For Brazil to reach the next level in the global beef trade it needs to develop cattle feeding systems that will fit into a rapidly maturing cattle industry. At least, that's the way many observers feel.

Grain feeding would shorten the marketing age of an animal from three years to two, says Joao Silva, agricultural specialist with the U.S. Embassy in Brazil.

“It would also substantially increase the weight output,” he adds. “Grain feeding would not have to develop on a widespread scale in order to increase beef production by 10-15%.”

Today, there's very little concentrated cattle feeding in Brazil. Less than 20% of its total beef tonnage is fed under any conditions away from the pasture. Of that, only a small portion is actually finished in confinement for harvest.

In most cases, “feeding” is limited to roughage and some grain and oilseed-based concentrates for 90-120 days to get the cattle through the winter dry season that plagues many areas of Brazil's cattle-producing regions.

The “Typical” Feedlot

At Fazenda Talismã, young Brazilian farmer Fabio Nevs, Rondonàpolis, Mato Grosso, returned to his family cattle farm after attending an agricultural university. While studying animal science, he learned he could increase the farm's productivity by putting up grass silage during the wet season and feeding it in the dry season.

In a system that is much like growing and producing hay for winter feeding in the U.S., he sets aside some pasture he's converted to farmland for forage harvest.

For about 100 days beginning sometime in May, Neves moves cattle from the pastures and confines them in the feedlot he built. He spikes the protein content of the ration by adding soybeans to the silage.

This system increased overall production costs about 20%, but he's now able to keep 1,300 cows on the same land resource that previously carried just 600 cows.

Nevs has also improved overall conception rates from 70% to 80% with better nutrition — and reduced his annual death rate from 10% to 2%.

He says his cattle are “finished” on grass and are harvested at 30-36 months of age, weighing about 1,100 lbs. Depending on grass conditions, he'll supplement 0.5-1 lb. of soybean meal/head/day during grazing.

“But, my father doesn't like any of these ideas very much,” he says. “He still wants to keep the soybeans to sell for money.”

Feedlot Finishing

Several hundred miles south of Nevs' farm, Domingos Trevisan, manages the Fazenda Apolo in the Paranã state municipality of Itaipulandia. There, he oversees a land base of 7,000 acres, which includes 2,900 acres of cropland and 1,300 acres of pasture. The farm is typical in size and management for Southern Brazil.

The farm is unique in that it's among the few Brazilian operations that actually finish cattle in a feedlot setting. The finishing ration consists of milo, soybean meal and corn silage fed to 3,500 head of bulls and bullocks/year in four small feedlots. His genetics include mixtures of Limousin, Charolais, Angus and Brown Swiss crossed to varying degrees with Nelore bulls (see page 52).

Calves are weaned at nine months of age. They then spend one month on grass before going into confinement for 12-13 months of feeding. Finished weights average about 1,200 lbs. and Trevisan says he receives a “significant” premium for the grain-fed cattle. The beef is shipped as boxed beef to Europe by a local packer.

Like other Brazilian cattle farmers, he's not allowed to use growth hormones or performance-enhancing feed additives. He says two years ago, a group of German “inspectors” showed up on his farm unexpectedly and took feed samples. Importers routinely spot-check Brazilian cattle farmers to make sure they aren't using any prohibited feed additives or anabolics.

All of Trevisan's animals are individually identified from birth using radio-frequency electronic identification (ID) ear tags. It's part of the complete traceback system now mandatory for all animals in Brazil if the meat is intended for export. In fact, a nationwide mandatory ID program is being phased in over the next few years. Animals located in foot-and-mouth-disease (FMD)-free areas must be enrolled by 2005. By 2007, all cattle must be in the program.

Mixed Feedlot Operation

At Fazenda Santa Maria near Santa Terezinha de Itaipu, Paranã, farm manager Carlos Alberto thinks he has it tough. While he doesn't have a pronounced dry season to deal with, he endures light frost several times each winter.

Like Nevs at Fazenda Talismã, he brings most of his 2,200 cows off pasture for 2-3 months. But, in his case, the rest period occurs in summer when pastures are actively growing. His tactic is to save as much forage as possible for winter use. The forages also have higher protein when drier, he says.

By substituting high-roughage feeds for pasture, he can maintain a stocking rate of about 1 cow/2.5 acres on his 4,100 acres of pastures during the grazing period.

Since he already has the facilities for feeding cows, Alberto makes added use of the feedlot for increasing the weight of his terminal-cross calves prior to selling them for harvest. He also finishes cattle using a milo, soy and corn silage ration.

Alberto's Simmental and Limousin-cross cows are bred to Nelore bulls beginning at 18 months of age. Due to better nutrition, he says he can be more progressive than most Brazilians who wait until their heifers are about 24 months old at first breeding. His cows only have about 5-6 calves in their life, though — mostly depending on the value of cows for slaughter.

Parasites And “Green Cattle”

At Fazenda Santa Maria, Alberto's biggest animal heath problems center on internal and external parasites. With most of his cattle he uses Ivomec®, the most commonly used parasite treatment.

Because the state of Paranã is certified by the Office of International Epizoites (OIE) as FMD-free, he doesn't worry about FMD, but vaccinates for rabies, brucellosis and botulism.

Some Brazilian producers, including Alberto, are enrolling in a new government-monitored program to produce boi verde — or “green beef.” Producers agree to use no drugs on animals in the program. To ward off flies, ticks and other pests, the cattle are sprayed with an herbal “tea” that Alberto claims works better than any chemical treatment he's used.

The boi verde beef is exported to Asia and Europe where it commands a 50% premium — of which 30% is passed back to the farmers. Alberto says few cattle are in the program because it's a high-risk venture with no guarantee the premiums will be paid to the producers.

Meanwhile, in the subtropical state of Mato Grosso do Sul, the government is promoting a “branded” boi verde beef raised in the Pantanal National Park. In this vast area of swamplands, there's growing international pressure to preserve the region's ecology and wildlife resources. It's also an area with a 150-year history of cattle production.

An international committee that oversees activities in the park has developed a plan to sell the farmers' production as veal calves. This, they say, would take some grazing pressure off the park's resources. The goal is to sell the veal as ecologically friendly products of the Pantanel.

Constraints Vs. Opportunity

One of the biggest constraints of South American cattle feeding is that the people generally don't like grain-fed beef's taste. Further constraining the feeding picture is that many farmers, like Fabio Nevs' father, find the cash-grain markets more lucrative and stable than cattle finishing.

Yet, everything is in place for Brazil to become a cattle-feeding powerhouse, if they choose to evolve in that direction, says cattle feeder and veterinarian John Gee, Stanford, MT. He and his wife JoAnn participated in BEEF magazine's two-week tour to Brazil in January.

Gee says Brazilians are obviously limited by the climate and the genetics they can use in their environment.

“They're using more crossbreeding though, especially in the south where the climate's a little more moderate,” he explains. “If they can get away from a dependence on Nelore breeding, they will have a better beef product in the end.”

Brazil has the cattle numbers and grains to support them, he says.

“If they could put it all together, they have the potential to finish cattle and provide a very good, lean beef product,” Gee explains. “From what I saw, I wouldn't underestimate anything the Brazilians can do agriculturally.”