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Ranchers and environmentalists united

Cattle ranching on native grasslands—vegetation typical of southern Brazil—balances interests of both parties

Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, one of the bird species found in the southern grasslands

Fabio ColombiniBlack-chested Buzzard-Eagle, one of the bird species found in the southern grasslandsFabio Colombini

In April 2016, supermarkets in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul are expected to receive the first shipment of beef from cattle raised on native grasslands, a vegetation type typical of the South. This comes as the fruit of 12 years of negotiations, discussions and alliances between environmentalists and cattlemen, united around a strategy—successful to date—aimed at both preservation and economic utilization of native vegetation and its associated biodiversity. Cattle ranching on native grasslands is a production method that promotes preservation of the original environment, which otherwise might have been converted for farming or pastures dominated by exotic grass species such as signalgrass.

Although the strategy is limited to Rio Grande do Sul and is small in scale, given the 212 million head of cattle in Brazil, producers expect it to yield higher-quality, better-tasting beef with less fat, because of the varied diet that the animals can enjoy. The southern grasslands are home to 450 identified species of native grasses, such as bahiagrass, carpetgrass, threeawn grass and speargrass—a diversity greater than that found in other environments. The grasslands of the Cerrado savannah, for example, host about 100 native grass species, most of which have low nutritional value. By the end of 2015, 50,000 bulls and cows had been raised on 8,000 square kilometers (km2) of preserved grasslands, on 110 farms in Rio Grande do Sul that have been certified by the Alianza del Pastizal (Grasslands Alliance), a producers’ association established by the Brazilian, Uruguayan, Argentine and Paraguayan partners of the nongovernmental organization BirdLife International. Food company Marfrig signed an agreement with 24 certified producers to receive, slaughter and distribute meat from 250 animals per month initially.

“We need to conserve the grasslands in order to keep the business running,” says Mathias Almeida, the company’s sustainability manager. The native grasslands that form the predominant vegetation in the Pampa—a natural ecosystem that occupies 176,500 km2 in Rio Grande do Sul and accounts for 2% of the Brazilian landmass—have been shrinking, from 41% of the Pampa in 2002 to 36% in 2008. This contraction has occurred as a result of expanding monocultures such as soybeans, and an increase in pastures containing exotic grass species, which suppress biodiversity. The grasslands are home to some 500 bird species, such as Brazilian ostrich, Rufous Hornero (a type of ovenbird), Saffron-cowled Blackbird, Black-and-white Monjita, Chalk-browed Mockingbird and Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, in addition to 100 species of mammals, including the endangered Pampas deer and the tuco-tuco, a rodent found only in this region.

Southern identity
“Livestock-raising on native grasslands, combined with proper management, offers an excellent opportunity for economic gain and for maintaining the ecosystem services of the grassland environments,” says geographer Heinrich Hasenack of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. “We must take great care to identify the appropriate animal load for each type of grassland in order to avoid animal overload.” The Alliance proposes a limit of 0.8 animals per hectare—well below the three or four per hectare for more densely vegetated pasture—as a way of preserving both the vegetation and producers’ profitability.

“With good management and no animal overload, livestock-raising on native grasslands is considered a key element in maintaining regional diversity and ecosystem services, just as fire is important for maintaining diversity in some physiognomies of the Cerrado,” notes biologist Tiago Gomes, a professor at the Federal University of the Pampa (Unipampa). “Simple additional practices can increase species richness on rural properties. These include animal rotation using penning systems or shifts, which allow plants to seed before the animals are put out to graze, and also offer the animals heterogeneous pastureland with different heights and densities of brush.”

The recommended maximum is 0.8 animals per hectare as a way of preserving vegetation and profitability

Fabio ColombiniThe recommended maximum is 0.8 animals per hectare as a way of preserving vegetation and profitabilityFabio Colombini

Cattlemen and environmentalists say they are seeing satisfying results so far. “We are managing to preserve not only biodiversity and a typical southern vegetation type, but also the identity of Rio Grande do Sul, which is closely linked to cattle ranching and native grasslands,” observes biologist Pedro Develey, executive director of the Society for the Conservation of Brazilian Birds (SAVE/BirdLife), a nongovernmental organization. Develey helped design the strategy to promote cattle-raising in this natural environment as a preservation method, mainly for bird populations and diversity (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 156). When he joined SAVE/BirdLife in 2004, there was already a project in the making to conserve the birds of the native grasslands, which stretch across three neighboring countries. His first challenge in continuing the project was to expand the universe of partners. “I knew only researchers in academia, but I had to talk with the cattlemen, too,” he says.

At a cattlemen’s meeting in the city of Bagé in 2006, Develey felt he finally had a stroke of luck when he heard a presentation by agronomist Fernando Adauto Loureiro de Souza—who then headed the Rio Grande do Sul Grasslands Beef Producers Association (Apropampa)—about creating a seal of geographical origin, to be granted to ranchers who raise cattle on native grasslands. “You’re doing exactly what we want to do,” Develey told him. Souza heard this and liked what he had proposed. Joined by other biologists, the two looked over the lands of the other ranchers interested in preserving the native grasslands, even if there would be some impact from coexistence with cattle that trample and eat the vegetation.

Birds in sight
Gradually, environmentalists and cattle ranchers overcame their mutual resistance and settled on possible actions. Together, they drew up the criteria for environmental certificates that the Alliance would issue to producers who preserve the native grasslands on at least 50% of their land. “Nothing radical,” he notes. “The Alliance will not turn away any producer who plants soybeans or eucalyptus on half of his land.” In an effort to bring the groups together, he gave talks at cattlemen’s meetings, and Souza spoke at a conference of ornithologists.

To strengthen the proposals for biodiversity conservation, the biologists prepared bird identification guides. As a result of this effort, “the cattlemen began paying more attention to the birds on their land,” Develey says. In a survey published in the November 2015 issue of the journal Lavras do Sul, Glayson Bencke and other biologists at the Museum of Natural Sciences at the Zoobotanical Foundation of Rio Grande do Sul identified between 85 and 120 species of birds on each of the seven farms examined.  According to the researchers, the bird populations and diversity appear to be holding steady.

“The best business is not to produce more, but to produce with higher profitability, Souza says. It was his idea to organize auctions of heifers and young and mature cows raised on native grasslands, for use in forming new herds. All of the animals in the first two auctions—1,115 in the first one in 2014, and 1,478 in the second auction the following year—sold at a price at least 10% above market value, with proceeds of R$1.5 million and R$2.5 million, respectively. The third auction is set for April 23, 2016 in the city of Lavras do Sul, Rio Grande do Sul.

The next few weeks, when packaged beef from these cattle reaches the refrigerated store shelves in area markets, will mark the beginning of the battle to win over consumers. If shoppers don’t like the taste, consistency or price of meat from animals raised on native grasslands, cattle ranchers’ commitment and the connections between people and institutions could become weakened.

Scientific article
DEVELEY, P. F. et al. Conservação das aves e da biodiversidade no bioma Pampa aliada a sistemas de produção animal. Revista Brasileira de Ornitologia. V. 16, No. 4, p. 308-15, 2008.