Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/October 1881/Cattle-Raising in South America

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CATTLE-RAISING is far from having attained a sufficient importance in Brazil. Immense provinces, like those of Goyaz and Matto-Grosso, vast regions from the Amazon to the Parana, where cattle could be raised easily and without care, remain unutilized for want of a market and of convenient means of transport and conservation. There exist, however, some important stock-raising tracts and cattle-exchanges.

I have visited the provinces of Parana and Rio Grande and the state of Montevideo, and what I have to say relates only to those regions. Being neither an agriculturist nor a zootechnist, I have had to limit myself to incomplete observations, and have endeavored to see how those cattle which are described as half wild, and are without any apparent direct relations with man, have been able to adapt themselves in a definite manner to the different conditions of their life.

Nothing can be more interesting than to study those conditions in which cattle live and are propagated without stables and without an assured supply of food; nothing more instructive than to observe how the time of heat, and consequently of births, the proportion of the young, and even their survival, are differently regulated according to the character of the country, in consequence of different physical conditions. Nothing, moreover, can be more curious than to study the habits of these supposed wild cattle, to see them living in isolated societies, possessing real notions of what is belonging to them, and each member of the community keeping his place. These facts are of further importance, because they have served for the empirical basis of the actual conditions, as they will have to serve as the basis of an improved system of breeding. In all these countries the life of the cattle is wholly free. The stock-raiser, or estancier, is the owner of a very extensive tract of pasture-land, and he leaves the animals to live upon it, feed themselves, and multiply at their will. The stock, even in the wildest and least populous regions, form small herds of from one hundred to one hundred and fifty head, which are made up of steers, cows, calves, and bulls; but are always composed of the same individuals, and always inhabit the same very limited region of the campo, and the animals pass their lives within this region without being confined by any inclosure. The distinctive character of the groups is especially curious in the more populous regions, as the southern part of Rio Grande or Montevideo, where herds may be seen almost in contact without mixing, coming together and making themselves up generally without trouble; and they live thus side by side for years without becoming acquainted with each other. Each herd is so coherent that, when one of its members takes fright and runs away, all will follow it. In consequence of this habit, it is very difficult, when cattle are sold, to separate them from the herds and to get them along for the first few leagues. If they are not watched, they will escape, pass by thousands of other animals without noticing them, and join their companions again. They cease, however, to seek to go back after they have been driven to a considerable distance.

The cattle in these herds also propagate in freedom. Traveling in Parana at a time when the pasturage was excellent and the cattle were in good condition, in January, I saw numerous vigorous bulls living as peacefully as could be with the cows.

The care given by man to the cattle enjoying this freedom of life and procreation, although very restricted, is greater than has been represented. A rodeo, or gathering of the different herds at a single point, is held at determined periods, both in Parana and the Oriental Republic. The assemblage may take place near the buildings in an estancia of moderate size, often in an inclosed space of suitable capacity called the mangueira. In extensive estancias having numerous herds, as it would be almost impossible to collect ten or twenty thousand head at a single point, several rodeos are made in different parts of the campo, always at the same points. In other estancias, notably in Parana, one or two grand rodeos a year are made at the mangueira, and several smaller rodeos at less intervals. The task of driving the cattle up to the rodeo is not a hard one. The beasts stagger along, and go in a mass toward the habitual point of gathering, generally with the bulls at their head The assemblies are kept up for a greater or less length of time, and the peons circulate around the herd, shouting as to accustom the animals to the presence of man, and to the custom of coming up. The rodeo gives an opportunity to judge of the condition of the flocks, when and what proportion of them may be ready for sale; to practice treatment or different operations; to give the stock salt in Parana, and medical attention in other regions; to mark them and castrate them. Each estancia has its particular mark—often several marks; for in many estancias all the children have their share of the cattle, and, as the slaves also are sometimes allowed to own stock, confusion would result if means were not taken to prevent it.

