South American Cowboys Cook Up Bird-Friendly Beef

South American Cowboys Cook Up Bird-Friendly Beef

Legendary gauchos are teaming up with grassland conservationists to maintain a way of life and help save millions of grassland birds. 

By Bruce Barcott/Photography by Fernanda Preto
Published: November-December 2012

The endeavor is off to a promising start. Members are working to establish simple but strict rules: At least half of a rancher's pastures must be natural grassland. Grass must constitute at least 70 percent of the cattle's diet. The animals must be free ranging, with access to water and shade. As a result, birds enjoy intact grasslands, while ranchers are hoping to obtain a premium for their product, earning more per pound than regular beef. The assumption that the bird-friendly symbol will increase underlies the whole Alliance. If South American consumers begin to prefer branded bird-friendly beef over standard beef, it will drive demand and increase opportunities for natural grassland ranchers to the benefit of millions of birds.

 

For the upland sandpiper and more than 400 other bird species, the Southern Cone grasslands are habitat heaven. A natural North American tallgrass prairie like the Flint Hills of Kansas contains about 90 different grass species. The Southern Cone pampas comprise more than 500. They're twisty, they're curly, they're straight, they're bunched and they're singular, they're long and short and everything in between. Some of the grasses don't even look like grasses. One species resembles a succulent cactus. Another grows so long and straight it'll poke you in the eye as you walk past. 

That rich floral mixture nurtures a host of insects and seeds--hearty bird food--and provides a variety of grass types and heights, from low sparse clumps to thick reedy shoots, which offers opportunities for hiding, feeding, courting, and nesting to birds of all types and sizes. Charismatic South American birds like the greater rhea, a flightless relative of the ostrich, thrive alongside North American migrants like the buff-breasted sandpiper, the Swainson's hawk, and the bobolink. 

Like other grasslands around the world, the prairies of the Southern Cone are losing acreage to the demands of industrial agriculture. More than half the native grasslands in Brazil have been converted to food crops and tree farms over the past century, and the rate of conversion has sharply increased during the past decade. Between 1988 and 2002, more than 2.2 million acres of Argentinean grasslands were similarly lost. It's no coincidence that birds dependent on grasslands represent the largest group of avian species on the decline in the Americas.

The problem is especially acute in Brazil, the world's leading beef exporter. High soy and sugarcane prices have led a number of ranchers to execute what might be called the Brazilian double-switch: selling their native grasslands to crop farmers and moving their cattle north onto cheap slash-and-burn acreage cleared from the Amazon rainforest. A study by Swedish researchers published last year in Environmental Science & Technology sounded alarms about the practice, noting that an acre of Southern Cone grassland sells for seven times the price of an acre of cleared Amazon forest. That could spell disaster for the hundreds of bird species that depend on this highly endangered ecosystem. 

Bird diversity collapses from hundreds of species to a handful when a crop like soybeans, or a single-pasture food like ryegrass, replaces the rich native grass varieties. "People assume, 'Grass is grass, what's the difference?' " says Rob Clay, a Paraguay-based senior conservation manager for BirdLife International, National Audubon's international partner. "It just doesn't catch people's attention the way the loss of a forest does."

Nearly all native grasslands everywhere are privately owned, and most have been given over to industrial agriculture. Only 1.6 percent of the United States' 172 million acres of native grasslands are in protected areas. About 15 percent of Canada's 21.4 million acres are protected. In South America, only an estimated 40 percent of the original native grasslands remain. Nearly all of the remaining acreage is privately owned. "In Brazil most of the pampa is held by ranchers," says Pedro Develey, a biologist and director of conservation for SAVE Brasil. "It's their land. We can't come in and say, 'Look, you must do this because of the birds.' Because they may say, 'No, my land is to raise cattle, not birds.' We had to find a system that would be good for both the ranchers and the birds."

In 2005 BirdLife and partners in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay launched the Alliance using early seed money from Audubon. The challenge was to bring the ranchers aboard. "We wanted to find a way," says Clay, "to encourage the more sustainable beef producers and not lose that ecologically valuable grassland" to soybeans or monoculture grazing grass that overwhelms diverse native grasses. 

In those early days, the tough part was finding a gaucho willing to work with the Alliance. "Nobody in the conservation community had a contact," says Develey. At a biodiversity conference in 2004, he overheard a Brazilian gaucho talking about trying to brand grass-fed beef. "We produce beef exclusively in natural grasslands," the man said. "The quality of the meat is much better. It's more tender and flavorful," because natural grass is much higher-quality food than industrial feed.

That gaucho was Fernando Adauto. He ran 900 head of cattle on his 3,000-acre ranch the old-fashioned way: grazing livestock on the complex natural grasses that carpeted the soft folds of land near Lavras do Sul. His efforts to promote sustainable ranching methods, he said, were hitting dead ends. Few distributors were willing to differentiate his beef from the industrial-raised variety. 

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