Argentine Cattle No Longer Just Home On The Range

CUSTOM: Cattle at Santa Maria feedlot in Magdalena, Argentina i i

hide captionCattle used to freely roam Argentina's vast grasslands, but now 30 percent of the country's cattle spend the last third of their lives fattening up in feedlots such as this one in Magdalena, Argentina. At the Santa Maria feedlot, 7,000 young bulls and heifers gain weight quickly on a mix of corn, soybeans and wheat.

Silvina Frydlewsky for NPR
CUSTOM: Cattle at Santa Maria feedlot in Magdalena, Argentina

Cattle used to freely roam Argentina's vast grasslands, but now 30 percent of the country's cattle spend the last third of their lives fattening up in feedlots such as this one in Magdalena, Argentina. At the Santa Maria feedlot, 7,000 young bulls and heifers gain weight quickly on a mix of corn, soybeans and wheat.

Silvina Frydlewsky for NPR

Argentina's vast plains are bigger than Texas, and for more than a century, great herds of cattle roamed and ate to their hearts' content. That helped build up Argentina's image as the producer of lean and natural grass-fed beef.

But ever so quietly, Argentina is increasingly fattening its herd in American-style feedlots. Promoters say it's efficient, but some Argentines wonder if quality isn't being lost for the sake of quantity.

Each day, 12,000 animals from all over cattle country arrive at the Liniers cattle market on the south side of Buenos Aires.

Grizzled men on horseback herd them into pens. The bell then rings, announcing the start of yet another day of auctions. The animals are butchered immediately after sale, resulting in what Argentines call the best beef in the world.

Like this proud country, the century-old Liniers market is all history and tradition.

Tradition, though, is dramatically changing. Cattle that once grew fat on Argentina's great grass expanse are now heading to pens.

The future of Argentine cattle production in on display at the Santa Maria feedlot, south of Buenos Aires. A machine mixes corn pellets — high-protein, high-energy feed that is then delivered to troughs across 40 corrals, each one holding 200 animals.

The administrator, Sebastian Saparrat, walks under a bright blue sky, past young bulls and heifers. He says they consume 150,000 pounds of feed a day.

CUSTOM: Liniers cattle market in Buenos Aires i i

hide captionSince 1901, cattle from across the Argentina's cattle country has been shipped by train and truck to the Liniers cattle auction on the south side of Buenos Aires. It is one of the world's biggest cattle markets, with 12,000 head passing through daily.

Silvina Frydlewsky for NPR
CUSTOM: Liniers cattle market in Buenos Aires

Since 1901, cattle from across the Argentina's cattle country has been shipped by train and truck to the Liniers cattle auction on the south side of Buenos Aires. It is one of the world's biggest cattle markets, with 12,000 head passing through daily.

Silvina Frydlewsky for NPR

But Saparrat says it is worth it. When the cattle arrive at 8 months of age, they each weigh 400 pounds. Three months later, they each top 600, the optimal weight.

Some in Argentina aren't too happy about the trend. They say Argentina built a name brand by grazing cattle, ultimately producing lean, juicy steaks for consumers.

Claudio Schonfeld, a member of the tradition-bound Argentine Angus Association, says that grass-fed beef tastes better and is lower in cholesterol.

But Rodrigo Troncoso, general manager of the Argentine Feedlot Chamber, sees a big future for feedlots.

"The truth is that we produce beef [with] grass, also we produce beef with grain. We are known [for grass-fed beef] historically. We have to show the world that we can do all kinds of beef," he says.

Troncoso says a third of the 15 million head slaughtered each year now pass through feedlots — up three-fold from 2001.

The trend is the result of simple economics: The price of soybeans, corn and wheat skyrocketed in recent years and land owners made way for those cash crops.

At Tomas Leclercq's ranch in Magdalena, Argentina, practices are changing slowly. Many of the cattle at the ranch — which has been in continuous operation since 1888 — feast on grass all their lives. But Leclercq says that half of the animals now go to feedlots.

And with each coming year, he says, the number of animals he'll send to the pens will only grow.

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