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

Develey's ears perked up. "I thought to myself, 'He's protecting the biodiversity of the pampa, and he doesn't even know it,'" he recalls. Develey approached Adauto. "You are the man I've been looking for!" 

Adauto was underwhelmed. Among beef producers in the pampas he was a gran jefe, a rancher of importance and respect. He had no idea why this scientist was talking to him about birds. Develey called and emailed Adauto and other gauchos, who gave him a nickname: Pedro de las Passerines. "They thought I was kind of weird, but that was okay," he recalls. 

His persistence paid off. Adauto's group of ranchers met with the Southern Cone Grasslands Alliance. Since its founding seven years ago the coalition has caught the attention of grassland conservationists all over the Americas. "Their idea captured me immediately," says Justin Pepper, acting director of Audubon Chicago Region, who attended the meeting to learn from his South American colleagues. Pepper is part of a group of midwestern grassland bird specialists investigating the feasibility of a bird-friendly
beef certification program in the United States. "If it works, this could be a way to make one of the largest uses of grasslands--as pasture--compatible with its highest ecological use. The prairies of North and South America share birds, plants, and threats. Hopefully we can share solutions, too." 

 

Hundreds of ranchers and a handful of conservationists mingled at the Alliance's annual meeting of natural-grassland ranchers of the Southern Cone last October in the small Brazilian farm town of Lavras do Sul, about 75 miles north of Uruguay. Here gauchos sipped yerba mate, a traditional herbal tea, and broke bread with their traditional sparring partners, environmental leaders, in this case from BirdLife, Audubon (represented by Justin Pepper), and South American conservation groups. "Until we formed this alliance, conservationists and cattle producers had always been fighting, not understanding each other," Alliance coordinator Anibal Parera told me. "But now we have found a common cause." 

The extraordinary thing about the gathering wasn't just the harmony between ranchers and conservationists--it was the gaucho-heavy flavor of the meeting itself. It was held at a rural livestock arena, not a hotel conference center. Bird advocates took part, but cattle talk dominated the hourly sessions. That didn't happen by accident. "From the start, we knew the best way to succeed would be to put the beef producers up front, let them drive this, and have BirdLife and our partners play a backseat role," Clay said during a break. The Alliance's board of directors is deliberately skewed to give ranchers a majority stake. "This can't be just about the birds," he said. "It has to be about the producers. We need the people who know about cattle production to lead the initiative." 

In addition to hammering out certification rules, other challenges lie ahead. Between the ranch and the butcher shop there are feedlots and packinghouses, and most are set up to handle only commodity beef. To understand how that process works, I called up Stacy Davies, the general manager at Roaring Springs Ranch, one of the most environmentally progressive beef producers in the United States. Roaring Springs raises organic beef on the natural range grasses of eastern Oregon, and it's one of Whole Foods' top organic-beef suppliers. Davies wasn't at the conference, but his ranch has achieved what the South American gauchos are aspiring to do. "It took us years to build a network of partners who would help us keep the unique identity of our beef while getting it to market at a reasonable cost," says Davies.

Though it's a niche industry in the United States, demand for the product has increased during the past 15 years due to concerns about mad cow disease (caused by ingesting infected meat and bone meal), books like Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, and a growing awareness that pastured beef is healthier than conventional beef. As national chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's carry more grass-fed offerings, they're likely feeding demand for the product. The meat counter has become a venue for vote-with-your-dollar environmentalism: $3.50 a pound for grain-fed industrial hamburger or $6.49 for Trader Joe's grass-fed Angus ground beef? 

Raising cattle on native grassland isn't cheap. It requires ranchers to keep herd sizes small to prevent overgrazing, and to rotate pastures frequently to give the grasslands a chance to recover. The economies of scale are tough. An Angus or Here-ford cow raised after its first year on inexpensive corn, soy, and antibiotics in an industrial-scale feedlot can go to market in 14 months. On grass, it takes one and a half to two and a half years before a cow is fattened up and ready to sell. As in the United States, the South American grass-fed beef market remains tiny. The Alliance's members are traditional gauchos--small producers--many of whom are planning to market their bird-friendly brand locally before taking it abroad. 

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