The Brazilian beef cattle population is to the beef world what the Chinese human population is to the world in general. In both cases, their numbers are so vast that even a minor change in those epicenters creates ripples felt globally.

That means the U.S. beef industry may find out how much truth there is to that old saying about it being easier to get to the top than it is to remain there. At least it might when you consider the sheer scope of the Brazilian beef cattle industry and its commitment to becoming the world’s leader in beef production.

“We really need to pay attention to what Brazil is doing and look for opportunities to apply it to our industry,” says Ky Pohler, a University of Missouri (MU) graduate student in beef reproductive physiology. He and classmate Dan Mallory spent part of last year working for Brazilian beef goliaths, the Marfrig Group and Lageado Agricultural Consulting, LTD.

Pohler and Mallory were the first students to work in Brazil as part of the innovative reproductive management internship sponsored by MU and Select Sires, Inc. Pohler and Mallory worked with 20,000 beef cows and heifers on 15 farms and ranches in three Brazilian states.

When Pohler returned home to the family’s beef operation in Texas, his father asked him whether he’d felt safe living and working in Brazil. Pohler said the only time he felt unsafe was when he caught the plane for home.

“That’s when I started thinking about what the beef industry is doing there and what we’re going to have to do in the U.S. to compete with them,” Pohler says.

Dave Patterson, MU professor of animal science, has been in Brazil twice in recent years, serving on beef educational programs. He also hosts beef producers and students from Brazil. “The energy in agriculture in Brazil is unbelievable and the bright young people being attracted to careers in agriculture are impressive,” Patterson says.

In fact, Brazilian beef associates tell Patterson that 40% of the available lending capital in the nation is earmarked for animal protein production.

“That’s one reason I felt like we needed to send some of our students there to work with their beef operations so they can see what’s coming at them,” Patterson says.

Understanding The Limits

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.

Size Has Multiple Advantages

Brazilian adoption of these technologies is helped by the sheer size of cowherds and the relatively small number of producers, compared to the U.S.

“You can go to a single operation in Brazil and synchronize 10,000 head of cows and heifers,” Pohler says. “Here, you’d have to line up lots of producers to synchronize that many.”

Pohler explains the average beef cowherd size in Brazil is estimated at 2,000-4,000 head depending on the state and region. The simple average in the U.S. is about 50 head, when you divide the number of 32.9 million beef cows in the 2007 inventory by the number of beef cattle operations cited in the 2007 Ag Census.

In Brazil, there are an estimated 35,000 beef operations. Consequently, fewer producers adopting the technology account for a larger percentage of the operation pool; the large average size means adoption encompasses lots more cows.

Brazilians are utilizing a systems approach, too. Consider an operation where Pohler worked. It was comprised of four separate ranches. Two were the cow-calf portion of the enterprise, another performed heifer development, and the fourth was grazing and feeding calves produced by the cow-calf outfits.

Reflecting on operations like Marfrig and Lageado, Pohler says, “They’ve got their plans in place. They’ve made a tremendous financial commitment. Now, you’re seeing exponential growth in their use of reproductive technology.”

Pohler adds that outfits like those are working toward the integrated conception-to-consumption model that has so far eluded the U.S. industry, at least on a large scale.

Patterson likens the current situation to that of Toyota’s entrance into the U.S. car market years ago. At the time, few took the company or its tiny cars seriously.

Similarly, the MU researchers say, there is speculation that, within 10 years, the Brazilian beef industry will be largely transformed because of improvements in productivity and efficiency. 

Editor’s note: Access the MU researchers’ presentation at
http://j.mp/wf9NHU.