U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Nebraska


Document Type


Date of this Version



Published in Animal Frontiers (2012) 2:1, p. 23-29. doi:10.2527/af.2011-0029


In 2009, Latin American countries had approximately 401 million cattle (29% of the world’s total cattle population) and produced 8.2 million tonnes of beef, equivalent to 29% of the world’s total production (FAO, 2011). Beef in Latin American countries is produced under widely differing climates (ranging from tropical to temperate), resources available (vegetation, food), types of markets, and genetic backgrounds of the animals. The main production systems are classified as beef and dual-purpose cattle. The genetic backgrounds of animals vary from purebred European (Bos taurus taurus) or Zebu (Bos taurus indicus) to crossbreeds (Figures 1 and 2). Beef production systems may also be characterized by their management intensification levels as grazing only, grazing with food supplementation, and feedlot production.

The main beef-producing countries are Brazil (51.6% of the total Latin American beef production), Argentina (18.5%), Mexico (9.4%), and Colombia (5.1%). Other countries contributing more than 1% of the total regional production are Uruguay, Venezuela, Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Chile (Table 1). Latin America is a region of the world that can significantly increase its production in response to beef demand.

Brazil has a mature beef cattle industry based on grass-fed cattle, in which feeding B. taurus indicus cattle, especially the Nellore breed, is a common practice. Over the last 8 years, beef production in Brazil has become one of the most important activities for employment and wealth creation. Foot-and-mouth disease issues are still a factor limiting the increase in Latin American beef exports (Ferraz and de Felício, 2010; Domingues Millen et al., 2011). Only a few Latin American countries, including Chile and Mexico, have the status of being free of this disease without vaccination. In most countries, the disease is controlled using a combination of free areas without vaccination and areas with vaccination.

Other countries with a strong B. taurus indicus background in their beef cattle populations are those with large tropical areas dedicated to beef cattle production, such as Colombia, Venezuela, and Paraguay. Beef production in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and some portions of Brazil and Mexico is based mainly around the production of B. taurus taurus cattle (Peel et al., 2010; Arelovich et al., 2011; Domingues Millen et al., 2011).

The Mexican beef cattle industry consists of 2 nearly separate market components. Beef producers in the northern part of Mexico have largely focused on the production of calves for export to the United States (Galyean et al., 2011). European beef genetics have been widely used in the region, beginning with importations of Hereford cattle and continuing with today’s popularity of Angus and Brangus along with several continental breeds, such as Charolais and Simmental. The central and southern regions of Mexico have historically produced grass-fed beef for the national market as well as dual-purpose dairy-Zebu crossbred cattle to produce milk and beef (Peel et al., 2010).

Currently, breeding programs for the genetic evaluation of beef cattle in Latin America are based on statistical analyses in which performance and pedigree information are integrated. These analyses are based on a mixed model methodology, in particular the animal model statistical approach using best linear unbiased prediction methods to obtain estimated breeding values (EBV) for economically important traits.

This methodology for obtaining EBV has been set up in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay, Venezuela, and other countries. It has been established for specific purebred populations and also for some crossbred populations, such as multibreed populations with a dual purpose (beef and milk) in the Latin American humid tropics, which involve animals crossbred between B. taurus taurus and B. taurus indicus and composite breeds. Most programs focus on evaluating growth and reproductive traits, although a few have included longevity (stayability), heifer pregnancy, conformation, and carcass and meat quality traits.