began in California. To this day, connoisseurs of fine beef recognize the Imperial Valley for quality and taste.