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In the Amazon, a farmer practices the future of sustainable cattle ranching

  • A cattle farmer in Tefé, Brazil, has turned his ranch into a new standard for ranching in the forest — one that’s more profitable and more productive, while using less land.
  • This type of farming eliminates the need for clearing new areas of forest for new pasture, a practice that has made cattle ranching one of the major drivers of deforestation in Brazil.
  • Under the rational grazing system, cattle are grazed in a fenced-off plot of pasture, then rotated to another plot to allow the soil and vegetation in the previous plot to recover.
  • Using land that has already been degraded and abandoned is one solution recommended for raising cattle in the Amazon region; there are an estimated 50 million hectares (125 million acres) of such land in Brazil that could be used for this purposed.
A cattle farmer in the Mid-Solimões region for nearly 30 years, Otacílio Soares Brito has adopted the rational grazing system. His farm, Fazenda Ágda, has become a reference for others in the region. Image by Amanda Lelis.

TEFÉ, Brazil — In the 1990s, Otacílio Soares Brito bought 100 hectares (250 acres) of land in the Amazon, along the middle section of the Solimões River. Raising cattle had been a childhood dream of Brito’s, due to the lack of milk in the region when he was young. He put 35 head of cattle on his land, and everything went well until 2015, when the tables turned. Brito’s cattle started dying, and the reason soon became clear: his pasture was poor in nutrients, due to time and poorly managed use of the soil. It’s a common scenario in extensive cattle farming.

Brito needed an alternative, but cutting down more trees to clear land for pasture was not part of his plan. He needed to find a sustainable farming method that brought together productivity and respect for the forest.

Cattle farming is one of the drivers of Brazil’s economy, both for domestic consumption as well as for export. Cattle ranching in the Amazon, however, is almost always involved with illegal deforestation.

Studies show that up to 80% of the problem can be attributed to the cycle of cutting trees, burning the land, and bringing in cattle —almost all of it done illegally. Areas that are already occupied and degraded — poor in nutrients and no longer usable for pasture — are generally abandoned for new, unoccupied land. And the cycle repeats itself.

But it doesn’t always need to be this way. “Cattle aren’t the villains. It’s the way they are raised that can be harmful or not,” says agronomy engineer Jerusa Cariaga from the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Institute, a social organization that uses science and technology for sustainability purposes.

In December 2019, the deforestation alert system used by the NGO Imazon detected 22,700 hectares (56,100 acres) of deforestation inside Legal Amazonia, the region covered by the Amazon rainforest in Brazil that spans nine states.

One of the solutions recommended for raising cattle in the forest is using areas that have already been degraded and abandoned. A 2019 study published in Science magazine showed that there are 50 million hectares (125 million acres) of such land in Brazil — a Spain-sized area that could be regenerated for cattle farming.

This was the key Brito had been looking for: recovering his pasture. He didn’t know how to do it, but knew he had to break paradigms if he wanted to become a sustainable farmer.

Under the rational grazing system, cattle are rotated between areas of fenced-off pasture, allowing the land to recover, patch by patch. Image by Amanda Lelis.

Greater productivity on less land

Brito sought out the Mamirauá Institute for help, which was already studying how to implement the “rational grazing” system together with farmers in the Amanã Sustainable Development Reserve in Tefé, in the state of Amazonas. There, riverbank communities raise cattle and grow vegetables.

Under the grazing system created by French researcher André Voisin, the cattle are confined to plots of fenced pasture. After eating all the grass on that plot, the animals are moved to another plot, allowing the soil and vegetation on the first plot to recover.

This farming technique eliminates the need to clear new forested areas for pasture. Aside from being profitable, the process is sustainable and more productive, even when used on a smaller area of land.

Brito was invited by the institute not only to implement the cattle management system but also to transform his farm, Fazenda Ágda, into a “showroom” so that other farmers could learn about the system and become inspired to adopt it themselves. Aside from a change in thinking, Brito needed to invest, gain technical knowledge, and persist.

“The technology we knew was extensive farming, which wears out the soil quickly and obliges the farmer to open new land, creating great environmental impact. With Voisin’s Rational Grazing technology, we began to get new calves again,” Brito says.

Expert views of rational grazing are that cattle behavior changes under this system. Before, they had to go out for food, increasing the possibility of silting up rivers. Now, food and water are made available in each corral, also diminishing the energy the animals must spend.

“The philosophical principle behind farming changes,” Brito says. “It makes it easier and better for everyone. Consumers will be able to eat prime beef without pesticides that has been well-managed.”

The cattle at Amanã are important to farmers because of the high liquidity of the sector — beef sells quickly year-round, unlike native and seasonal resources like fish or Brazil nuts. “It is a savings account, a safety net for families in case there is an emergency or something unexpected,” says Paula Araújo, the Mamirauá Institute’s veterinarian for its agro-ecosystem management program.

Far from urban centers, the communities depend on hunting and fishing to survive, and so beef cattle is an alternative source of protein.

“We aren’t talking about increasing scale or incentivizing production. What we want is to achieve more efficient production on this same scale without putting pressure on the forest because of increasing pastureland. We want to work with what we have, but more efficiently,” Araújo says.

Cattle farming has a long history in the region. Many riverbank communities in the Mid-Solimões region were settled by families from other parts of northern Brazil after the end of the rubber cycle. These migrants brought cattle with them. “They probably imagined that there wouldn’t be many options for protein in the region,” Cariaga says.

According to Imazon senior researcher Paulo Barreto, three factors are fundamental for farms to be successful using rotational pasturing: investment, training, and monitoring. Barreto says it is best to start small, with 5% of the farm’s pastureland, to learn and analyze the financial viability, which is influenced by the degree to which the land has been degraded.

Brazil’s cattle herd is growing as ranching consolidates itself as a fundamental driver of the national economy. Image by Leo Lopes.

The challenge: Farming in a naturally sensitive environment

Today, the Amanã reserve is home to some 600 head of cattle, including steer and buffalo, raised by around 25 families. Three of the families have begun using the rational grazing system. The region is a floodplain and is therefore subject to the Amazon’s intense rainy and dry seasons.

With high production costs and logistics problems in shipping the product, few families take on the challenge of raising cattle in a region whose terrain varies between forests on firm ground and floodplain — limitations imposed by the environment itself. “Flood areas serve as natural boundaries for expansion of pastureland on the level that the activity could cause imbalance to the ecosystem,” Araújo says.

In the dry season, when river levels drop drastically, vegetation blooms on newly exposed land. These “fields of nature,” as they are called locally, are ready resources for farmers to graze their cattle on.

But it’s a different story when the rivers are full and there’s little dry ground above water level. In this situation, cattle have to be herded to “fields of solid ground,” limited areas that, without good management, tend to degrade rapidly and leave no nutrients for the animals.

Part of the degraded area on Brito’s land has forest once again because of the rational grazing system and is, according to him, more productive. Improved productivity in the Amazon means increasing the average density of herds from 1.26 head of cattle per hectare to 3. According to data from the 2017 Farming and Cattle Raising Census, 98% of municipalities in the Amazon (694 of 772) have average herd densities of less than 1.9 head per hectare. Among these, 70% have densities equal to or less than 1.26.

“I believe that man will only be able to preserve the environment when he becomes conscious of how important he is to all living things,” Brito says. “When this happens, he puts greed aside and begins to act on the light of reason and science so he can develop his work with less environmental impact.”

Banner image by Leo Lopes.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on April 13, 2020.

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