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Brazil Steps Up Position in Global Beef Market

In response to rising global beef demand and the sluggish pace of beef herd expansion in the U.S. and elsewhere, Brazil is set to step up the rapid intensification of its beef production over the next 10 years. 

A recent report from the Rabobank Food & Agribusiness Research group titled Beefing up in Brazil: Feedlots to Drive Industry Growth predicts that Brazil’s feedlot capacity will more than double to 4.5 million head within 10 years, thereby turning out over 9 million head of fed cattle annually. While that would still be less than half of U.S. fed cattle, it would make the country a formidable global competitor for Asian markets and elsewhere.

In fact, it already is. Brazil is the world’s second largest beef producer and the largest exporter. However, the industry there remains relatively inefficient by global standards with below-average productivity. That, says the Rabobank report, highlights significant opportunities for improvement.

Global beef demand is expected to grow as greater affluence spreads to developing countries. “Brazil can fulfill this need due to its unmatched potential for expanding corn and soybean production – the two most universally used ingredients for animal rations,” explains Rabobank analyst Renato Rasmussen.

It will take major changes in breeding, nutrition, and transportation to make this happen. The investment required could be as much as $500 million, says Rabobank. Yet, if there were ever a time when the cattle industry had the capital resources to do it, it’s now.

It takes animals with serious heat tolerance to thrive in Brazil, where the climate is similar to the southernmost U.S. Most of the cattle there have Brahman or similar breeding. Cross them with British breeds like Angus and they do pretty well in the heat, as well as at the feedlot. The genetics upgrade is happening as more Angus semen is used for artificial insemination.

Brazil actually has some competitive advantages when it comes to modernizing its breeds. The commercial cow industry is dominated by multi-thousand head herds, says Don Close, Rabobank’s chief cattle economist. That compares with average cowherd size of about 30 head in the U.S., where change comes slowly. 

“Their large commercial herds are looking for that magic combination of breeds and are widely employing A.I. and embryo transfer to get there,” he says.

Brazil’s cattle industry is mostly grazing herds. Rabobank thinks producers are gravitating to more intensive systems: less grazing, more feedlots. Feedlots allow cattle to be slaughtered younger and heavier with increased yields, product consistency, and quality. Feedlots also ease competition for land with the grain industry.

Will they have the corn or other grain to support twice the number of feedlots? 

Yes, thinks Close. Brazilian corn acres are growing, partly as a result of more corn as a second crop to soybeans in a double-crop system. 

“It will let them build feedlot rations that are very similar to the U.S.,” says Close. “I expect them to feed rations that are 80% corn, and the remainder will be the by-products and forages that they have in abundance there.”

Brazil is notorious for its lack of infrastructure to support agriculture. Beef expansion is hampered, too. 

“There are many layers of market complexity in the U.S., but Brazil is just in its infancy,” he says. 

His list of obstacles also includes such things as price reporting, quality grading, industry structure, and animal health protocols. However, he thinks those can be solved. 

About 15 years ago, U.S. producers were hearing about emerging soybean competition from Brazil. It turned out to be true, and South America now grows and exports more soybeans than the U.S. 

“The next 15 years could spell out a similar story about beef,” Close says. “I would tell U.S. cattle producers not to lose sleep over this, but they need to know the day is coming when they won’t be the only game in town.”

Editor's Note: Freelance contributor Gene Johnston compiled this report.

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