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This is the World’s Most Expensive Cow

By Karen Peterson

An imposing white cow with a distinctive hump on her back and flaps of "dewlap" skin flowing from her neck like a fashionable scarf set a record at auction last June in Arandú, Brazil. It was a prestigious win that continues to reverberate across the global beef-eating marketplace and, most celebratorily, in Brazil, where the cow was carefully bred and reared in the best of bovine circumstances. 

When the bidding was closed, investors had paid a record $4.3 million for the magnificent Brazilian Nelore, an offspring of the ancient zebu breed of domestic cattle.

In one fell swoop, the well-bred cow showcased Brazil's prowess in the business of modern cattle ranching. Brazil is at the top of its game as the world's number one beef exporter, pushed to the top spot three years ago when China began importing from Brazil following a severe outbreak of African swine fever that killed 28 percent of the nation's hog population.

Brazil has already built four new slaughterhouses to serve the Chinese market, says photographer and National Geographic Explorer Carolina Arantes. "The industry is in ascendancy," she says.

To document this growing industry, Arantes traveled to a family home in Uberaba, a town in the southern Brazilian Highlands. There, cattle is king, and the zebu wear the crown.

"Everything in Uberaba is zebu. Zebu radio, zebu restaurants," said Arantes, who has been following the cattle industry for eight years.

And at top-dollar auctions, the Nelore offspring is the zebu of choice—and not just for their meat. These cattle are seen as the future of the industry, for breeding purposes and for the breed’s potential to reduce the toll ranching takes on the environment.

Cattle ranching has been a major driver of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest for 65 years. Brazil today counts 225 million head of cattle and is poised to continue dominating a market projected to grow by 35 percent over the next 20 years. Can prized, million-dollar breeds like the Nelore really make a difference?

Origins of a prized cow

Cattle and ranching are synonymous with the culture and romance of the gauchos—the cowboys of southern Brazil—as legendary as their counterparts in the American West and known for skewered barbecued steak called churrasco. To jumpstart the cattle industry in the mid-20th century, the Brazilian government offered incentives for families and farmers to move to the countryside and convert rainforest to pasture.

Amid this ranching boom, Brazil attempted to improve its cattle through crossbreeding. The challenge was finding animals that could endure the country's tropical climate and diverse ecosystems. European cows (Bos taurus), such as Herefords and Angus, suffered heat stress and production was low.

Zebu cattle in general are naturally adapted to heat, thanks to large and numerous sweat glands that help maintain hydration. Their skin is thick with tight fuzzed hair, which makes it less amenable to bloodsucking insects like mosquitoes.

Crossbreeding with Ongole cattle from India's Nellore district in the Andhra Pradesh state produced an even hardier specimen, the Nelore. (In Portuguese, the name is spelled Nelore with one "l.")

Breeding more sustainable beef 

Nelores are resistant to many parasitic infections, which can ward off gastric problems, but Nelores and zebu, like all cattle, still emit methane through frequent belching and flatulence. Methane is more potent and harmful to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide and cow "exhaust" accounts for 14.5 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions.

One cow can produce between 154 to 264 pounds of methane, according the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and that one cow's daily emission is 25 to 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Considering their innate ability to withstand high heat and survive challenging circumstances like drought, the zebu hybrids were briefly seen as possible poster cows for planet-friendly meat production. Certain subspecies also have more muscle, theoretically reducing their environmental impact by yielding more meat from less pasture.

"Beef production is more complex than we often give it credit [for], and has become quite scientific, especially in the past decades. Though, by and large, [industry] recognition of environmental impacts is still resisted by the sector," says Robert Wilcox, professor at Northern Kentucky University and a specialist in Brazilian cattle ranching.

Calling the preservation of natural resources "fundamental for the future of livestock farming," Gabriel Garcia Cid, president of the Brazilian Zebu Cattle Association, said in an email that Brazil's cattle farmers realize "the importance of bringing genetic improvement to the farms," adding, "Zebu genetics is one of the main tools for sustainability."

In the early 2000s, a marketing campaign spearheaded by the cattle industry promoted the “concept of the ‘Boi ecológico,’” roughly translated to “ecological ox” and touted the environmental benefits of the Nelore.

Despite the animal's natural resilience, "the campaign dissipated after it became clear that the celebrated cow is no more ecological than any other breed," said Wilcox.

An ascendant market confronts climate change 

While deforestation continues, newly elected President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva has pledged to end the practice that has destroyed nearly a fifth of the country's rainforest over the past 60 to 65 years. Trees are natural carbon sinks, pulling planet-warming pollution out of the atmosphere. Environmentalists say remaining forest needs to be preserved to help fight climate change. The size of Australia, some areas of the Amazon already emit more carbon than they absorb.

Although land clearing and over-grazing have continued since de Silva’s election, the former dropped "substantially" in the first six months of 2023. Last December, Para launched a mandatory cattle-tracking program and plans to track its population of 24 million cattle within three years and limit the number of cattle raised on illegally deforested land.

But as long as the market remains strong, Wilcox doesn’t expect major declines in ranching and the resulting deforestation in the Amazon.

As for the Nelore, it isn't going anywhere either. What originated as sacred to the Hindu religion has become a revered icon of a powerful industry.

"The zebu became a 'sacred' animal in Brazilian commerce and culture," says Arantes, and a source of national pride.

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