Pride of Argentina Falls on Hard Times -- Drought Kills Off Cattle by Thousands

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 9, 2009

SAN MIGUEL DEL MONTE, Argentina -- She was the pride of the pampas. A free-range phenom. Independent, healthy, out there by the millions in the clean air, the fresh grass, in both life and tasty death a symbol of all that still was exceptional about this proud nation.

The once mighty Argentine cow, how she has fallen.

Look at her now, if you have the stomach. The photographs flash on the news, one more macabre than the next. A deflated leather bag of bones decomposing on a parched pasture. A skinless bovine face, its skeleton teeth bared in a death mask. Or just a pile of ribs picked clean with the unsmiling desert all around.

"There's a dead one," said cattle rancher Lorena del Río de Gioia, as she pulled up in a pickup truck to her pasture. "There's another one."

"The weakest ones die," she said. "They fall to the ground and they don't have the strength to stand up."

Argentina is suffering its worst drought in decades and the cattle are dying by the barnload. Since October, the drought has taken down 1.5 million of the animals, according to an estimate by the Argentine Rural Society, in a country that last year sent 13.5 million to slaughter. The cattle for the most part are dying of hunger, as the dry skies have shriveled up their pastures, along with huge swaths of Argentina's important soy, corn and wheat fields.

"The drought has affected practically the entire country, the cattle-ranching sector, agriculture. It is the most intense, prolonged and expensive drought in the past 50 years," Hugo Luis Biolcati, the president of the Argentine Rural Society, said in the organization's offices in Buenos Aires. "I think we are facing a very bad year."

The cattlemen at the century-old Liniers Market in Buenos Aires, one of the largest cow auctions in the world, with about 40,000 animals passing through each week, tend to agree. In wooden pens, spines and ribs jut out under the many taut hides jostling together.

"They are beginning to sell the skinny cows because they are not getting fatter," said Johnny Perkins, a buyer at the market for Madelan, a cattle dealer. "There isn't enough pasture to support the growth of the animals."

The shortage of large, healthy cattle prompted the Argentine government to recently lower the minimum weight allowable for the market, from 615 pounds to 575. This is a far cry from the largest Argentine cattle, ranchers said, which can weigh more than 1,100 pounds.

"I cannot remember a situation this bad," Perkins said.

The drought began a couple of years ago in southwest Buenos Aires province and northeast Santa Fe province, but has spread in recent months to most of the pampas. Agricultural groups estimate that Argentina, one of the world's top grain exporters, has lost more than $5 billion from the weather and that it could significantly slow the nation's economic growth. The 2008 harvests of several crops came in far smaller than those of the previous year.

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