[Part 2] Nelore: How a Telugu Cattle Breed Transformed Brazil

The Nelore/Ongole breed accounts for as many as 100 million heads of cattle in Brazil. This is evidence of the wholehearted way in which Brazilian farmers have embraced it. And there is an economic reason to its popularity. The Nelore’s great adaptability (to the country’s tropical climate) and productivity (in terms of beef output) has made it the cattle of choice. This is what the Associação dos Criadores de Nelore do Brasil (Association of Nelore Breeders of Brazil or ACNB), a non-profit organization formed in 1954 to promote Nelore Cattle, has to say about the history of the breed’s introduction and propagation in the Latin American country:

The trajectory that transformed the Indian Ongole in the Brazilian Nelore begins in the first half of the 19th century, when the first records of landings in the country of zebu Indians originating in India date. The story describes that the first appearance of the Nellore in the country would have occurred in 1868 when a ship, destined for England, anchored in Salvador with a couple of animals of the race on board. The animals would have been commercialized, remaining in the country.

Ten years later, in search of exotic animals to bring to Brazil, Manoel Ubelhart Lembgruber had contact with the Ongole breed during a visit to the zoo in Hamburg, Germany, and from there promoted the importation of a couple of animals of the breed in October of 1878. Subsequently, other items originating directly from India contributed in Rio de Janeiro. The Nelore breed was then expanding gradually, first in Rio de Janeiro and then in São Paulo and Minas Gerais. In 1938, with the creation of the Genealogical Record, the racial characteristics of the Nelore began to be defined.

The last two significant imports of Nelore breeding occurred between 1960 and 1962. During this period, large genera such as Kavardi, Goliath, Rastan, Checurupadu, Godhavari, Padu, and Kavardi were landed in Fernando de Noronha, where they were quarantined. Today, Brazil is estimated to have a herd of more than 200 million beef cattle and dairy cattle, of which 80% of beef cattle are Nelore, which is more than 100 million head. This is the portrait of a work that has worked, from the development of its own technological know-how and progressive gains of excellence in quality, naturally, in full harmony with the environment.

Brazilian Nelore, besides being considered today as a legally national heritage, such as carnival, football, caipirinha and barbecue, can be considered as the great victory of Brazilian beef. Healthy and natural meat, exported to more than 146 countries and increasingly demanded by savvy consumers around the world.

Today, Brazil is giving traditional beef-producers like Canada, the United States and Australia a run for their money. Bodies like the Association of Nelore Breeders of Brazil (with its headquarters in Sao Paulo) are working hard to bring together everybody involved in the business around a common goal (in their own words) – ‘to strengthen and defend a breed that represents 80% of the national herd’. The ‘Beef Magazine’ (one of USA’s leading cattle publications) had this to say about the role of Nelore Cattle in Brazil’s economy:

Brazil’s beef production systems and the type of beef it produces are worlds apart from that in the U.S. Nearly all beef in Brazil is grass-finished, and there’s virtually no use of growth hormones or ionophores. About 65% of Brazil’s beef cattle genetics are Nelore-based, and 85% are Nelore-influenced. Nelore is a Bos indicus species closely linked to India’s ancient breed of Ongole cattle, says Sandra Carreiro, Campo Grange, Mato Grosso, Brazil. She’s a genetics veterinarian with Sete Estrelas Embriões, one of Brazil’s leading Nelore genetics producers. “Nelore is the ideal breed in the harsh climatic, nutritional and sanitary conditions we see in the tropics because of their hardiness and rustling ability,” she says. 

There’s little disagreement, too, that Nelore matches the recent shift toward a low-calorie, leaner-meat diet, without compromising taste. This was demonstrated at the 1991 Houston Livestock Show when a purebred Nelore steer won the “Best Overall in Taste” contest while competing against dozens of hybrid and European steers. But, what Nelore beef gains in performance under tropical conditions, and taste and leanness, it sorely lacks in consistency and tenderness.

Pound for pound, Brazil’s beef production costs are a third to a half those of American ranchers, and 15% lower than in Australia, according to USDA’s ERS. Brazil’s second-world, beef productivity surfaces, though, in factors like average age at slaughter, which is 30-36 months, and carcass yields of only about 50-55%. Undoubtedly, Brazil is one of the most competitive countries worldwide in animal protein production. And, with the absence of U.S. and Canadian beef in South Asian markets for what could be all of 2004, those markets could open further to Brazil at the expense of Australia and New Zealand.

That there are Brazilians who see the Nelore as one of the cultural symbols of the country (alongside the likes of the Carnaval celebrations, the Selecao or national football team, the Caipirinha, an extremely popular cocktail, and Churrasco, traditional grilled meat from the south), and Americans who consider it to be a game-changer in the global beef export business speaks volumes about the impact the breed had on the land that adopted it. The irony of the situation is that the Nelore/Ongole is dying out in the land of its birth. While Brazil has as many as 100 million of them, there are only 200,000 of them in India.

Brazilian Nelore Cattle, an Indian breed imported Brazil from Andhra Pradesh (AP). They are disappearing from AP but flourishing in Brazil.

The decline has a lot to do with the actions of the Union (based in Delhi, in North India) and State Govt.s and the communities that have dominated them (traditionally conservative, upper caste groups that formed South Asia’s ruling clans, priesthood and mercantile networks). These people have supplied the great majority of India’s ministers (including most of the country’s Prime Ministers and members of their Cabinets), bureaucrats and researchers. This has had a devastating impact on animal husbandry in particular (where people with little knowledge of the country’s agrarian systems and a contemptuous attitude towards lower caste pastoralist, farming and artisanal groups, have directed policies). According to several reports, traditional Zebu breeds like Ongole are declining rapidly due to short-sighted (and mostly, religiously inspired) decisions. More about that later.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is the photograph of a Nelore bull on display at the Municipal Agricultural Exhibition of Avare (EMAPA) in Avare, a municipality in Sao Paulo, Brazil. It was uploaded by José Reynaldo da Fonseca. EMAPA happens to be one of the largest agricultural fairs in South America. It began in 1964, with farmers bringing their livestock to Avare from all over Brazil.


(This article was originally published in Keshav Vivek’s blog “Man Without a Past” on November 18, 2017.)

Also Read: [Part 1] Nelore: How a Telugu Cattle Breed transformed Brazil

Keshav Vivek

Blogger and academic who explores South Indian history from a Dravidian perspective.