The Republic Oriental del Uruguay is in the southeast of South America, between 30º and 35º South and 54º and 59° West. It borders Brazil to the north, Argentina to the west, the Rio de la Plata to the south and the Atlantic Ocean to the east (see Figure 1). The total land area is 176,215 km2, with 137,567 km2 of national water. Uruguay is divided into nineteen administrative departments (see Figure 2).
Figure 1. Map of Uruguay
2. Map showing the administrative departments of Uruguay
According to the Population and Housing Census of 1996 (cited by: Censo General Agropecuario, C.G.A., 2000), Uruguay’s population was 3,163,763; the rural population was 291,686 in 1996 compared with 374,154 in 1985, a reduction of 22 percent. In 1985 the population was 2,955,200. The July 2006 population estimate was 3,431,932 with a growth rate of 0.46% according to the World Factbook. Population density is about six per square kilometre in departments mainly dedicated to cattle production, with a great proportion of native pasture. Uruguay’s birth rate and proportion of young people in the population are lower than those of most other South America countries.
Before the arrival of Europeans the territory which is now Uruguay supported a small population estimated at no more than 5,000 to 10,000. The principal groups were the Charrúa and Chaná Indians, semi-nomadic tribes which did not develop the tools necessary to farm Uruguay’s grasslands. They moved to the shore in summer to fish and gather clams, fruits and roots, and inland in winter to hunt deer, ñandues and smaller game with bolas and bows and arrows. Bands of eight to twelve families, under a chief, lived in villages of five to six houses of matting windbreaks. Today’s Uruguayans are of predominantly European origin, mostly descendents of nineteenth and twentieth century immigrants from Spain and Italy and, to a lesser degree, France and Britain. Few descendants of Uruguay’s original population remain. Most of the few blacks came south from Brazil. Without an Indian minority, Uruguayans all speak Spanish, but in border towns, close to Brazil, a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish words and phrases can be heard. Uruguayan culture is strongly European in its orientation and, unlike many South American countries, Uruguay is minimally influenced by the original Indian inhabitants. The tradition of the gaucho has been an important element in art and folklore.
Though the area was explored by the Spanish explorer Juan Díaz de Solís in 1516, the lack of mineral wealth, or sedentary Indians who could be compelled to work, made the Banda Oriental del Uruguay (the east bank of the Uruguay River) unattractive for settlement. Cattle from neighbouring regions, allowed to roam freely, multiplied over the years until their numbers reached millions. They were hunted for their hides by gauchos, cowboys of mixed Spanish-Indian ancestry, who nevertheless did not settle the land. In the 1770s the process of dividing the Banda Oriental into huge unfenced estancias began.
The foundation of Uruguay’s economy is said to have been laid in 1611, when a governor of Paraguay, Hernando Arias de Saavedra (Hernandarias), shipped 100 cattle and some horses from Argentina; they were landed on the Uruguay riverbank and left to run wild. Uruguay’s gross national product (GNP) per capita is among the highest in Latin America. The nation’s relatively high standard of living is closely related to earnings from pastoral and agricultural exports (see Table 1); economic well-being is somewhat precarious because these primary products are subject to sudden fluctuations in world demand and prices.
Table 1. Pastoral and agricultural exports (2001)
N.B. The exports of beef reached 272,496 tons in 2000, before the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak. Wool exports exceeded 100,000 tons in 1996, but with the decline in sheep numbers exports have fallen considerably since then. Wheat and barley production in 2001 and 2002 was low due to weather problems, heavy rains and fungal attacks of Fusarium spp.