The intervention of man is also illustrated in the efforts at cross-breeding. I was surprised at the manner in which this is attempted in South America. Everybody wants to acclimatize the races of Europe, and to improve the meat and fattening qualities of the stock; and, to this end, thorough-bred bulls (Herefords, and especially Durhams) have been imported at great expense. An owner desiring to improve the stock of an estancia containing twenty thousand head, will procure three or four Durham bulls, and then will be astonished that the desired effect is not more rapidly produced. He ought not to forget that cross-breeding can not succeed between races so different except upon the condition that the new blood is continually renewed. To transplant the most artificial breed, and the one most difficult to maintain, into a dried-up southern campo, is one of the aberrations which a complete ignorance of European breeding and the taste for imitation alone can explain. It is also surprising that hardly anything has been done, in a region where everything is so favorable, to improve from themselves the races which have already become adapted to the medium and been molded by it. Cross-breeding, although it is highly esteemed, has been tried only in a limited number of estancias, and the selection of the best native stock has not been seriously attempted on any of the estates that I have observed. Although backward in respect to selection, the intervention of man has brought about an improvement in a no less important point of view, in the shape of measures to secure a more regular supply of food. In Parana the grass of the campos is burned at the dry season, in September and October of each year, certain parts, bounded by streams or ditches, being reserved to be burned later, so as to secure a succession of pasturage. In this state, as farther south, another equally simple means of preserving the natural food has been much employed. The most moist, least exposed, or best parts of the campo are inclosed, forming hivernadas if the tract is large, potreiros, if it is small, for the cattle which are to be fattened. No inclosures large enough for all the stock have been made yet. These means, however, do not create new food, but only utilize that which already exists, and are of no use when a reserve of food is most necessary—that is, after frosty weather, and at the end of long droughts.

Two other measures might be adopted to assure a regular supply of pasturage, but they have hardly been tried. The easier course would be to install regular irrigation. In Parana the country is hilly, and the water-courses are everywhere maintained through the hot seasons. Farther south, it might be possible to irrigate large tracts through the whole year, Estanciers who, like M. Carlos Reyles at Durasno, have instituted irrigation on a considerable scale, have realized increased profits from it. Nevertheless, it is easy to count the breeders who have tried irrigation. There is probably not one in Parana, where, if you suggest it, the breeder will answer that an excess of water will promote the growth of worthless plants. The condition of the cattle might be improved, and the return from them increased, by dividing the enormous droves, which may now count from four to thirty thousand head, into herds of from five hundred to a thousand head. Now, all the half-wild cattle—bravos, as they call them—have an extreme fear of man; it is dangerous to approach them on foot. They are prone to abandon their calves, and give them insufficient food. On the other hand, the cattle in small herds, or manses, breed much better and more rapidly. In Parana, many estanciers have, besides the droves of bravo cattle, four or five hundred head of manse cattle, which are kept to be milked; the latter live in the same campo, equally free with the others, but nearer the buildings. Nothing can be more surprising than to observe the differences in the aspect and in the productiveness of the two classes, whose conditions differ only in their having a greater or less familiarity with man. Ultimately, when these regions shall have become more populous and divided into smaller estates, the manse cattle will predominate, and systematic breeding will take the place of the present free-range practice; but at present the fact must be recognized that the rearing on a grand scale of the half-wild stock is the only system that gives returns; this method is, however, I am assured, competent to produce a stock equal to some of the better-managed races of Europe. The natural physical conditions under the operation of which the production of cattle must be maintained and promoted in these regions, are liable to considerable variation, even within the limited territory which I have visited.

