A gaucho on horseback tends a herd of Hereford cattle.

Time for change in Brazil

Philip Taylor

Ngaroma, King Country

At the invitation of the Foundation of Economics and Statistics and University of Faccat, (Integrated Colleges of Taquara) I was invited to speak at a conference in Porto Alegre, to explain how New Zealand promotes the integration of dairy farming with beef fattening.

Simply put, rearing Friesian bobby calves for intensive bull/steer beef farming. It’s unheard of in Brazil.

Rio Grande Do Sul, the south east state of Brazil, has vast areas of range land covered in native pasture running mainly beef cows and calves – an area as large of all of NZ.

Average annual output is 70kg of beef per hectare. NZ average is anywhere between 400 and 700kg depending on the system used. This information was an absolute shock to the economists and agronomists who attended the conference. Could they mimic us was the challenge and the reason for my address.

Breed societies dominate the market (mainly Hereford and Angus), each extolling the virtues of their breed on supermarket labels, a reason why Friesian beef would need careful introduction or branding. Most prime beef is consumed locally and unlike the United States, southern Brazil does not have an American-style feedlot industry, so finding a place for the 95cl (chemical lean) bull trimmings as the best manufacturing ingredient to mix with fat trimmings from feedlot cattle, may prove difficult. Old cull bulls are sold at a discount to prime beef, so a Young Lean Beef grade would need to be introduced.

Farmers are not compelled to keep track of costs, or submit annual accounts. To this end selling animals at four years rather than 18/20 months makes sense. Subsidies take away the incentive to intensify by subdividing, renewing or fertilising pastures.

Land is not a scarce resource and farmers are very comfortable with life the way they are. Most have resident gauchos to work the farm, while wives have maids. This however would not continue without government subsidies. While they do pay small amounts of tax on drawings most is deducted per head on sales by the downstream industries. Farmers are not compelled to keep track of costs, or submit annual accounts. To this end selling animals at four years rather than 18/20 months makes sense. Subsidies take away the incentive to intensify by subdividing, renewing or fertilising pastures.

It appears to me that farmers have little understanding of the cost of drymatter (DM), the need to measure pasture growth rates or animal demand therefore they pay no attention to alternative opportunities. Comparing the maintenance cost of carrying a cow just to produce a calf, versus feeding all the grass to revenue stock purchased for finishing, is unheard of. Besides, cows are best at chewing through native pastures that have gone to seed.

Most calves are not fattened until three or four years of age. In a dry year the sale stock just takes a little longer, or maybe another year to reach market weights. Little attention is paid to the cost of doing this. Pasture renewal is done mainly by direct drilling and only by the most innovative of farmers, rather set stocking in very large paddocks is the norm. Rotational grazing is not practised although some pasture is carried forward as an insurance against drought. So the herds of cows and calves roam over large paddocks tended by horse-riding gauchos.

Brangus heifers – A cross between Angus and Bos Indicus.

Gauchos have never owned land, instead the land owns them as free men, in return for their historical protection of land and animals over the centuries of corruption, war and uprising Brazil has endured. They have the inalienable right to exist on the land. This of course poses a problem when the gaucho is asked to exchange his horse for a four-wheeler. His right to freedom, his very status would be lost, something that will not be allowed to happen easily. (Note: if you buy a farm in Brazil the resident gauchos and their families come with it.)

Brazil exports 5.5 million tonnes of grass-fed beef around the world each year, but foot and mouth disease keeps its fresh meat out of our premium market, the US. It is designated clear by vaccination but not free as we have it in NZ.

Beef is a staple in most meals, stewed or casseroled. It was beefy but very tasty, eaten with beans and rice. The food I ate in Brazil was most enjoyable, a lot grown organically and without nitrogenous fertilisers. I was surprised at the delicious flavours.

Will Friesian bull beef/steer farming ever get off the ground in Brazil. There is a groundswell in academia but it is going to require a new set of skills, a cultural change in rural Brazil backed with government support and, dare I say, the removal of subsidies. Time will tell.