By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 10, 2009
MAGDALENA, Argentina -- Cattle once ruled the seemingly endless grasslands here, delivering decades of prosperity for Argentina and producing a brand familiar to the world -- natural, grass-fed beef.
But a quiet revolution has arrived on the famously fertile pampa, a swath of plains bigger than Texas.
Instead of roaming freely and eating to their hearts' content, a growing number of Argentine cattle are spending a third of their lives in U.S.-style feedlots. There, crammed in muddy corrals, they are pumped with antibiotics and fed mounds of protein-rich grain, which fattens them up fast but hardly conjures up the romantic image of the Argentine cowboy, the iconic gaucho, lassoing cattle on the high plains.
It is an image ranch hand Tomás Leclercq cherishes. The strapping, ruddy-faced 58-year-old has been working with cattle since boyhood. Like any Argentine, Leclercq knows his beef -- he likes it grilled on a spit, a tad red, tender as butter. The reason Argentina's meat is so lean and juicy, he contends, is that cattle here have traditionally rambled across miles of plains, chomping grass until winding up as succulent steaks.
"There's a big difference between grass-fed beef and feedlot beef," said Leclercq, who manages about 250 head of cattle for a Buenos Aires businessman and eats meat daily. "Beef raised on the plains is better, but there is less and less of it because the land is going for agriculture, so the feedlots are multiplying."
Indeed, all over the pampa, ranchland that was home to Angus and Hereford cows has in recent years been replaced by fields of soybeans, corn and wheat as commodity prices skyrocketed by more than 300 percent. This year, a third of the 15 million animals expected to go to slaughter will fatten up in the now-ubiquitous feedlots, three times as many as in 2001.
The Argentine government established export restrictions and price controls to keep beef prices artificially low, and a currency devaluation made exporters of cash crops more competitive. Agricultural subsidies also helped make corn feed affordable for cattlemen, allowing them to move their animals off the land. The combination of factors resulted in many farmers switching from cattle to crops over the past decade.
At the same time, Argentina, though a powerhouse in agriculture, has slipped from the dominant position it had long enjoyed in the international beef market. Once the No. 1 meat exporter, Argentina today is seventh. The vast majority of the meat it produces is consumed domestically; most of the rest is exported to Europe, elsewhere in South America and, to a lesser extent, the United States.
It's all enough to make an old gaucho grieve for the past -- but there are no laments in Rodrigo Troncoso's fashionable offices in Buenos Aires.
General manager of the Argentine Feedlot Chamber, Troncoso has a master's degree in agribusiness and travels to other major cattle-producing countries, including the United States, to study their latest techniques. Troncoso said he expects that more than 60 percent of Argentina's cattle will pass through feedlots in five years.
"I'm not a romantic," he said, referring to those who pine for the old days in cattle country. "Argentina sold this image to the world to position itself -- that was the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s. But the reality is all the rest of the world went the other way."
From Australia to the United States, the world's top cattle producers have been penning up cattle for years. Troncoso said that if Argentina wants to take advantage of the world's growing appetite for meat, then it, too, must become a more efficient producer of beef.
Critics call the process unnatural, saying all mass-produced meat tastes the same.
"Of course, the taste is very different," said Claudio Schonfeld, a member of the Argentine Angus Association, considered among the most traditional of all the cattlemen's groups. "There's a lack of cholesterol in the meat because the cow that feeds on grass has to roam great distances to eat."
Feedlot beef tastes more like pork, said Luis Alberto Nieva, standing near a side of beef slowly roasting over a wood-burning fire outside his friend Leclercq's house. "Grass is the best feed for animals," Nieva said. "Corral meat tastes different. They give them many things to eat, and you don't know what they're giving them."
Few disagree as vehemently as Troncoso. He said that grass-fed beef will always have a market but that grain-fed meat looks more appealing and has a juicy, rich taste. "Who is to say what's natural and what's not natural?" Troncoso said. "What's natural is for a cow to grow, to reproduce and to die."
That's exactly what happens to the cattle at the Santa Maria feedlot here in Magdalena. Heifers and small bulls seven or eight months old are trucked in weighing about 400 pounds each, after having grazed on grass. Three months later, at 600 pounds but still young and tender, they are ready to be served up with a side of fries and a glass of the local Malbec. The remarkable growth is due to a high-energy, high-protein diet of wheat, corn and soy.
"This is a factory to produce meat," explained Sebastián Saparrat, the administrator, noting that 20,000 head of cattle are produced annually at Santa Maria.
Walking on a dirt road lined with pens, Saparrat recalled how he "felt bad" when he started working at Santa Maria nine years ago and saw cattle in corrals. But he said he has come to appreciate the efficiency of it all -- how 7,000 animals take up scarcely 12 acres. To grass-feed that many animals, he said, would require 13,000 acres.
"Today, it's impossible really to fatten up 7,000 cows in one place on grass," he said.
The cattle from Santa Maria, and many of those produced across this stretch of pampa, are then shipped off to the sprawling, 108-year-old Liniers cattle auction in a Buenos Aires barrio called Mataderos, "slaughterhouses" in Spanish. As many as 12,000 animals come through daily. Men representing local butchers stand on catwalks above the pens, buying animals that are slaughtered hours later. Increasingly the cattle come from feedlots, the buyers said.
Edgardo Zaldibar, 49, has worked at Liniers since he was 16, helping round up cattle on horseback. His father, 72, has worked in the market for 60 years, and his grandfather worked there, too. Zaldibar called himself a man of tradition but said he has no problem with the new trend -- he eats beef every day and likes the feedlot variety.
"This is modernity, I suppose," he said, taking a break from herding. "But I don't think that this is bad -- it's modernity, and you have to adapt yourself."