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Agriculture in the Pan Amazon: Beef production models

Amazonian pastures are notorious for their low productivity and frequently show signs of overgrazing and soil degradation. Credit: © Pelizzeri /

  • Mongabay has begun publishing a new edition of the book, “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon,” in short installments and in three languages: Spanish, English and Portuguese.
  • Author Timothy J. Killeen is an academic and expert who, since the 1980s, has studied the rainforests of Brazil and Bolivia, where he lived for more than 35 years.
  • Chronicling the efforts of nine Amazonian countries to curb deforestation, this edition provides an overview of the topics most relevant to the conservation of the region’s biodiversity, ecosystem services and Indigenous cultures, as well as a description of the conventional and sustainable development models that are vying for space within the regional economy.
  • Click the “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” link atop this page to see chapters 1-13 as they are published during 2023.

The single largest cause of deforestation in the Pan Amazon is the clearing of forest to establish cultivated pasture to produce beef cattle. By some estimates, as much as eighty per cent of previously deforested landscapes are covered by non-native forage grasses. In most cases, grasses have been seeded directly into the recently deforested soil in newly established cattle ranches, but smallholders also use pastures as a rotational fallow as part of a production system based on food crops.

The use of technology among livestock producers ranges from extremely rudimentary to highly sophisticated; not surprisingly, technology improves productivity and economic return but requires ‘know-how’ and financial capital. Brazil has the most sophisticated beef production system, which includes three overlapping phases that correspond to the life stages of a typical bull or cow:

A. Cow-calve operations span gestation (9.5 months), birth and early growth until calves are weaned from their mothers (8–12 months);
B. Grow-out operations start when yearlings are sold or moved to separate pastures until they are full-sized in stature but not weight (~12 months); these animals are known as gado magro (skinny cattle).
C. Fat-cattle operations describe the finishing stage, which varies depending upon feed ration and breed (6–12 months) until they reach optimum slaughter weight (375–425 kilograms).

Ranchers can specialise in a single phase, but more often they combine two or more production phases into a business model appropriate to their geographic location and predilection to technology. For example, ranchers in remote areas with poor infrastructure are almost uniformly dedicated to running cow-calf operations combined with grow-out operations (A+B).

A comparison of the size of the cattle herd with the total accumulated deforestation in the Legal Amazon of Brazil. Data source: IBGE/SIDRA and PRODES. Credit: CC BY 4.0.

For them, the only realistic option is to drive cattle to a market on foot because poor roads make moving live animals by truck uneconomic and risky. Animals lose weight if they are confined in a truck over several days and can die if the truck becomes stuck on a poorly maintained road. Calves are too fragile for long drives, while fat cattle lose weight if they are forced to walk.

Cattle drives are still common on forest frontiers, and many landholders maintain pastures explicitly for rental to drovers, who move their herds to market at a relaxed pace to avoid subjecting animals to undue stress. Drovers will move a herd to a town or small city, typically located on a trunk highway or improved secondary road highway, where they will be sold to a cattle trader or another producer via auction.

Producers who wish to avoid the risk of birthing calves purchase yearlings and keep them on pasture until they reach slaughter weight (B+C). Some ranchers integrate them all on the same property (A+B+C), which allows them to avoid middlemen and maximize the return on a per-animal basis.

Others specialize in producing calves of known genetic background (A), which are sold at a premium for qualities linked to productivity, meat yield or disease tolerance. Although the practice is still rare in the Amazon, feedlot operators specialize in fattening cattle using balanced rations (C), a practice more common in consolidated frontiers with an ever-increasing supply of feed grains.

The beef supply chain extends from remote ranches dedicated to producing calves. Image by Hermes Justiniano.

