Holding both U.S. and Mexican citizenship, Juan Manuel Fleischer is first and foremost a cattleman. In the midst of international discussions of beef trade, Fleischer is the man on the ground, moving cattle to market.
Born and raised in Nogales, Ariz., along the U.S.-Mexico border, Fleischer has spent time in the cattle business in both countries. As a cattle importer, he spends nearly every day splitting time between borders, but he calls the U.S. home.
His father, Richard, started him on the path of becoming a cattle importer when the family business was established in the 1950s.
“My father was part of the generation who started importing cattle from Mexico. I wouldn’t say the pioneer, but he was part of them,” Fleischer says. “I was fortunate to have grown up in the ranching business in Mexico and the U.S.”
His father’s side of the family owned a large ranch across the border in the Santa Cruz River Valley and, along with his siblings, they still own some land around the hacienda. He also runs 100 head of cows in Arizona around the Nogales area.
In the late 1970s, Fleischer worked with his father as a cattle broker. In 1982 he started his own business as a cattle importer. Today, Fleischer and his wife Graciela, operate JM Fleischer Cattle Corp.
Fleischer says his office is his pickup truck, and his tools are a cellphone and calculator. His phone regularly rings with sellers from Mexico and buyers from the U.S. seeking input. Fleischer flows seamlessly between English and Spanish communicating about the cattle he markets.
“Basically it is hands on. You’re talking and building a relationship with the people we do business with,” Fleischer says.
Before Fleischer buys any cattle in Mexico they go through several tests at the Mexican border crossing facility. It is operated by Union Ganadera de Sonora, the local cattlemen’s association who works with Mexico’s version of USDA.
All the cattle Fleischer moves across the border originate from Sonora, the only state in Mexico to be designated as tuberculosis- and brucellosis-free. Cattle come primarily from ranches with 50 cows or fewer, but unlike many small and midsize U.S. farms and ranches, the imported cattle are Mexican ranchers’ sole form of income.
Mexican cattle are weaned and backgrounded at the ranch, with vaccination programs consisting of at least a seven-way Clostridial. Male calves are castrated and heifers are spayed prior to reaching the border. All cattle are tagged with identification tags that can be traced to the ranch of origin.
“Any sick cattle will stay in Mexico until they get better or they won’t come at all,” Fleischer says of the health program.
Cattle are inspected at the USDA-approved facility by veterinarians for infections and skin diseases such as scabies and warts. Open wounds from spaying or castration must be healed, too.
Shipping fever is another reason inspectors will hold cattle back from entering the U.S. “Any off looking steer or heifer will be cut off,” Fleischer says.
“A lot of people worry that Mexican cattle crossing could infect American cattle. I don’t think there is a process in the U.S. that is as strict for their own cattle as what Mexican cattle go through to enter the U.S.,” Fleischer says.
Because there are no newly weaned calves and cattle have been backgrounded before their border crossing, it helps limit health problems.
After all inspections are conducted by veterinarians, Fleischer and his import competitors will look at the cattle themselves to offer bids to the Mexican owners.
Currency exchange rates can also influence profitability. Mexican ranchers are paid in dollars and then must convert it to pesos. The exchange rate between the dollar and peso can fluctuate as much as 30% in a few months.
“It is more volatile than the cattle price. It can make or break this business,” Fleischer says.
Cattle are weighed on the Mexican side and then dipped in a USDA approved insecticide to remove pests prior to entering the U.S. Finally, all cattle approved for imports will be sent through a port of entry that is authorized for livestock movement. The cattle will then be weighed again after entering the U.S. border crossing and will be sold with a prorated Mexican duty weight, so there is no shrink when cattle cross.
Cattle are sorted for size and quality to make semi load lots of approximately 50,000 lb. and will be sent to buyers around the country who will run them as stockers or go straight to the feedlot.
Approximately 150,000 cattle will come through the port at Nogales each year. JM Fleischer Cattle Corp. accounts for a large portion of the cattle coming through the two ports in Arizona at Douglas and Nogales with approximately 75,000 cattle marketed annually.
Fleischer acknowledges that cattle originating from Mexico do cause additional competition for American producers, but it is a business that has been going on since the U.S. and Mexico were settled.
He adds Mexico ends up buying a great deal of beef back from the U.S. “they buy a lot of product we have difficulty selling, like offal cuts,” Fleischer says.
Mexico was the second-largest importer of U.S. beef by volume at 237,972 metric tons and the third-largest market by value at $980 million in 2017, according to U.S. Meat Export Federation. For the first quarter of 2018, Mexico has been the second-highest importer of variety beef cuts trailing only Japan. Thus far $79 million worth of variety cuts have gone to Mexico from the U.S., an increase of 19% since the same January through April period in 2017.
On the prospects of getting rid of the North American Trade Agreement (NAFTA) Fleischer says it would be the end of his business and it would have major negative impacts on border towns like Nogales.
“There is a lot of business that exists between our two countries that would hurt the U.S. producers if NAFTA was lost,” Fleischer says. He is optimistic the NAFTA renegotiations will happen and thinks the U.S. will benefit from the agreement.
Watch a video above with Fleischer talking about the importance of cattle trade along the Mexican border.
Note: This story appears in the June/July 2018 magazine issue of Drovers.