Plenty of U.S. producers are aware that Brazil is home to more than twice as many beef cows as the U.S. (76 million vs. 32 million). Many are also aware that Bos indicus cattle dominate the Brazilian beef industry and that the industry there has historically relied on grass finishing. Thus, the popular notion in the U.S. is that Brazil can’t compete with the U.S. in terms of production efficiency or high-quality, grain-fed beef. That appears to be changing rapidly, though.

First, Pohler explains that Brazilians have embraced Angus genetics, largely as a terminal cross with their Bos indicus cattle, which are predominately Nellore. Though there is interest in, and some experimentation with, the resulting halfblood heifers as replacements, Pohler says, “Producers in Brazil realize that Nellore has to remain a large component of their herd.”

Pohler, Mallory and other MU researchers authored a presentation Pohler offered at August’s annual Applied Reproductive Strategies in Beef Cattle Conference. They explained that 80% of Brazil’s beef cowherd is comprised of Bos indicus or Bos indicus-crossbred cattle. Meanwhile, Bos indicus make up only about 10% of the U.S. cattle population, with the majority being the product of Bos taurus breeds. The key reason for such cattle homogeneity in Brazil is its less diverse climate.

As for grass finishing, Rick Funston, University of Nebraska Extension beef cattle specialist, says 50% of the cattle produced in Brazil now receive some grain feeding. Funston has worked with Brazilian producers in Brazil and the U.S. He points out there are more registered Nellore cattle in Brazil than total beef cattle in the U.S.

Mostly, though, Brazilian producers are harnessing reproductive technology at a pace U.S. producers can only imagine. Specifically, producers there are utilizing estrus synchronization and fixed-time artificial insemination (FTAI) in heifers and mature cows; ultrasound to determine pregnancy so they can re-synchronize and re-breed if necessary.  They are also utilizing complementary crossbreeding. In this case, Angus and the resulting heterosis are used to add carcass quality.

Pohler emphasizes that producers in Brazil are stacking these technologies atop one another in order to accelerate genetic progress as fast as practically possible.

According to MU researchers, USDA statistics say about 55% of the cows in the U.S. were exposed for a defined breeding season in 2007-2008. Of those, 5%-10% (1.6-3.0 million head) were estimated to have been bred through artificial insemination (AI). In Brazil, about 7%-12% are bred AI, but realize, that equates to a total of 5-9 million cows.

“According to 2010 data from the Brazilian Association of Artificial Insemination, there has been nearly a 40% increase in the volume of beef semen marketed in Brazil in the last 10 years,” the researchers say.

The number of cattle and the vastness of Brazilian ranches mean much of the beef cattle AI is accomplished via estrus synchronization and FTAI. Pohler points out that conception rates using this strategy are right at 50% in Brazil. Pohler explains Bos indicus and Bos taurus differ on the basis of response to estrus synchronization protocols, and the postpartum anestrous period is longer among Bos indicus breeds. That’s why U.S. producers using the same technologies can typically expect conception rates of 60%-65%, he explains (see “U.S. Beef Producers Aren’t Using Proven Genetic Tools").

In 2007-2008, USDA estimated that ultrasound was used to diagnose pregnancy in 2.2% of the U.S. beef cowherd, vs. rectal palpation, which was used on 18%. In Brazil, the estimate is that ultrasound is used to diagnose pregnancy in 15%-20% of the beef cowherd.