The economics of cattle ranching is calculated on a per animal basis. The sale price for a calf range from $US 180–250 per animal and from $US 1,000–1,200 for a full-grown breeding bull; most steers are slaughtered at about 400 kilos, with a value of between $US 600 and 800. A smallholder in Ariquemes (Rondônia) with fifty hectares of pasture specializing in the production of calves would have gross income of between $US 8,000 and 12,000 annually. A middle-class rancher with 3,000 hectares in Alta Floresta (Mato Grosso) with a similar cow-calf production model would gross between $US 375,000 and 425,000 per year. For an integrated ranch (A+B+C) where cattle are held for the entire 36 months, revenues should be about ten to twenty per cent greater.

The net worth of a producer would depend upon land values and capital improvements, but at $US 2,000 per hectare, the small farm would be worth about $US 200,000, while the larger ranch would bring approximately $US 3 million. Although these numbers look plausible, the viability of smallholder production is dependent upon family labor, and if those producers had to pay market value for their labor, they would barely break even.

Similarly, many medium- to large-scale cattle ranching operations enjoy the legacy of past decades, when land was obtained at a large discount and would be hard-pressed to establish a ranch if they had to purchase land at its current market value. The difference in the value of land between the forest frontier and agricultural frontiers is the primary driver of rural real estate markets and, arguably, the greatest single driver of deforestation.

The cattle herd in the Legal Amazon grew from fourteen million head in 1980 to more than 85 million in 2019; along the way, its growth caused the deforestation of more than seventy million hectares. Between 1980 and 2000, approximately one hectare of forest was sacrificed for the possibility of maintaining one live animal; however, tropical grass-fed cattle require three years to reach slaughter weight. Consequently, it requires about two hectares of pasture to produce 100 kilograms of live animal per year, which actually represents only fifty kilograms of [bone-in] dressed beef.

The cattle herd in the Brazilian Amazon are derived from South Asian breeds, particularly Nelore, Gir, Zebu and Brahma; these are nearing slaughter weight of approximately 400 kilograms. Image by Hermes Justiniano.

These numbers are phenomenally unimpressive in terms of productivity when considered based on a kilogram of protein per hectare. By way of comparison, soy yields about four tonnes of beans per hectare, which upon refining produces approximately one tonne of vegetable oil and three tonnes of soymeal, of which the latter is about fifty per cent protein. In other words, soy produces about fifty times the amount of protein per hectare as grass-fed beef raised in the Amazon.

Aquaculture is even more productive when calculated on a per hectare basis, producing between two to three times as much as soy. As disappointing as beef productivity numbers are, there was a noticeable improvement in overall stocking rates after 2000. The surge in productivity was the result of several factors.

One of which was a surplus of available pasture caused by land speculation, which allowed ranchers to rapidly expand herd size in response to booming demand. There was a short-term reduction in the herd following the economic crisis of 2008, but the ratio between the total herd size and the pasture area has been continuously improving over the last decade. Increased stocking rates are only one aspect of the improved productivity of the Brazilian beef industry.

At the national level, between 2000 and 2019, the cattle herd increased by about 26%, while total spatial extent of its pastures declined by 12%, a gain in efficiency of more than 44%. The use of technology and management practices is most notable in South and Southeast Brazil, where stocking rates surpass three head per hectare.

There have been similar improvements by Amazonian producers, who increased stocking rates by 62%; however, they started from a much lower baseline and still lag their counterparts in Southern Brazil by ~50%. Surprisingly, the highest stocking rates in the Legal Amazon have been obtained by smallholder cattle producers in Rondônia and Acre, who have also made impressive gains in overall efficiency.

Improving the productivity of cattle ranchers is a major component of initiatives designed to improve the image of the Brazilian beef industry and, allegedly, reduce deforestation. The goal is to channel future growth into technological improvements that allow producers to expand production without increasing the spatial extent of pasture area. There are essentially six technologies that can be deployed to increase the efficiency of beef production systems:

“A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” is a book by Timothy Killeen and contains the author’s viewpoints and analysis. The second edition was published by The White Horse in 2021, under the terms of a Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0 license).

Read the other excerpted portions of chapter 3 here:

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