Livestock production is one of the fastest growing agricultural subsectors worldwide and Uruguay is one of the latest entrants into the group of global animal feed exporters. Although the country has a long history of extensive cattle production, beef production and exports have almost doubled since 1960.
Mixed is most water-effective
In a paper recently published in Aquatic Procedia, former centre student Ylva Ran, together with centre researcher Lisa Deutsch and Mats Lannerstad and Jens Heinke from the International Livestock Research Institute, demonstrates the effects of livestock feed production on water-related ecosystem services (WRES).
The first of its kind, Ran and her colleagues' study compared three beef production systems operating on the Uruguayan Pampas, a fertile grassland area suitable for both grazing and cultivation.
Between the three production systems - extensive, mixed and intensive - mixed beef production proved to make most effective use of water.
However, trends in Uruguayan agriculture are driven by the growing global demand for meat and animal feed. Demand for wheat and soybean is the major driver behind the expansion of crop area from about 1 to almost 2 million ha. This has occurred at the expense of permanent pastures. Since 2002, most of the increase in crop area has been soybean production. Soybeans now cover almost half the crop area in Uruguay. The impacts on water-related ecosystem services, as a result of continuous feed crop cultivation, include decreased soil water holding capacity and reduced erosion control, which may result in lower agricultural yields and reduced resilience to droughts.
Slowing soil degradation
Ylva Ran and her colleagues point out that it is not the intensification per se that is the main threat to livestock production and the ecosystem services they depend upon, it is how the intensification is done.
"Results from this study indicate that a certain degree of intensification may increase water productivity. In fact, the most water-effective production system is already partially dependent on intensive agriculture. Additional intensification may even increase water productivity further if livestock feeding is carefully planned," Ran says.
"There are ample possibilities to maintain intensive, highly efficient agricultural production without ecosystem degradation if managers take into account variables such as soil water-holding capacity and erosion control"
Ylva Ran, lead author
There are also signs indicating that an economically driven regime shift has yet to cross purely ecological thresholds. This is because the Uruguayan government has taken progressive steps to prevent this. These include banning certain crop rotations to mitigate soil degradation.
"Through rapid governmental action and law enforcement, Uruguay has managed to intensify agricultural production without quickly crossing ecological thresholds. It can thus be a positive example of how to minimize widespread soil erosion and degradation in the short term," Lisa Deutsch says.
Do not forget the farmers
One of the key challenges for livestock production in Uruguay will be to enhance and increase the provisioning services of food production and water availability, without degrading supporting or regulating ecosystem services such as soil productivity and erosion control.
For this to happen, the authors identify key strategies, such as the inclusion of fallow periods in rotations, when grasslands are allowed to return for several years and the soils can regenerate. These periods need to be incorporated in legislature and policy development to ensure that resilience is maintained in agroecosystems.
However, the social and economic aspects of changes in resource management are also crucial.
"It is not sufficient to determine ecological thresholds alone. We must also ascertain social and economic thresholds for farmers in order to ensure the long-term adoption of sustainable management practices as agricultural production intensifies in Uruguay," Ylva Ran concludes.
Ran, Y., L. Deutsch, M. Lannerstad, J. Heinke. 2013. Rapidly intensified beef production in Uruguay: Impacts on water-related ecosystem services. Aquatic Procedia 1: 77-87
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