The operation of the differences as a whole is revealed in the variations in the annual sales in the several regions. In Parana the proportion of animals sold is excessively small, being only about one twentieth of the total number of cattle for each year, but it is regular; while it rises to from one tenth to one eighth in Rio Grande and Montevideo, and to a still higher figure farther south, but is very irregular, falling sometimes below that which rules in Parana. That even the larger proportion of sales is smaller than that which obtains in Europe, is easily explained by reference to the differences in the prevailing conditions; but why such differences should exist between two regions of South America where the same system of raising is practiced, is an interesting subject of inquiry. The animals grow quite slowly in Parana, and are hardly ready to send to market till they are four or six years old, and are well developed and shapely; in the southern districts they are as a whole smaller, but are more rapidly developed, and are sold when only three or four years, or even less than three years, old. Then, while in Europe, nearly every cow is expected to give a calf each year, in Rio Grande and Montevideo the number of calves is only eighty per cent., in Parana only fifty per cent, that of the cow. In Parana the calves are nearly always born at or near the same time of the year, between September and November, while in Rio Grande and Montevideo the time of calving varies with different years, and even in the same year on different estates, and the proportion of calves is likewise irregular. The estancias of Montevideo are liable to visitations by epidemics which often carry off thousands of head of stock; those of Parana are liable to a single affliction which is troublesome, the grub, from which the more southern districts are comparatively free. In Parana, the animal having passed his first year, continues to grow regularly and safely; in the southern districts he is exposed to many dangerous affections. The Parana animal has symmetrical proportions, a good size, well-developed bones, a thick hide well provided with hair, horns firmly planted and curved; the color only is variable. The southern stock, although faster growing, are irregular in their proportions, smaller than those of Parana, and do not give as much clear beef.

These diversities are attributable to differences in the media in which the cattle live. The seasons at Parana are regular. One, from December till the end of March, is marked by heavy rains coinciding with great heat; the other, including the rest of the months, is without rains or storms, but has abundant dews—a season of seven months of drought. The seasons are irregular in the southern regions. The winters are colder than in Parana, and are attended with heavy frosts. Long storms are not infrequent, and are often destructive to stock. The rains are not to be depended upon, but the heaviest of them fall in the winter; and the dry seasons come at irregular intervals. Calves are regularly born in the same months in Parana, because the animals, after having been exhausted by the long drought, have recovered their strength in the rich pasturage of December and January, and are in the best condition for heat in the following: months. The seasons of calving are irregular in the southern districts because the times when the rains fall and the pastures are good, on which the procreative ability of the animals depends, are irregular.

These facts are very remarkable, for they show that reproduction is not regulated directly by the climate or the season, but indirectly, through the condition of the pasturage. The further development of the young animal is also affected by the same condition. The Parana calf, born during the dry season, is badly nourished at first, but finding the pastures rich just when it has grown large enough to graze, and beginning at the same time to receive an abundance of milk from its mother, it takes on a rapid development, and soon becomes strong enough to endure the coming dry season. This season carries off all the weaker animals, especially those that are calved at a later than the normal time, and has in this manner contributed to the perfection and perpetuation of the characteristics of the breed.

The case is quite different in the south, where the increase and growth of the animals are as irregular as the seasons; great losses occur under exceptional conditions of weather; and herds are sometimes reduced one half in consequence of long droughts.

The capacity of the stock in Parana to endure the long annual droughts is doubtless increased by certain accessory features in the nature of the soil and in the wooded growth. The soil is clayey, and not easily permeable by water. It accordingly retains the moisture, and is fitted to form the bed of streams which never become dry. The pasture-lands are diversified with woods which are wanting in the more southern districts, and these give the animals shelter when they need it, and furnish them with a certain amount of browse, though it be of inferior quality, when the grass fails. There are other differences, mostly relating to matters of detail, which have not yet been sufficiently studied to make their bearing well understood, but all of which appear to illustrate the fact that the life of the stock, its increase, and its development, depend on the complex relations of certain physical conditions, such as the temperature, the time and amount of rains, the character of the soil, the presence or absence of wood, all of which act through their influence upon the supply of pasturage and food. A careful study of the media in which the cattle live and by which their development is governed and their habits are regulated, the points of difference between them, and the varying effects they produce in the animals exposed to their influence, might result in adding another page to what has been written on progressive evolution and adaptation.—Translated from Revue Scientifique.

  1. M. Couty was recently charged by the Minister of Agriculture of Brazil to visit the southern part of the empire and the neighboring states for the information of the department. The paper of which the most essential parts are here given embodies the results of his inquiries.