Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

4. LGH-Environmental Impact Case Study

4.1 Northern Chiapas, Mexico

4.1.1 The Environment

Weather data for the area is limited, but information from a nearby region indicates a typical tropical wet and dry season. March is consistently dry with low probability of rainfall. The month of July generally represents the initiation of the wet season but is very erratic and can lead to a false start of the wet season. The cool, wet, and windy months of October through December are a period where many calves are lost to exposure, given the high percentage of Bos indicus breeding. The grazing lands of northern Chiapas can be characterized into four major landforms; coastal marshes and floodplains; foothill savannas; foothills cleared of tropical forests; and rugged, rocky, mountainous areas jutting up approximately 200 km inland from the coast. Of particular focus is livestock operations on the cleared, fertile, tropical pasture land (native and derived); upland sandy savanna lands; clayey lowlands; and cleared, steep, rocky tropical pasture land (native and derived). Livestock operations on the lowland areas face periodic flooding and poor water drainage, limiting accessibility and creating difficult livestock-rearing situations. Both the productive sandy savannas and the clayey savannas, present the livestock producers fewer options for improved and adapted pasture species but do not have the continued burden of woody plant invasion into the forage resource that occurs on the more productive and versatile cleared, lowland, tropical forest land.

4.2 Livestock Production Systems

Seventy-five percent of the cattlemen in the area operate landholdings of less than 100 ha. These lands as a whole are made up of approximately 30 percent derived pasture land and 70 percent native grazing land. The major derived pasture species include African stargrass and elephant grass, primarily on the lowlands and pangolagrass and guineagrass on the higher cleared foothills. Greater seeding of Brachrachia, Andropogon gayanae, and Jaragua is currently occurring on the larger landholdings. Fertilization is used on a limited basis given the no-input philosophy of many of the producers in the region. A few more intensively managed ranches apply 125 kg/ha of an 18-46-0 NPK fertilizer in early June followed two weeks later with 125 kg/ha of urea.

In the past, pastures were typically burned during May and June, just prior to the beginning of the wet season. This practice accomplished several objectives including a) improving the palatability, nutrient content and digestibility of the herbage for grazing cattle; b) reducing the habitat and populations of ticks and flies; and c) impeding the encroachment of woody species into the pastures. However, recently implemented government regulations designed to stop the clearing of forests have drastically curbed use of this practice.

The primary livestock enterprise of the region is a beef cow-calf production system with continuous exposure to bulls, and minimal inputs and thus minimal variable costs. A large portion of the cattle are zebu type represented by the Indubrasil, Gyr, and Brahman breeds or crossbred cattle including zebu-charlois, zebu-brown swiss, and zebu-simmental. Heatload, parasites, and disease considerations prevent any further inclusion of Bos taurus bloodlines exceeding 25 percent. Typical calf crops are 50 to 60 percent. March is the peak month for calf births, and 70 percent are born between January and June. Calves are generally weaned at 7 to 9 months of age, and the bull calves are usually not castrated or implanted. Average weaning weights average 150 to 160 kg. Another typical cow/calf system focuses on dual-purpose milking and calf production. Normal milk yield is 3 to 5.5 liters per cow per day, with an additional liter of milk allocated to the calf. Calves reared in dual-purpose systems usually wean at 120 to 130 kg. Typically, replacement heifers are retained on the ranch and do not reach breeding condition until 36 to 48 months of age because of the use of the late-maturing zebu breeds and limited nutritional inputs for the heifers.

Three stocker/feeding operations were noted: a) grazing with no feed (the most typical), b) grazing with some feed (½ fed), and c) full feeding on pasture. Most stockers are purchased, or retained, as weaned calves and sold at 30 to 36 months. Half-fed stockers involve limited feeding of weaned stockers up to the weight of 200 to 300 kg and then shipping to other grazing or feeding operations. The full-feed stocker operations generally involve the purchase of 300 to 350 kg stockers and feeding out to 450 to 480 kg.

Typical inputs are limited with little or no feeding in the smaller landholdings on native cleared grazing lands. As landholding and herd size increase, there is some limited feeding but very limited in ability to meet nutritional needs of the animal. Inputs include:

External parasites


Use of dipping has shifted to 15-day spraying intervals due to reduced cost per animal and reduced pesticide loading on the animal.