activity of the country is extensive cattle and sheep rearing; more than
13,500,000 hectares are under permanent pasture, almost 83 percent of
the agricultural area. Nevertheless, farming, the primary sector, contributes
only eight percent to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Uruguay. Permanent
pastures are natural grassland (campo), fertilized natural pasture, natural
pasture improved by the introduction of legumes (improved campo) and cultivated
pastures which are considered “perennials” (Table 2). The
term natural pasture or “campo” is used for land in which
there are no signs of recent modifications by cultivation or introduction
of species, including the diverse stages of succession after cultivation,
in the composition of which native plants predominate over acclimatised
Comparison with data from the 1990 Census (in Censo General Agropecuario, 2000) showed some changes in the structure of grazing lands. The area of natural pasture (campo) fell by more than 980,000 hectares, from 80 percent in 1990 to 71.1 percent nowadays. This is related to an increase in the area of improved natural pastures and cultivated pastures. The area of natural pasture improved by fertilizer and overseeding, along with cultivated pastures, was about 1,875,000 hectares in 2000, or 11.5 percent of the total, whereas in 1990 it was 6.2 percent.
Farming Sector. The rural population, considering only those who live habitually on farms, is 189,838 people: 5.7 percent of the total population of the country and 76.5 percent of all residents in rural areas; the remaining 23.5 percent live in small towns, outside of the cities. This rural population has decreased throughout the years, the population registered in 2000 is 40 percent less than that of 1970, which is equivalent to an annual average rate of reduction of 1.7 percent over three decades. The number of farms also went down from 77,163 in 1970 to 57,131 in 2000 (C.G.A., 2000).
Farms over 10 hectares represent 99.6 percent of the total area (Table 4). Farms under 50 hectares occupy only 2.5 percent and form just over half of the total. Those of more than 2,500 hectares occupy 32 percent of the area and are less than two percent of the total. Of a total of 57,131 registered farms, 5,020 are non-commercial exploitations and occupy 0.2 percent of the area. If non-commercial farms are excluded, land distribution among exploitations has not changed much in the past decade. (C.G.A., 2000).
Land tenure is mainly private property, but some areas are State property - particularly those related to the Instituto Nacional de Colonización which owns state land which is rented or sold to persons who operate it. Besides private property, renting and leasing in diverse forms exist. Some 69.4 percent of the area is exploited by the owners (11,384,688 hectares ), 25.8 percent by renters (4,239,612 hectares ) and the remaining 4.8 percent, is exploited in other ways (C.G.A., 2000). There are also state-owned, protected natural areas for better environment management that cover 33,538 hectares; comprising National Parks with native and exotic forests, marshes, coastal grasslands, dunes, etc..
Farms are managed by their owners or those who operate the estate by another title, for example lessees. In most establishments management is done without qualified technical assistance, public or private, the producer is responsible for management, with very heterogeneous qualifications.
Natural forest is protected by controlling the use of the wood, which is mainly used as fuel on those farms that have it. Landowners are exempted from tax on forest lands that they own so that they can undertake conservation.
* the numbers are confirmed in an EU report for 2002 which gives for 2001: cattle 10,598,034 (90% beef and 10% dairy), sheep 12,084,505 and goats 7,399].
Cattle raising is the most important activity of the primary sector; cattle are kept on more than 83 percent of farms; on more than half of them beef cattle are the main source of income. The most important beef breed is Hereford, with 76.0 percent of the herd; other breeds are numerous but in low percentage: Aberdeen Angus 7.2 percent, Shorthorn 1.1 percent, Normande 3.1 percent, Limousin 2.0 percent, Charolais 0.9 percent, Braford 1.1 percent, Zebu 0.6 percent. Forty percent of farmers cross some of these breeds and 60 percent keep pure bred stock.
There are 6,548 farms specialising in dairying on 1,234,760 hectares with 751,085 animals, more than 90 percent of which are Holsteins. Milk production reached 1,311,353,423 litres in the year of the census (C.G.A., 2000).
The modalities of production have evolved towards intensification, which has introduced changes in herd structure. Compared to the Census of 1990, there is a reduction in the number of steers over three years old, 10.8 percent in 1990 and 6.0 percent in 2000; reduction of unmated heifers over two years old 8.2 percent and 4.9 percent, respectively, and an increase in the number of calves which exceeds 20 percent at this moment and in 1990 was 13 percent of all cattle.
