A stockman watches over the Nelore cow known as Viatina-19...

A stockman watches over the Nelore cow known as Viatina-19 at a farm in Uberaba, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, Friday, April 26, 2024Viatina-19 is the product of years of efforts to raise meatier cows, and is the most expensive cow ever sold at auction, according to Guinness World Records. Credit: AP/Silvia Izquierdo

UBERABA, Brazil — Brazil has hundreds of millions of cows, but one in particular is extraordinary. Her massive, snow-white body is watched over by security cameras, a veterinarian and an armed guard.

Worth $4 million, Viatina-19 FIV Mara Movéis is the most expensive cow ever sold at auction, according to Guinness World Records. That’s three times more than the last recordholder’s price. And — at 1,100 kilograms (more than 2,400 pounds) — she’s twice as heavy as an average adult of her breed.

Along a highway through Brazil’s heartland, Viatina-19’s owners have put up two billboards praising her grandeur and beckoning ranchers, curious locals and busloads of veterinary students to make pilgrimages to see the supercow.

Climate scientists agree that people need to consume less beef, the largest agricultural source of greenhouse gasses and a driver of Amazon deforestation. But the cattle industry is a major source of Brazilian economic development and the government is striving to conquer new export markets. The world’s top beef exporter wants everyone, everywhere to eat its beef.

The embodiment of Brazil’s cattle ambitions is Viatina-19, the product of years of efforts to raise meatier cows. The country’s prizewinners are sold at high-stakes auctions — so high that wealthy ranchers share ownership. They extract the eggs and semen from champion animals, create embryos and implant them in surrogate cows that they hope will produce the next magnificent specimens.

“We’re not slaughtering elite cattle. We’re breeding them. And at the end of the line, going to feed the whole world,” one of her owners, Ney Pereira, said after arriving by helicopter at his farm in Minas Gerais state. “I think Viatina will provide that.”

The cow’s eye-popping price stems from how quickly she put on vast amounts of muscle, from her fertility and — crucially — how often she has passed those characteristics to her offspring, said Lorrany Martins, a veterinarian who is Pereira’s daughter and right hand. Breeders also value posture, hoof solidity, docility, maternal ability and beauty. Those eager to level up their livestock’s genetics pay around $250,000 for an opportunity to collect Viatina-19’s egg cells.

Children pet Zebu calves during the ExpoZebu fair in Uberaba,...

Children pet Zebu calves during the ExpoZebu fair in Uberaba, Minas Gerais state, Saturday, April 27, 2024. In Brazil, 80% of the cows are Zebus, a subspecies originating in India with a distinctive hump and dewlap, or folds of draping neck skin. Credit: AP/Silvia Izquierdo

“She is the closest to perfection that has been attained so far,” Martins said. “She’s a complete cow, has all the characteristics that all the proprietors are looking for.”

A GRAND MATRIARCH

A commodities boom in the 2000s turbocharged Brazilian agriculture, especially with a rising China buying soy and beef. Today, agriculture’s influence extends to Brazil’s Congress and the national consciousness. Country music is booming. TV viewers can watch the massive Globo network’s seven-year campaign exalting the sector. The Cow Channel features live auctions. And Brazil, along with the U.S., is at the forefront of cattle genetics; it does more in-vitro fertilizations than any country in the world, said João Henrique Moreira Viana, genetic resources and biotechnology researcher at the government’s agricultural research corporation.

Viatina-19 won award after award — including “Miss South America” at the Fort Worth, Texas-based “Champion of the World” competition, a bovine version of Miss Universe where cows and bulls from different countries square off. But at 3 years old she hadn’t yet proven that her egg cells, when fertilized and implanted in a surrogate cow, would reliably produce offspring bearing her champion characteristics, said Pereira, an internet executive who moved into elite cow breeding. He needed “a grand matriarch.”

A stockman holds the leash of a cow named Viatina-19,...

