Brazilian agriculture dramatically changed in the past 20 years.
We know of the rapid increase in Brazilian soybean production. We hear less about grass-based livestock production in Brazil, which is also poised to undergo dramatic changes.
As I wrote in past columns, I learned about that country’s grass-based livestock production systems while visiting southern Brazil.
There are valuable lessons for us to learn from our friends south of the equator.
Graze year-round. On the typical cattle farm in Brazil, animals graze pastures continuously year-round. Pastures are not fertilized and carrying capacity is low (one steer on 2.5 acres).
Little or no supplementation is provided, and livestock lose weight during periods of forage deficit. Averaged over their lifespan, steers gain only a half pound a day and require three to four years to reach slaughter weight.
Live weight gains average 60 to 80 pounds per acre per year. This is the typical farm.
Management gains. But the story is different where innovative farmers in southern Brazil are devoting management time and applying technologies developed by Brazilian scientists for integrating grass-based livestock operations with grain production.
On those farms, perennial native summer pastures are fertilized and improved by interseeding with clovers. This results in a 2.5-fold increase in average daily gains and doubles the animal carrying capacity over unimproved native rangeland.
Introduced warm-season grasses such as bermuda grass from southeastern USA and Panicum species from Africa are also grown.
Another big change by innovative farmers is the use of crossbred cattle (Nelore crossed with European breeds).
With good management and nitrogen fertilization, improved summer pastures support up to four crossbred steers per acre with gains up to 1.8 pounds per day.
Steer live weight production reaches 1,500 pounds per acre over the 200 summer grazing days. Quite an improvement over the typical 60- to 80-pound annual gains.
Winter feeding. Innovative producers are improving their winter-feeding management as well, by integrating livestock grazing with grain crop production.
Most crop farmers in southern Brazil have adopted no-tillage systems with winter cover crops as protection against the significant soil erosion hazard. Instead of just letting the winter cover crops grow and lay fallow, they are beginning to use them as winter pasture.
Animal performance is excellent on the winter cropland pasture, which is usually a mixture of annual ryegrass and oats.
Forage quality is high, and crossbred steers average weight gains of 2.5 pounds per day. Live weight steer production can average 600 pounds per acre over the winter grazing period (120 to 150 days).
With the help of their scientists, they have learned how to control grazing on winter pastures to avoid excessive compaction and maintain adequate cover for erosion protection.
Soil organic matter is improved and nutrients are recycled.
With good management, subsequent grain yields have not been harmed after winter grazing.
Lower market age. By combining improved perennial summer pastures with high quality winter cover crop pastures, producers have achieved dramatic reductions in slaughter age.
Steers in these integrated systems reach slaughter weight in 18 to 20 months. Pretty impressive compared to the three- to four-year average slaughter age.
Most farmers in southern Brazil finish steers on pasture. Some producers are supplementing steers on pasture with soyhulls (5 pounds per day) the last 90 days.
Others prefer to remove stockers from pastures when they reach 750 to 830 pounds, and place them in on-farm feedlots for finishing. They use a total mixed ration based on corn silage.
Good eating. And I must say that Brazilians really know how to cook grass-finished meat. Ask anyone who has traveled in southern Brazil, and they will agree that the meat prepared as “churrasco” is delicious.
The innovative systems that integrate both livestock grazing with no-till cash grain production diversify farm income and increase efficiency on the same land base. These systems are environmentally friendly.
Combining grain with grass finished stockers can improve profits eight-fold over the traditional beef production systems used in Brazil. The integrated systems can improve profits 1.5-fold over soybean grain production alone, so Brazilian soybean farmers are taking a close look at adding livestock into their operations.
When integrating soybean grain with grazing-based dairy production, the profit potential is even greater.
Take-home message. What can we learn from all this? I was impressed with how innovative and creative these Brazilian producers were. They are not without challenges in their environment, but they are actively looking for ways to be more sustainable and profitable.
These producers are committed to good land stewardship and animal husbandry.
I was also impressed with how these producers plan ahead and invest time in management. I must add that labor is much less expensive in Brazil, so they can afford more labor than we can here, which frees up time for management.
But the lesson is still there, that time spent on management pays huge dividends.
I was impressed and encouraged by what I saw of the benefits of integrated production systems like the examples I described here. The systems appeared to be functioning well from a biological, environmental, and economic aspect.
I hope these observations from our Brazilian friends will serve as an incentive to you of what is possible with grass-based livestock production, and what might be possible by integrating various enterprises.
The reward is great for combining grass with good management, innovation, improved plant and animal genetics, hard work, and of course God’s blessings of favorable conditions for grass and animal growth.
Best wishes for successful and safe grazing in 2005.
(The author is an associate professor in the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science at Ohio State University. Questions and comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)