Amazon Destruction Forces Brazil's Cowboys to Ranch Like Texans

An Agro Santa Barbara cowboy rounds up cattle in Xinguara, Para state. ( Gerson Freitas Jr., Bloomberg )

Brazilian ranch manager Marcos Aurelio de Queiroz wants to triple the number of cattle his company, CSM Agropecuaria, sends to slaughter every year. The tricky part: Doing it without adding even a single bit of land.

For decades, ranchers in Brazil’s Para state have expanded their properties with fire and ax, clearing huge pieces of the Amazon jungle. It was a point of pride that their cows were fattened up naturally, while rivals in the U.S. and elsewhere increasingly used grain feedlots. Now, things are changing.

Amazon deforestation isn’t banned by the government, but it is severely limited. And beef exporters, including giant JBS SA, have agreed not to buy cattle from any areas deforested after 2008. At the same time, the depletion of older pastures is forcing ranchers to rotate cattle and crops in order to cultivate the land. CSM planted 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of crops this year at its four ranches in the region, and plans to plant 10,000 moving forward.

“It’s a revolution,” Queiroz said in an interview. “I have always had in mind that cattle raising should be integrated with agriculture.” Additionally, about 30 percent of the company’s cattle now use feedlots, he said.

The industry changeover has been slow but is now picking up speed, adding pressure on traditional ranchers who need to remain competitive, according to Mauricio Nogueira, head of Athenagro, a consulting firm based in Sao Paulo. “We are heading to a price scenario that will no longer tolerate low technology,” Nogueira said in an interview.

In Para state, where most of CSM’s ranches are located, the average rate of cows per hectare has jumped by almost 70 percent in the past decade, according to Athenagro. The number of animals fattened in feedlots has more than doubled.

“We’re going to see a process of intensification,” said Chief Executive Officer Cleiton Luiz Custodio of Agro Santa Barbara SA in Xinguara, where the company now has dozens of feedlots spread across a ranch the size of New York City’s land area. “We’re seeking to get more revenue per hectare.”

Rotating crops and cattle on land nourishes the soil and boosts the amount of grass available to the cattle, which gain weight much faster and can be sent to slaughter in less than 20 months, down from as many as 36 in a traditional system, according to Custodio.

The cattle herd in Para has doubled to more than 20 million head since the early 2000s, or almost twice the size of the herd in the U.S. state of Texas. Most of the expansion took place through the burning of forests in favor of new pastures, raising the alarm about the impact of cattle raising in the Amazon region.

Even as deforestation in Para’s Amazon dropped by 68 percent from a 2004 peak, some farmers continue to burn and cut. Last year, for instance, an area larger than Tokyo was cleared.

At the same time, Brazil President-elect Jair Bolsonaro has pledged to ease environmental curbs, so there’s a chance the government will be much more accommodating from now on. And to be sure, not every rancher is receptive to the changing formula.

Mauricio Fraga Filho has about 25,000 cattle on three ranches in Para. He’s not adopting feedlots, or crop-livestock integration, he says.

“Feedlots only help the meatpackers because it means higher cattle supplies during the off-season,” Filho said in an interview. “You can’t withhold the cattle when prices are low because the cost of keeping the animal in the feedlot is too high. So you lose your bargaining power.”

Still, the restrictions in place now “are leading people to invest more,” said Claudiomar Kehrnvald, a rancher raising more than 60,000 cattle in Para.

Brazil has about 15 million hectares using crop rotation, compared with less than 5 million hectares a decade ago, according to the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corp., a state-run company. Brazil’s government has stimulated the practice by offering subsidized loans designed to reduce carbon emissions in the agricultural sector.