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How do cattle ranchers in Brazil cope with climate change?

Due to climate change, agricultural producers all over the world must adapt to new, often more extreme, weather patterns. While much previous research has focused on mitigation strategies for crop production, a recent study led by the University of Illinois (U of I) has now investigated the unique challenges livestock producers in Brazil face, and the way they respond to climate change.

Since the dry season in Brazil is increasing up to 0.6 days per year, cattle face increased stress, and ranchers are more likely to sell them earlier. “Through talking with cattle ranchers, I kept hearing about ways they had to change their production to cope with the dry season. They are used to a dry season every year, but they noticed it was getting worse,” said study author Marin Skidmore, an assistant professor of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at U of I.

“Every year the animals gain weight in the rainy season, they lose weight in the dry season, and then they gain weight again [a phenomenon referred to as “the accordion effect”]. This takes a toll, of course, but they had been able to make do with the dry season as it was. As it got worse, the weight loss got worse, and they were seeing animal losses and profit losses.”

By conducting interviews with Brazilian ranchers and gathering data from a large database of cattle movements in Brazil, Skidmore found evidence of increased animal sales in preparation for extremely dry seasons. “A rancher who would keep their animals in their own pasture through a normal dry season will instead will be more likely to sell them if they expect that the dry season will be severe,” she explained.

Ranchers often make decisions about the upcoming dry season by observing rainfall patterns. While during the rainy season it rains every day, later on rain becomes intermittent, and ranchers will observe how sporadic the rain gets and how early this happens. In anticipation of the dry season, they have several options.

“They can sell the animals for slaughter, and then it is no one’s responsibility to feed anymore. But potentially you have an animal that isn’t at a weight for slaughter yet,” Skidmore said. “Then you can sell the animal to a confinement operation, where they are feeding an animal on grain. This decouples the food source from the current weather; it can be grain that was grown in the region in the previous season, or grain that’s being transported from another region.”

Since pasture-based production is generally susceptible to drought and current production technologies are not equipped to deal with heat stress, investing in better management practices to improve pastures and deal with heat is essential.

“A lot of the climate change literature looks at crop producers. But the difference is that animals have lives, and this opens up a whole other set of adaptive strategies to livestock producers. Ranchers are making use of that, and it can really affect the structure of the supply chain,” she concluded.

The study is published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. 

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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