As Australian live cattle export numbers slowly decline, Mexico has taken over as the world’s largest live cattle exporter. In 2020, Mexican exporters sent over 1.1M head across the border into the USA whilst Australia exported a total of 1.05M head. The year-to-date numbers from Mexico are down in 2021, but not as much as the reduction in Australian exports, so they appear likely to retain poll position once again this year. The process in which these Mexican cattle are exported is beautifully simple; they are merely walked into the US through specially made gates cut into the border wall made so famous by Donald J Trump.
After a brief visit to the spectacular Grand Canyon near Flagstaff, Arizona, Brisbane based exporter Angus Adnam kindly introduced me to Bernie Teran from the EMCO Cattle Co., one of the major US cattle importers who showed me around the border crossing at the small town of Douglas located to the south of Tucson, Arizona.
Despite the fact that the border is an incredibly restricted location, both governments have combined to establish a remarkably efficient crossing protocol, where animals are prepared in a yard on the Mexican side only a few meters from the border fence. Then, at a designated time, the special gate is opened by US officials and the cattle are simply walked across to the receiving yard on the US side, 20 meters from the gate, and the deal is done.
The three cattle crossings into Arizona at Douglas, Nogales and San Luis from the Mexican state of Sonora involve a much simpler process than crossing points in other States because Sonora is the only border state free of Bovine Tuberculosis. This means that TB free cattle can arrive in the Mexican quarantine yard one or two days before the crossing where they are weighed (sale point from exporter to importer), branded with an “M” for Mexico, inspected for health by US veterinary staff, scratched for ticks then dipped on the morning of the crossing. Once they successfully complete their protocols, the final documentation is signed off by the officials of both governments and the cattle are then walked across to the US side through the border fence in the early afternoon.
The export process into Texas (6 gates) and New Mexico (2 gates) from other Mexican states requires a TB test in the Mexican quarantine facility as part of their protocol and as a consequence the crossing process at these locations is considerably slower than in Arizona. I also managed to visit the largest crossing point in the entire US/Mexico border which is located at ‘Santa Teresa’ just to the West of El Paso. This location has two massive sliding gates in the fence about 100 meters apart connecting to two extensive cattle yards to allow for the export of close to 500,000 head per year.
Current prices for these young cattle are about USD$1.80 per lb live weight which converts to USD$3.97 per kg or AUD$5.30 per kg (@75cents) which is remarkably similar to the current Australian price for these young Bos taurus crosses. Demand from Texan ranchers is strong this year as many have recently received some good rainfall while feedlots are finding the prices a little steep due to the sharp rise in grain prices in recent months.
The majority of these cattle are a mix of young British and European breeds with an average weight of a little under 200kg. The trade is primarily steers with spayed heifers representing only about 10% of total exports. The crossing protocol requires numbered ear tags and an RFID as well as the Mexican “M” brand. Upon arrival on US soil the cattle are rested then weighed again as the point of sale from the importer to the end customer and usually trucked out later on the same day. The country either side of the border is visually very similar to the harsh arid zones of central Australia, with a low and erratic rainfall and extremely low stocking densities.
There is a small reverse trade in the Mexican direction with a range of US stock including slaughter and breeder cattle, breeding pigs, dairy cattle, goats and horses.
As much as I have enjoyed my visit to the Mexican desert, I have since learnt that EMCO Cattle Co. also imports live cattle from the Hawaiian islands to California on container ships. With a bit of luck I’ll be able to investigate this export journey and write another story in the future.