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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Steve Inskeep is on assignment this week in Houston.

And we now travel to the vast plains bigger than all of Texas, where cattle graze in Argentina. For more than a century, great herds of cattle have roamed and eaten to their hearts' content. That built in Argentina's image as the producer of lean and natural grass-fed beef. But ever so quietly, Argentina is moving toward American-style feedlots to fatten its herds. NPR's Juan Forero reports from the heart of cattle country.

(Soundbite of music)

JUAN FORERO: An old tango blares from loudspeakers at the Liniers cattle market on the west side of Buenos Aires. Twelve thousand animals from all over cattle country arrive each day.

(Soundbite of mooing)

Grizzled men on horseback herd them into pens. The bell then rings.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Announcing the start of yet another day of auctions - the sale of animals that are immediately butchered. The result is 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 American-style pens. Welcome to Santa Maria, the future in Argentine cattle production.

In this feedlot, south of Buenos Aires, a machine mixes corn pellets — high-protein, high-energy feed. Feed that's then delivered to troughs across 40 corrals, each one holding 200 animals.

(Soundbite of machinery)

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

Saparrat stops before a pen loaded with cattle.

Mr. SEBASTIAN SAPARRAT (Administrator): (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: He says these are ready to slaughter.

Some in Argentina aren't too happy about the trend. They say Argentina built name brand by grazing cattle on grass, producing what they call lean, juicy steaks.

Claudio Schonfeld is a member of the tradition-bound Argentine Angus Association.

Mr. CLAUDIO SCHONFELD (Argentine Angus Association member): (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Schonfeld swears that grass-fed beef tastes better and is lower in cholesterol. But Rodrigo Troncoso sees a big future for feedlots.

Mr. RODRIGO TRONCOSO (General manager, Argentine Feedlot Chamber): The truth is that we produce beef in grass, also we produce beef with grain. We are known by beef, the grass, historically. We have to show the world that we can do all kinds of beef.

FORERO: Troncoso is general manger of the Argentine Feedlot Chamber. He says a third of the 15 million head slaughtered each year now pass through feedlots. That's 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.

(Soundbite of cattle mooing)

Here at Tomas Leclercq's ranch practices are changing slowly. The ranch has been in continuous operation since 1888.

Mr. THOMAS LECLERCQ (Rancher): Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey.

FORERO: Leclercq and his assistant corral a cow to give her an injection.

Mr. LECLERCQ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Later, driving his 14-year-old pickup truck, Leclercq veers into a big field filled with cows and newly-born calves. Many of them feast on grass all their lives.

Mr. LECLERCQ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: But Leclercq says that half of the animals on the ranch now go to feedlots. And with each coming year, he says, the number of animals he'll send to the pens will only grow.

(Soundbite of mooing)

Juan Forero, NPR News, Magdalena, Argentina.

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