South American Cowboys Cook Up Bird-Friendly 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.
Meanwhile, Audubon is looking into creating a bird-friendly-beef label. The group has done staff exchanges with Alliance partners, and now has three pilot project sites, in Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. “We have a pretty good idea of the habitat needs of North American grassland birds in those places,” says Pepper. “And we know that minor modifications in the grassland can provide major benefits to bird habitat. Now we’re looking for ways to make that work from a private rancher’s business perspective.” Without the cooperation of private landowners, grassland birds in the American Midwest will be limited to postage stamps of native grassland, separated by vast swaths of farmland and monoculture pastures. That means helping those natural-grassland ranchers stay profitable and remain in business.
On my last day in Brazil, I strolled through the native grasslands north of Lavras do Sul with an Argentinean rancher named Marina Sanchez Elia. Her family owns large tracts of working land in Argentina’s Corrientes region. As we walked, a menagerie of oddly shaped grasses brushed our shins. Elia pointed out different species: carqueja, a grass sometimes steeped as a tea, and cardilla, a spike-bladed grass that resembles a tiny yucca. A white-rumped swallow perched on a fence post. “I’ve always loved the land and the cattle and the songs of birds,” she told me, as a trio of grassland sparrows kicked up at our feet. “My father used to rise at 4 a.m. and go manage the cattle. He loved the birds and he used to whistle very well. He taught my brothers and me their names and how to recognize their different songs.”
Over time her family had gradually moved from native pastures to a more intensive rice farming operation. Two years ago she heard about the Alliance’s work. “I became more interested in their ideas,” she told me, “and this year I have decided that we won’t grow rice anymore. We’ve been growing rice for 20 years, but now we’re going to restore that acreage back to native grassland and bring cattle back to the land.”
Elia believes more ranchers will follow suit. “We often assume that change only happens over many, many years,” she said, “but that’s not always the case. With the pressures of climate change and our increasing ability to communicate, change can happen quickly. And that change is happening here in the grasslands.”
As dusk fell on the pampas, a Correndera pipit lit on a fence post at the edge of the pasture. It held its head high and gave us a glimpse of its white throat and blonde-tipped coffee-brown feathers. Then it flew away, low over the grassland, past a handful of gauchos in high boots and wide-brimmed hats, murmuring about markets, cows, and pasture rotations.
This story originally ran in the November-December 2012 issue as "Raising the Steaks."