Internal parasites


Drenching 2 times a year is a minimum practice, with 3 times being preferred if economics allow. Some operations in wet, flooded areas drench more frequently.



Two primary diseases, blackleg and septicemia, are routinely vaccinated for in the cows and growing stock.



Only used with some full-fed steer operations.



The primary feed supplement is plain salt and occasional use of MagnaPhosCal minerals. Some limited supplemental feed is provided for cows in the milking herd of the dual-purpose operations. Heavy feeding was used in the full-fed steer operations.

Small flocks of Barbados sheep, a meat-type animal, are maintained on a majority of landholdings varying from 10 to 100 head per property. The primary use of the animals is local consumption and some weed control. The Barbados sheep are ineffective in slowing woody plant invasion and encroachment, particularly on previously cleared forest. Surprisingly, goats are not currently used in the system but could be instrumental in diversifying livestock products in the region and reduce labor costs of suppressing woody plant invasion in derived pastures and recently cleared savanna/lowland tropical forest.

4.3 Institutions and Infrastructure

State or federal government agencies provide little or no technical assistance for livestock producers in the area. Cattle operators in the region have an organized producers’ association which offers limited assistance to its members in terms of veterinary services, urea/molasses supplement, and haying equipment. However, there are no local commercial beef slaughter facilities and all cattle sold, except for local consumption, must be trucked out of the area. Also, there are no organized product or input marketing services available. This, plus the common practice of year-round calving and low calving percentages and weaning weights, results in the typical livestock operation yielding very low net returns to land, management, and investment capital. Thus, the typical ranch provides nothing more than a living wage for its owner-operator.

4.4 Indicators of Sustainability

These lowland savannas and mixed tropical forests have experienced extensive fires long before settlement by European inhabitants. The recent government regulation prohibiting burning of pastures makes cattle production more costly because producers will now be required to use either hand labor, mechanical, or chemical means to control brush encroachment. Furthermore, they will have to implement rotational grazing systems, requiring additional fencing, to control the quality of their forage and control of external parasites will become more costly. Elimination of burning has resulted in increased tick populations and more frequent use of externally applied pesticides. Evidence is mounting that pesticide resistance is increasing in the major disease-carrying tick species, threatening the stability of the livestock industry as far north as subtropical regions of Texas in the U.S. The likely result of these externally imposed cost increases is that many of the small cattle producers in the area will be unable to stay in the cattle-producing business, greater expenditure in tick monitoring will be incurred in Mexico and the U.S., and free-trade agreements for movement of livestock between the U.S. and Mexico will have to be reviewed.

Cessation of burning has led to higher stocking rates, greater expansion of land converted to exotic grasses, reduced deferments of native lands resulting in lower ecological condition of the grassland savannas, and more frequent use of herbicides. Higher stock densities and greater inputs in terms of pesticides and other variable costs have been an outcome of the no-burning policy of the government. Greater profitability of landholders have been demonstrated by increasing the percent Bos taurus in the predominately Bos indicus breeds in the region. However, the inability to burn and reduce tick populations will either lead to a slow down in adoption of these new breed combinations, or greater frequency of use of pesticides will be required.

Another governmental ruling requiring landholders to maintain tree cover (forest or savanna) on 10 percent of their property has resulted in sparing a majority of critical riparian sites from land clearing. These drainages are such that landholders find clearing to be difficult, shade is provided for their cattle, erosion hazard is reduced, and time is not wasted suppressing woody plant invasion in these highly fertile and moist sites. The surrounding upland areas are cleared, leaving a network of corridors across the landscape following drainage landforms. This practice has allowed interconnectivity of lowland savannas and mountain tropical forest, insuring maintenance of biodiversity of the region. Closer examination of land-clearing activities in the lowlands indicates that much more of the activity is occurring on naturally open savanna with only small pockets of naturally occuring, isolated tropical forest being cleared.

Government policy of allocating tropical forest land to local Mayan Indians in the form of ejido, or common lands, has been the principal cause for clearing of land in the more rugged tropical forests in the border mountains of the region. Economic analysis of commercial livestock operations on similar terrain has indicated that it is not economically viable to clear and graze such rugged lands. Once cleared, landholders must expend tremendous labor costs to suppress woody plant invasions in the mountainous pasturelands, often abandoning the land after five to ten years. Subsidization of the ejidos by government policy is artificially sustaining land use and subsequent land degradation due to overgrazing and cropping on marginal lands.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page