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Uruguay - Mixed ranching to intensive crop production

Main Contributors:

Lisa Deutsch, Ylva Ran, Matilda Baraibar

Other Contributors:

Reinette (Oonsie) Biggs


Uruguay has a long tradition of extensive sheep and cattle livestock husbandry for subsistence and export as the dominant livelihood strategy. Since the 1970s the system was characterized by two types of livestock production: 1) mixed crop production in rotation with pastures was practiced in the western Litoral and 2) pastoral grazing based on natural grasslands with low external inputs and low-stocking density on poor, erosive soils in the rest of the country. The Uruguayan agricultural system was transformed into a new regime in about 2002, where a new productive system of continuous cultivation of soybeans with other crops emerged. The change was driven by several external forces, starting with an increased demand for animal products, mainly in China. This increased demand for animal feed crops for Asian domestic production contributed to increasing global soybean prices. When farmers showed profitable margins, soybeans became a lucrative option, which in turn drove a huge increase in Uruguayan land prices. This negatively affected economic margins in extensive livestock and intensive soy production became more economically attractive. The abrupt shift from ranching to cropping was catalyzed by a mass infusion of capital and technology from Argentina. Economic crisis in Argentina led actors with capital and knowledge and experience of the new agricultural technology package for no-till soybean production to enter an equally financially distressed Uruguay. The combination of advantageous economic margins, ecologically appropriate technology and necessary capital for this capital intensive production system combined to overwhelm previous Uruguayan resistance (strong cultural identity) to changing farming systems from ranchers to crop farmers in the Litoral region. Within only a few years, large-scale expansion of crop cultivations further affected the livestock sector as the most productive grazing areas were taken for crop production. Since economic margins for crop production were so much higher, the livestock sector lost producers and lands to crop production. Owners who did change farming systems left Litoral or went out of business. Most traditional sharecroppers lost access to land and many became service providers. One of the major ecological consequences of the adopted system is that continuous cropping degrades soil productivity due to decreased soil organic matter and increased risk of erosion. The government has taken steps to mitigate soil degradation by enforcing the existing Soil Law. However, soil degradation has not been stopped only slowed.

Type of regime shift

  • Extensive ranching to crop production

Ecosystem type

  • Grasslands
  • Agro-ecosystems

Land uses

  • Small-scale subsistence crop cultivation
  • Large-scale commercial crop cultivation
  • Intensive livestock production (eg feedlots, dairies)
  • Extensive livestock production (natural rangelands)

Spatial scale of the case study

  • Local/landscape (e.g. lake, catchment, community)

Continent or Ocean

  • South America


  • Litoral – western Uruguay


  • Uruguay

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Key References

  1. Bot, A., and J. Benites. 2005. The importance of soil organic matter. FAO Soils Bulletin. Rome.
  2. Deutsch, L., M. Falkenmark, L. Gordon, J. Rockström, and C. Folke. 2010. Water-mediated ecological consequences of intensification and expansion of livestock production. Pages 97u2013111 in H. Steinfeld, H. A. Money, F. Schneider, and L. E. Neville, editors. Livestock in a Changing Landscape, Volume 1: Drivers, Consequences and Responses. Island Press, Wallingford.
  3. Dogliotti, S. 2003. Exploring options for sustainable development of vegetable farms in South Uruguay. Dissertation. Wageningen University.
  4. FAOSTAT. 2012. FAOSTAT. Retrieved from
  5. García-Préchac, F., and A. Duran. 2001. Estimating Soil Productivity Loss Due to Erosion in Uruguay in Terms of Beef and Wool Production on Natural Pastures u2020. Pages 40u201345 in D. E. Stott, R. H. Mohtar, and G. C. Steinhardt, editors. Sustaining the Global Farm. Purdue University and the USDA-ARS National Soil Erosion Research Laboratory.
  6. Garcia-Préchac, F., O. Ernst, G. Siri-Prieto, and J. A. Terra. 2004. Integrating no-till into crop-pasture rotations in Uruguay. Soil and Tillage Research 77:1u201313. doi: 10.1016/j.still.2003.12.002.
  7. MGAP. 2010. Anuario Estadistico Agropecuario 2010. Montevideo.


Lisa Deutsch, Ylva Ran, Matilda Baraibar, Reinette (Oonsie) Biggs. Uruguay - Mixed ranching to intensive crop production. In: Regime Shifts Database, Last revised 2012-11-13 09:34:19 GMT.
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