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Why cattle ranching developed on the Great Plains


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Vast fortunes were made for a while out of cattle ranching on the Great Plains. The industry was based on a combination of factors that made it highly profitable, though unfortunately for the cattle barons the bonanza did not last for ever.

Key factors in development of cattle ranching

The underlying factor in the development of cattle ranching was the free availability of three crucial natural products:

  • wild cattle
  • wild horses
  • grass

These, together with a huge and growing market for beef in the north, meant that ranching became a good way to make a living.

For ranching to work, several things had to be in place. The railroads were a critical factor in the development of cattle ranching - without them the cattle would not have reached the marketplace. The long drives (which took the cattle to the railroads), cow-towns and stockyards (where the cattle were loaded onto the trains) were also all vital in getting the product to market.

The cowboys were another essential ingredient - without their skills nothing, particularly the long drives, would have been possible.

Catttle being led to the market

Engraving by GH Delorme, 1892, showing Abilene cattle trail from Texas, on the way to markets in the north

Other factors added weight to the basic elements.

  • Range rights and the invention of crazy quilt [Crazy quilt: A system, used by cattle ranchers, of picking a number of choice pieces of land to buy within a larger area - which eventually means the buyer controls the whole area. ] allowed ranchers to acquire huge areas of land very cheaply.
  • Skilful breeding (the development of heavier cattle, which were still tough enough to survive on the plains) increased the ranchers' profits.
  • Also important for profits was the defeat of the rustlers and the Indians (which allowed ranchers to trade unhindered).
  • Finally there was publicity - which encouraged people to take up cattle ranching.


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