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

During the first week of August, as the full heat of summer ripples across North America, tens of thousands of upland sandpipers abandon their ground nests on U.S. prairies and begin the long flight south for winter. Their goal: survive a 4,000-mile journey to the land of the South American gaucho. 

Traveling by night, the mottled cinnamon birds fly over Texas and Mexico, move down the crooked arm of Central America, and cross the Andes in Ecuador. In late September these terrestrial shorebirds finally reach their destination: the Southern Cone, a sea of grass sweeping 600 miles from the Atlantic coast to the Andean foothills. Known as las pampas, this vast green prairie covers an area about the size of Texas and California combined, and encompasses parts of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

If they're fortunate, some of those birds will find their way to Jacques de Souza's estancia in southern Brazil. Here the grasses take on a cricket-green hue in October, during the austral spring. The sandpipers' bright-orange legs flash among the vegetation as they forage for insects in the same sprawling expanses that de Souza's cattle graze.  

During a visit last year, de Souza adjusted his beret and called out to two of his hired men watching over a herd of Hereford cattle. "Bring them over--we want a good look at them," de Souza shouted. With clicking sounds and soft Portuguese commands, they moved the cows toward the fence. Like a gaucho from central casting, de Souza wore bombachas (baggy trousers), high leather boots, and a white silk kerchief tied at the neck. His family has been ranching these 2,500 acres for nearly two centuries. "Like many other ranchers in this area, we're breeding cattle nearly year-round in native grasslands, with the use of some cultivated [non-native grass] areas for wintertime feeding," said de Souza. "It's good for the health of the cattle and for the biodiversity of the grasslands as well."

A small crowd gathered around him. These were ranchers from across the Southern Cone attending a meeting of the Alianza del Pastizales (the Southern Cone Grasslands Alliance), a grand experiment involving strange bedfellows, mutual interests, and market forces. Ranchers and conservationists throughout the pampas are taking part. The idea is to establish a brand of bird-friendly, grass-fed beef that will command a premium price in South America, the way grass-fed beef or organic produce does in the United States. The Alliance hopes that profit, rather than political pressure, will convince ranchers across the region to conserve their native grasslands.

After inspecting de Souza's thick, healthy cows, the ranchers followed him up a grassy knoll from which they could see his land stretch nearly to the horizon. The emerald fields fell away for miles, with no cars, roads, or buildings in sight. It looked like an early 19th century J.M.W. Turner painting of the English countryside.

A visiting rancher spotted a brown field way off in the distance. "What's happening over there?" he asked. 

"That is my neighbor's field," de Souza said. "He's growing soybeans there." 

The gauchos nodded their heads. Soybeans: the temptation and the competition. Soybeans fetch a good price right now, and many of de Souza's neighbors are growing Monsanto's genetically modified Roundup Ready soybeans. 

Thus, one of the powerful motivators of the Alliance: The ranchers here want to be ranchers. Gauchos traditionally don't grow soybeans. 

 

The gaucho culture traces its lineage back to the 16th century, when horsemen from Spain's Andalusia region emigrated to the Southern Cone. There they found an equestrian paradise of verdant rolling grasslands. The newcomers first survived by hunting wild cattle that had escaped from Jesuit missionaries' farms or that had been left behind by explorers. Over time they established their own ranches and nurtured a rich culture of music, folklore, fashion, and pastoral stewardship. They called themselves gauchos, derived from huacha, the Quechua Indian word for orphans. The term codified their defiant, independent spirit. Gauchos were skilled horsemen, crafty and brave, libertines, dandies, inveterate gamblers, and deadly knife fighters. Today their cattle control the grasses, doing the job the region's original herbivores--now long gone--once performed, somewhat like cattle grazing lands that bison once roamed in the United States. Gauchos know and love their land, relying on the grasslands as a fisherman relies on the sea. 

For these South American cowboys, every acre of grasslands lost to soybeans isn't just bird habitat lost. It's gaucho culture lost. "We're showing cattle producers that they can make profits while preserving biodiversity," says Fernando Adauto, a rancher from southern Brazil and a founding member of the Alliance. "Both are imperative, because the most sensitive part of a rancher is his wallet. He won't do anything if it doesn't make money." 

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. 

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. 

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."

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