The first sheep in Uruguay were of the “Criolla” breed, descendents of those brought by the Spanish. Sheep arrived in the country from Argentina where they had been taken by land from Perú. Possibly they were of the Churra breed. Around 1830 some rams were imported, as well as Merino ewes, to improve wool; by 1840 wool exports began. In the mid nineteenth century there were 662,500 sheep of the “Criolla” breed and 133,700 crosses. By 1860 sheep rearing was strongly promoted.
Sheep numbers have fallen sharply in recent year because of the fall in wool prices and increases in production costs. The category that had the greatest reduction is wethers (male castrates) which are now 13 percent whereas in 1990 they exceeded 20 percent. Breeding ewes and lambs represent 47.9 percent and 24.3 percent, respectively. In 1990 sheep were the most numerous livestock at country level and the main source of income for 30 percent of farms (C.G.A., 2000). Wool production was 93,000 tons unwashed in 1990; with the reduction of the number of sheep, the production of the 2000-2001 clip was 53,243 tons. More than 85 percent is exported, mainly as tops and washed wool.
The commonest sheep breeds are: Corriedale with 59 percent of the flock, Australian Medium Wool Merino with 26 percent, Polwarth with 7 percent and others such as Merilin the Uruguayan breed, Romney Marsh, Texel, Hampshire, Southdown, Ilê de France, Suffolk and their crosses with Corriedale, Polwarth and Merino. Sheep raising is mainly in zones of shallow soils where forage production is low, compared with deeper soils. Over half the sheep are in zones of extensive production, in the North of the country; in many cases soil conditions prevent their replacement by other stock.
A characteristic of livestock production in Uruguay is mixed grazing, particularly beef cattle with sheep for wool, which is very common over great tracts of the country. With the sheep expansion in the nineteenth century the complementarity of cattle/sheep began. A farmer could make a better use of his farm and, in addition, the sensitivity of both species to climate was balanced. High rainfall affects cattle less and sheep tolerate droughts better. The farmer could thus have his income assured from either source, except during climatic catastrophes. Together with cattle and sheep we must consider equines which are used in tasks of livestock production such as the monitoring and herding of animals. Horses dedicated to these activities are approximately 380-400,000; few are used for draught or recreation. Cull horses are slaughtered only for export, around 35,000 annually; their meat is destined for the European Union (INAC, 2000). Goats were introduced at the beginning of the eighteenth century but were not used for production. At present goat numbers are around 8,000, about which 3,000 are for milk and kid production. The remaining live semi-wild on farms, particularly in sierras areas [Sierras are landscapes with low hills, steep slopes, shallow soils, stones and rock patches, with a vegetation composed by grasses, forbs and small trees].
According to the statistics of slaughter and meat marketing (INAC, 2000), the total slaughter of beef cattle in the last years was 2,000,000 head per year, of which 52 percent were steers and 45 percent cull cows. Beef production is 450-500,000 ton/year, of which approximatly 200,000 ton/year are exported and the rest consumed domestically. On the other hand, the total sheep slaughter is 2,000,000 head of which 50 percent are lambs and of the 52,000 ton/year produced, 32 percent are destined for export. Sheep production is about 4,500,000 head annually. Half are destined for industrial plants, 60 percent of the meat is exported and 40 percent for the internal market. Some 45 percent of sheep are consumed in farming establishments and five percent are exported live. A high proportion of beef and mutton is sold locally: approximately 46 percent of the production, which makes Uruguay the country with the highest consumption per capita of red meat in the world, 76 kg.
In the past decade there have been outstanding changes in beef production related to the age at slaughter. The distribution by age at slaughter of steers from 1990 to 2000 has changed and is related to the changes in herd composition. In 1990 the slaughter comprised almost 80 percent of steers older than 3.5 years. In 2000 adult steers have been reduced to 50 percent of the slaughter, increasing therefore the slaughter of steers with better meat quality. This change in the supply of the type of animal is related to quantitative and qualitative changes in the production systems, which have adopted technologies generated by research to accelerate the phases of growth and fattening.