A stockman holds the leash of a cow named Viatina-19, right, at a farm in Uberaba, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, Friday, April 26, 2024. Viatina-19 is the product of years of efforts to raise meatier cows, and is the most expensive cow ever sold at auction, according to Guinness World Records. Credit: AP/Silvia Izquierdo

Such cows cost so much that people buy and sell partial ownership, and Pereira’s company Napemo Agriculture paid several million reais (almost $800,000) in a 2022 auction for a 50% stake in Viatina-19. Another rancher kept the other half, so the two would jointly make important decisions and split revenues.

As the auctioneer banged his gavel, the speakers blasted Elvis Presley's “Suspicious Minds.” For Pereira, a lifelong Elvis fanatic, it was a sign.

“It gave me butterflies in the stomach,” he said. “We were new breeders. It was a bit of boldness, a bit of feeling and a bit of heart, too.”

Last year, Pereira and the other owner put a 33% stake in the cow up at auction. One bidder paid 7 million reais ($1.3 million), making Viatina-19’s full value break the Guinness record.

INDIA TO BRAZIL

In Brazil, 80% of the cows are Zebus, a subspecies originating in India with a distinctive hump and dewlap, or folds of draping neck skin. Viatina-19 belongs to the Nelore breed, which is raised for meat, not milk, and makes up most of Brazil’s stock.

The first Zebus arrived in Brazil in the latter half of the 19th century and they proved far hardier than European stock. They coped well with the sweltering tropical heat, proved resistant to parasites and gained weight faster. A prizewinning Nelore bull named Karvardi arrived from India in 1963, and some breeders still preserve cryogenically frozen doses of his semen, according to Brazil’s Zebu association. Draped in traditional Indian vestments, Karvardi’s preserved body stands in the Zebu Museum in Uberaba, the city in Brazil’s agricultural heartland where Viatina-19 lives.

Uberaba holds an annual gathering called ExpoZebu that bills itself as the world’s biggest Zebu fair. Held several weeks ago, it was a far cry from the Brazil imagined abroad. The dress code was boots, baseball caps and blue jeans. Evening concerts drew 10,000 spectators belting out their favorite country songs. But the main attraction was the daily cattle shows. Ranchers came from as far away as Zimbabwe and Indonesia. Stockmen shaved cows’ ears and the bases of their horns — the equivalent of a fresh human haircut to charm show judges and win prizes that boost an animal’s auction price.

The most prestigious auction is called Elo de Raça, and Viatina-19 has been sold at increasingly higher prices there. Searchlights shooting into the night sky on April 28 summoned the hundreds fortunate enough to receive invitations. Arthur Lira, the speaker of Congress’ Lower House, drove in followed by a car with his security detail. He was set to offer his 3-month-old calf.

“The auctions always present the best of what each person has and that spreads to other people, other breeders, and the genetics evolve,” said Lira, who ranches in Brazil’s northeast.

As the first cow entered the paddock, speakers blared Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” But that cow was a mere appetizer before the auction of this year’s starlet, Donna, and three of her clones. The final sale price put her total value at 15.5 million reais ($3 million). Presenting Donna, the announcer said that each of the four produces 80 egg cells a month – quadruple an average Nelore – and called them “a factory.”

“Donna shows where we are with the Nelore breed and where we will go!” he shouted.

NEW MARKETS

Showstoppers like Donna and Viatina-19 are rarities in Brazil, where there are more than 230 million cows, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. It has the world’s largest beef cattle population, and that’s problematic; of the nation’s total greenhouse emissions, 86% are linked to its food production, mainly for beef and soy, according to a World Bank report published last month. Huge swaths of Amazon rainforest have been slashed to create pasture, releasing carbon stored in trees, and cows belch methane that’s far worse for the climate.

One of the best ways to cut livestock emissions is reducing cows’ age of slaughter, said Rodrigo Gomes, a beef cattle researcher at the government’s agricultural research corporation. Elite cows can gain weight fast enough to be slaughtered significantly younger.

