Raising and marketing livestock, a traditional source of livelihood in Paraguay, remained a major segment of agriculture and the economy at large during the 1980s. Livestock output accounted for roughly 30 percent of agricultural production and about 20 percent of the sector's exports. The raising of livestock represented more than a quarter of total land use and 80 percent of all capital investment in agriculture. Paraguay's vigorous livestock sector also was responsible for the country's high per capita production and consumption of meat and dairy goods. It was estimated that 40 percent of the country's land was especially suited for livestock and some 20 percent generally suitable. Endowed with plentiful grazing lands, Paraguay had vast potential for livestock development.
After the importation of 7 cows and a bull by the Spanish in the mid-1550s, the country's cattle herds swelled to some 3 million head by the time of the War of Triple Alliance, the largest herds in the Southern Cone. As with every other sector of the Paraguayan economy, the war devastated the country's livestock sector, leaving only 15,000 head. It was not until World War I that domestic demand was met locally and significant exports left the country. By the end of World War II, beef exports had become a major foreignexchange earner. Beef production and exports fluctuated considerably in the postwar period because of international price movements, weather conditions, government pricing policies, and other factors. In 1987 the country's cattle herd stood at about 8 million head with an annual slaughter rate of 1 million head. In that same year, 75 percent of the slaughter went to the domestic market and the remaining 25 percent to the export market.
Cattle, mostly beef cattle, were found throughout the countryside. The Chaco region was best known for its contribution to cattle raising because of its lack of crops and its sprawling ranches. Nevertheless, the cattle population density of Eastern Paraguay, 0.6 head per hectare, was actually higher than that of the Chaco region, 0.3 head per hectare.
The country's breeding stock was primarily Spanish criollo, although over the years considerable crossbreeding with English breeds and zebu cattle from Brazil had taken place. Although cattle were numerous in Paraguay, the country lacked a sufficient number of pure-bred breeding cattle. The livestock sector also suffered from a low calving percentage, a high mortality rate, and a long fattening period for steers. Artificial insemination was increasingly common. To a certain extent, cattle raising reflected the disparities in agriculture in general. There were numerous farmers who owned only a few head of relatively unproductive cattle that were slaughtered for the local market under relatively poor sanitary conditions. By contrast, extremely large cattle ranches typically were owned by expatriates and butchered more productive animals for both national and international markets.
Seventy slaughterhouses for the domestic market and eight for the export market operated in the 1980s. Local slaughterhouses often could not pass sanitary inspections, but government inspection efforts were focused on improving quality control of exports to meet the stringent regulations of foreign beef markets. The country's beef exports expanded until 1974, when Paraguay lost access to European Economic Community (EEC) markets and lower world prices further stagnated output. Beef exports responded strongly but erratically in the 1980s as the government's minimum export price system and contraband activity undercut greater export efforts. For example, beef exports were a mere 3,100 tons in 1985, 48,000 tons in 1986, and 18,000 tons in 1987, the last being the more typical figure. The 1986 boom in beef exports was the direct result of beef shortages in Brazil caused by price controls under its "Cruzado Plan." Paraguay's principal export markets were Brazil, Peru, Chile, the EEC (specialty items only), Colombia, Uruguay, and Saudi Arabia. Missing from official 1987 data, however, was the unregistered sale of an estimated 300,000 head of cattle along the Brazilian border.
Official government policy favored strong cattle development and exports, a view articulated in national livestock programs since the early 1960s. A major policy tool to promote livestock growth was the FG. The FG was not only the major lender to the industry, but it also provided certain veterinary equipment and medicine, encouraged quality control in meat and dairy products, and operated a model farm in the Chaco.
Dairy cattle represented only a small fraction of the total herd. Most milk production occurred at an estimated 400 dairy farms in Asunción, Puerto Presidente Stroessner, Encarnación, and Filadelfia. The best yields came from holstein-friesian dairy cattle followed by crossbreeds and criollo. High feed costs and the general inefficiency of small dairy farmers slowed the growth of the industry. The country produced approximately 180 million liters of milk a year in the late 1980s.
Other livestock activity including poultry farming and the swine industry. Some of the most productive poultry farming took place in the Mennonite colonies, in Japanese colonies in the eastern border region, and in the greater Asunción area. Observers estimated that there were over 14 million chickens, 400,000 ducks, 55,000 turkeys, and several other types of fowl. Egg production stood at 600 million per year in the late 1980s and was growing at about 4 percent a year. Pig farming was a relatively minor activity, engaged in mostly by small farmers. The pork industry's greatest structural problems were the high cost of feed and consumer preferences for beef. Government policy emphasized self-sufficiency in feed grown on small pig farms. Paraguay's swine population amounted to roughly 1.3 million in the late 1980s and had grown at a rate of 6 percent a year in the first half of the decade.
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