Nuckolls experience South American agriculture
Jw and Thea Nuckolls recently returned from a trip to Brazil and Argentina as part of a BEEF Study Tour sponsored by the Beef Quality Assurance Program at Montana State University (MSU) and BEEF Magazine. The trip is designed to educate United States producers about production practices in South America and global competition.
Director of Beef Quality Assurance Clint Peck explains that he and Renata Stephens have been putting these trips together since 2003. Ranchers and agriculturalists from across the country go on the tour and this year there were 20 participants.
“My idea was to help ranchers better understand global competition. I’ve been hearing for 20 years that the Brazilians and Argentines are going to put us out of business as cattlemen. I started going down to Brazil and Argentina because I wanted to see what the competition was for myself and had a curiosity about the claims being made. I’ve been going since 1996 and Argentina isn’t putting us out of business and at least in my lifetime and probably my kids lifetime they never will. Brazil is another story. They have the largest commercial cattle herd in the world with 190 million head. But, the U.S. still out produces them in pounds of beef with almost half the cattle at 97 million head,” explains Peck.
“These tours study their systems and most people say they’re the trip of a lifetime. We get onto ranches and visit with the families. Part of the real value is learning the cultures of the countries,” adds Peck.
Jw and Thea Nuckolls agree that it was an amazing trip and would recommend it to producers.
“The thing I was most impressed with in Brazil is the fact that they’ve brought in grasses from Africa and pretty much replaced their native grasses,” explains Jw.
“Grasses in our country have a built up root system because of the buffalo herds and drought. In South America grasses weren’t exposed to the elements and when they introduced cattle the native grasses couldn’t handle it and started dying out. So they went to Africa and got some of the good grasses from over there. Today the area we visited is almost entirely seeded,” adds Jw.
“We were also able to go some of the research centers where they’re improving these grasses and that was very interesting. They had several varieties but one really stood out. It was a very broad-leafed grass. The leaves were almost half an inch wide and the protein content was much higher that any of the native South American grasses. Because of the wide leaf and all the rain and sunshine they have down there the photosynthesis really went wild. It will grow up multiple feet in a few weeks and still have good protein content,” says Jw.
He adds that most of the area they visited have intensive grazing programs in place with lots of fencing and movement of livestock. In Brazil the cattle were dominantly Bos indicus or Brahman and in Argentina there was a strong Hereford and Angus base.
“What really stood out to me is that they send grass-fed, three-year-old cattle to slaughter at 800 pounds,” says Thea. “I don’t think we have to fear that Brazil and Argentina will take over our beef market anytime soon. It is quite a difference to see these cattle that don’t carry any flesh going to slaughter. With the Brahman influence they looked like they needed to be in a feedlot for two or three more years.”
“The reason they aren’t competitive is because after putting the initial investment in an animal and then marketing it at such a light weight they’re not going to see that many dollars return in the end. I suppose that’s why they have to make up for it in numbers,” adds Jw.
Thea adds that in Argentina 80 percent of beef is consumed within the country and the government has the ability to close exports.
“The morning we were at Cactus Feedlot the government closed exports because they were getting short of supply for their own people. Everything is so volatile with their government. Inflation was going up and beef was becoming very expensive. Small butcher shops as well as larger packing plants were going out of business left and right. They were just closing their doors because they had a fear of riots,” says Thea.
Jw adds that in Argentina the government takes 25 percent off the top of any animals run through a sale barn.
“We saw a sale yard just like they used to have in Omaha with a catwalk over the top where the auctioneer and the buyers just came down the catwalk. At full capacity they run 40,000 head a day, four days a week through that barn. You can’t believe the number of cattle,” says Thea.
The auction barn the Nuckolls visited in Brazil was equally memorable. “Everything was immaculate. The floor was white tile and the sale ring was right in the middle, surrounded by tables with tablecloths and silverware. You sat and ate while you watched the sale,” explains Thea.
Jw explains that cattle would come off the truck and would be put in a little pen where they were washed and sorted.
“They were paint branded by lot as they came off the truck and it amazed me that the fresh paint even stayed on because there was so much water pressure it would knock the animals off their feet if they weren’t braced. They really cleaned them up and they were bright white when they entered the ring. They also brought them in so shrunk out that there wasn’t any manure. There was no odor in that place whatsoever,” says Jw.
He adds that the Brazilian sale barn was very similar to those found in the U.S. in the way it ran cattle through. Another notable similarity the Nuckolls noticed were the environmental issues producers faced in both North and South America.
“They have to deal with environmental issues just as we do. How they’re running their operations is often dictated by what environmental laws or the people running those entities are putting on them in terms of regulations. They don’t have it easy either,” comments Thea.
“They’re fencing all the streams off to livestock. They’re also requiring that producers set aside 20 percent of their total landmass for a reserve. But then they come back to them on the other side and force them to have a certain percentage in top production,” explains Jw.
“So, if a producer is out of balance he is required to clear land. One ranch we toured was at 38 percent in reserve so they had to clear 18 percent and put it into production and at the same time maintain a 20 percent reserve. This place had been cleared and planted with this amazing grass and it was about tabletop height and was ready for livestock. They didn’t have the fences done yet, so they were waiting to turn in on it. But that man had to take on a partner because he couldn’t afford to do it on his own, which is a common story,” adds Jw.
“When they clear a piece of property they’re also required to leave a certain number of trees on it. Then they have to farm around the trees. I think the purpose of leaving trees is to provide shade for livestock when they’re in those pastures,” says Jw.
From what the Nuckolls saw, most of the land being cleared and developed was wasteland before. “It wasn’t producing a cash crop of any kind and there wasn’t any grazing in those areas either. There’s 50 plus inches of rainfall in that area so something is going to grow. Some of the trees left still had jungle vines hanging on them so you know there was a lot of growth, but it wasn’t really producing anything for the economy,” says Jw.
“Where we were in Brazil there were acres and acres of soybeans. That’s their biggest export and a lot of land that is being cleared is going into soybeans then they rotate in corn,” says Thea.
“Soybeans go to the coast and it takes nine days on the road and it’s not an improved road. Instead of having sleepers in their trucks like we do in this country their sleeper is built into the front of the first trailer,” explains Jw.
The trucks were also used as storage for the beans as they came out of the field. “They just had to leave them on the truck until they reached the port. It was surprising to me they didn’t get wet and spoil,” comments Thea.
“The other thing that surprised me is that they raise a lot of rice. A lot of ranches have rice and they farm soybeans and corn or they rotate alfalfa out with sugar cane and run their cattle,” explains Thea.
Sugar cane is the ethanol crop of choice. Right now sugar cane is very lucrative internationally and that’s putting more pressure on the ethanol market because it can be sold at a higher price for sugar today explains Jw.
“It’s a very educational trip and above and beyond what you learn about the cattle industry are the friends you make. We met people from all over the U.S. and from a variety of walks of life,” says Thea. Both she and Jw would recommend it to producers and say they thoroughly enjoyed the experience.