Others say genetic improvements are helpful but limited ways to reduce warming. Simpler, more effective measures include planting better grass for grazing and regularly moving cattle from pasture to pasture, said Beto Veríssimo, an agronomist who co-founded an environmental nonprofit called Imazon. Productivity in Brazil could be at least three times higher, said Veríssimo, who sits on the consultation committee of meatpacking giant JBS’ Amazon fund. He receives no compensation.

Ranching is here to stay; it’s an economic engine in Brazil, which exported more than 2 million tons of beef in both 2022 and 2023, the most since records began in 1997. The overwhelming majority goes to developing nations, especially China, thanks to rising incomes that have put beef within reach. It’s partly why agriculture and livestock activity grew 3.6% from 2015 to 2023, compared to 0.8% for services and a contraction in industry of 0.6%, according to calculations by LCA Consultores based on official data.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been working to open new markets. Last month, Lula met Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan, home to the premium, marbled Wagyu beef; he urged his counterpart to taste Brazilian meat and become a believer.

“Please,” he said, addressing his vice president at the event, “take Prime Minister Fumio to eat steak at the best restaurant in Sao Paulo so that, the following week, he starts importing our beef.”

And in April, Lula visited one of the 38 Brazilian meatpacking plants that China authorized to send beef there. He boasted about the billions in revenue they will provide. Lula’s administration last month declared Brazil totally free of foot-and-mouth disease, saying it will request recognition from the World Organization for Animal Health in August. That would open the world’s more restrictive — and lucrative — markets to Brazilian beef, Vice President Geraldo Alckmin said at the time.

SEND IN THE CLONES

Just down the highway from the Elo de Raça auction stands what appears an ordinary farmhouse. But inside, employees in white coats extract DNA from cows’ tail hair and use it to create embryos. Behind that laboratory, sprawling hills of pasture are dotted with some 500 surrogates pregnant with clones.

“All those are rental bellies,” said Geneal Animal Genetics and Biotechnology’s commercial director, Paulo Cerantola, motioning to a hilltop herd as his truck rumbled along a dirt road.

It led to a stable beside a small pen where a cloned calf lay in the sunshine. Born the day before, it was still too unsure of its legs to stand, and a 2-day-old clone set an example by ambling about gamely. Another born 20 minutes earlier by cesarean section was huddled on hay in the rear of a stall, pressing backwards against the wall and unsettled by this strange new world.

Perhaps one-third of fetal clones survive; the pregnancies can fail or a clone can be born with deformities that require euthanasia, Cerantola said. Clones of Viatina-19 are due in a few months, he said.

But some ranchers wouldn’t even want a big herd of her clones. High-maintenance cows like Viatina-19 aren’t profitable on a commercial scale because they couldn’t meet their energy needs from grass alone, said P.J. Budler, a cattle judge and international business manager for Trans Ova Genetics, an Iowa-based company focused on improving the bovine gene pool.

“For the environment and the resources that it would take to run a cow like (Viatina-19), she fits the mold ideally, but she’s not the answer for all cattle everywhere,” he said.

Another Texas cattleman who traveled to ExpoZebu in 2023 to scope out the genetics scene was more critical, calling Viatina-19, and cows like her, “man-made freaks.”

“In my opinion, she needs a bullet in her head. She’s poison for the industry,” Grant Vassberg said by phone. “We still need cows to be efficient on grass. That’s how you feed the world.”

Viatina-19’s owner, Pereira, said she gets special treatment to boost egg cell production, but would thrive were she put to pasture — where almost all his elite cattle feed.

Meanwhile, Viatina-19 is pregnant for the first time, which helps maintain hormone cycles, Pereira said, and he’s eyeing expansion; her egg cells have sold to Bolivian buyers and he wants to export to the United Arab Emirates, India and the US.

“If she is the best in the world – not just her price, but I believe she is the world’s best – we need to share her around the world,” Pereira said.

His veterinarian daughter, Martins, is looking even farther ahead.

“I hope she is the basis for an even better animal in the future, decades from now,” she said.

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