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High-hopes are placed on the intensification of cattle ranching to reconcile agriculture and forest conservation in Latin America. A new study published in Sustainability by GLP Member Erasmus zu Ermgassen and colleagues looks at six on-the-ground efforts in the Brazilian Amazon to make this a reality.
The team surveyed six initiatives which have used a range of technologies (rotational grazing, legume-grass mixes, agroforestry) to improve the productivity of beef and dairy production by 30–490% on >500,000 ha of pasture, while supporting compliance with the Brazilian Forest Code (Figure 1). High-productivity cattle ranching requires some initial investment (US$ 410–2180/ha), with average pay-back times of 2.5–8.5 years.
Despite these promising results, intensification was not profitable under all conditions, and several barriers to the sustainable development of the cattle sector exist. The paper therefore sets out three key conditions which are required to mainstream sustainable cattle ranching in the Amazon:
(1) Large-scale knowledge transfer—long-term funding and support is required for farmer-centered agricultural extension services, which increase awareness of high-yielding technologies and support small- and large-holders alike to adopt appropriate farming practices.
(2) Financial support for sustainable ranching— the field-data suggested that high-yielding cattle ranching requires higher up-front investment than the figures (US$ 22-609/ha) used to estimate the cost of implementing Brazil's commitment to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (which includes efforts to reduce deforestation and increase cattle productivity through the restoration of 15 million hectares of degraded pasture). Rural credit lines should help farmers not only increase agricultural production, but also meet the costs of Forest Code compliance. Market signals also matter: price-premiums for good agricultural practices would encourage uptake
(3) Increased transparency in cattle supply chains—efforts by some slaughterhouses to monitor direct suppliers are a step in the right direction, but do not go far enough. All slaughterhouses should monitor both indirect and direct cattle suppliers.
Figure 1. (a) High-yielding cattle pasture (right) on a Novo Campo Program farm, one month after replanting, compared with conventional, unreformed pasture (left); (b) Stocking rate in intensified pasture plots for the period January 2013–September 2014. The grey dashed line represents the mean stocking rate for farms in the region.