In early February, my wife and I accompanied a farm and ranch tour of Brazil sponsored by BEEF and The Corn And Soybean Digest (formerly Soybean Digest) magazines. My bride and I had lived in Brazil in 1970 while serving with a Ford Foundation technical assistance program to the Sao Paulo Institute of Agriculture, and were intrigued to see how Brazil had changed in 33 years.

The recent tour was targeted at two Brazilian “frontier” states we visited in 1970. Here are some of the changes we observed in those frontier areas. First, some background:

The largest country in South America, Brazil occupies almost half that continent, and is the world's fifth largest country. Brazil has a population of 175 million people but there are areas, such as the Amazon, that are scarcely populated. Portuguese is the native language but English is common in Brazil's hotels, restaurants and shops.

Our February tour took us to the southwest Brazilian states of Motto Grosso and South Moto Grosso. Back in 1970, these two states were one state — Moto Grosso do Sul.

The government's economic strategy in the 1960s was to develop Moto Grosso by building a road into the frontier in order to promote settlement. The aproach was “develop a road into the Frontier and the people will come.” In 1970, we drove to the end of that road to get a firsthand view. In fact, we drove two cars so that if one broke down, we'd have another to get home as there were no services in the area.

As we drove this road in 1970, we passed tens of thousands of acres of grassland and shrub trees. Now and then, we'd see a herd of cattle. Since that road was the only transportation venue, we even ran into a large herd of cattle being trailed down the road to a market collection point. There, they were loaded onto trucks and shipped 400-500 miles east to Sao Paulo for harvesting.

Our visit 33 years later indicates the government's development plan worked. Our February visit found a modern Moto Grosso frontier city now in place. What a difference 33 years made!

  • Brazil is a tropical region extending south from the equator into more temperate regions. In the area we visited in February, farmers crop year round. A summer crop is grown in the “wet” season, followed by a winter crop in the “dry” season. All the farms we visited double-crop soybeans and corn. The soybeans go on the world market.

    While Brazil's reputation is that of a major coffee and sugar producer, it's clearly evolved into a modern soybean-producing country. It has highly fertile soils, yearlong growing seasons, uses U.S.-style chemical programs and modern machinery, and, according to officials, doesn't use biotech soybeans.

    According to a machinery dealer with whom we visited, the biggest, most common tractor sold was a 165-hp tractor, with a 185-hp tractor promised next year. This dealer sells about 200 tractors/year.

  • Cattle aren't a major industry today but Brazil's 160 million cattle — 45% more than the combined U.S. and Canadian dairy and beef herds — do get your attention. The state of Moto Grosso alone has 18.6 million head. Figure 1 shows Brazil's ranking in all-cattle numbers compared to Europe and the U.S.

    I have to share a point with you relating to cattle numbers. In 1970, we were convinced that Brazil really did not know how many cattle were in its country. At that time, Brazil did not have an agricultural census like we did in the U.S. We joked then that cattle numbers, for some unknown reason, seemed to parallel the human population number. Could that have been an easy way to approximate a cattle count? Thirty-three years later and Brazil has a human population of 170 million people and a cattle population of 160 (some figures state 170) million cattle. I wonder….

  • In 1970, it was common for feeder cattle in Brazil to be on grass for more than three years, gaining weight during the wet season and losing weight during the dry season. Hopefully, animals gained more in the wet season than they lost in the dry season, finally reaching the age to be harvested. Traditional breeds were selected on their hide thickness and heat tolerance.

    Today, it's very different. One rancher showed us his 14-month-old crossbred feeders targeted for harvest at 17 months of age. His operation included a purebred Nelore herd (a Zebu-type: big-eared with a hump), and a crossbred Nelore/Charolais herd. His crossbred calves go to market at 17 months.

  • Both improved grasses and rotational grazing appear to be common management practices today. Brazilian researchers have imported and improved varieties that greatly out-perform native grasses. Some are bred to specifically perform in the wet season, others to specifically perform in the dry season, and still others to do reasonably well in both, thus providing year-around grazing.

  • The first rancher we visited was a soybean farmer now raising crossbred cattle. His crop rotation is no-till soybeans one year, followed by three years of cultivated grass. His pastures appeared to be intensively managed.

  • Insects and parasites are a problem. The lack of freezing temperatures means cattle must be treated for parasites up to four times/year.

Harlan Hughes is a North Dakota State University professor emeritus. He lives in Laramie, WY. Reach him at 701/238-9607 or harlan.hughes@gte.net.