Contrary to the common assumption that Colombian ranchers were uninterested or unable to improve their cattle operations before the 1950s, this article provides evidence of slowly rising productivity indices from the mid-nineteenth century. These improvements were based on the diffusion of African grasses, new breeds of cattle, barbed-wire fencing, and better ranch management. However, despite such gains, Colombian ranchers failed to break into the international beef trade; their productivity levels did not rise sufficiently to compete against major exporters such as Argentina. Nonetheless, the gains they made suggest that this failure was not simply rooted in the backward and non-productive motivations of ranchers themselves. Instead, the limits of Colombian ranching also need to be understood in the context of the domestic market, the paucity of state assistance, and the difficulties of tropical ranching.