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By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 9, 2009; A13
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.
The southwest area of Buenos Aires, among the most crippled regions, is home to 40 percent of the nation's cattle stock, said Luciano Di Tella, who oversees cattle-production issues at the agriculture secretary's office. "We've had some rains in the last 15 or 20 days, and most of the drought-stricken areas have received rains, except southwest Buenos Aires province," Di Tella said, adding that no one knows accurately how many animals have died.
The dying animals and the struggling business do not, however, mean auctions such as Liniers Market are short on cattle. In fact, there are more for the time being, the participants here say, as ranchers rush to sell off what they can to cover their costs.
In recent years, Argentina's soybean production has surged, so more and more ranchers are selling off their cattle. The beanfields have pushed cattle onto less fertile pastures, Di Tella said, which worked in rainy years but has now left the animals with little to eat. "During the last 10 years, we have had a very favorable climatic period with rainfall above historical averages," he said, but farmers have not devoted "appropriate investment in pastures and watering systems."
The cattle market now has more females than normal, another sign that ranchers are selling off the stock. Ezequiel G. de Freijo, a researcher at the Argentine Rural Society, said that if more than 43 percent of all cattle killed are females, then the total stock will diminish over time. Argentina passed this threshold in September 2006, he said, and over the last year has averaged 49 percent females killed.
"You are killing the meat machine," he said.
In San Miguel del Monte, a rural area south of Buenos Aires, the drought has taken a heavy toll. Soybean plants, usually lush and green, huddle shriveled and brown. Acres of pasture lie bare and dry. Lakes and rivers have receded down to their cracked beds.
A new provincial ordinance allows cattle to graze along the roadways because so much pasture is denuded. Now, the herds crowd the shoulder of highways here.
Gioia, the cattle rancher, grows soybeans and she and her husband own about 600 head of cattle. She says she has fared better than many others during the drought. Just seven of the animals have died, but she expects more to go if the rains stay away. Even cows that survive often don't have sufficient nourishment to get pregnant.
"In Argentina, the quality of the beef that we have is because the cows are raised on the pasture. This is what gives it the flavor you don't get in the feedlot," she said. "We are basically producers of pasture. The cows transform pasture into meat, and into milk. Without pasture, you have nothing."
The drought prompted the government to declare a state of emergency last month and offer tax deferral for those affected. These measures -- along with a host of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's agricultural policies -- have been criticized by farmers and ranchers, who say they delay taxes but don't provide a meaningful benefit. Di Tella, the government agriculture official, said that Fernández de Kirchner enacted the law already on the books for emergency situations and that new legislation would be required to come up with new relief measures.
"This time, the farmers are asking for a more generous package but that's not within the law," he said.
The relationship between the government and the agricultural sector remains raw after a long fight over export taxes proposed by Kirchner last year, a battle she lost. Argentine farmers announced they will hold another four-day strike this month to protest agricultural taxes and other government farm policies.
The Argentine government has limited beef exports, which attract higher prices. The intention has been to keep domestic prices low so Argentines, who eat more beef per capita than people in any other nation, can afford it. But ranchers say their industry is not viable with these economic rules.
"The problem of this government is that so little is foreseeable. Because if you have a steer that you grow to 500 kilos, you don't know if the government will allow you to export it," said Juan E. Ganly, who owns 1,000 head of cattle in San Miguel del Monte. "They close the exports when everyone has steers, and you have to sell it in the internal market, at a much lower price. And people lose a lot of money."
Even before the drought, Argentina was falling quickly from international beef dominance. Three years ago, the country ranked third worldwide in beef exports; today, it is seventh, according to the Argentine Rural Society. And the image of cattle wandering free over vast grasslands has been changing as well. More and more ranchers have moved to fattening animals in feedlots, which requires less land and time.
"We are in a difficult moment that will surely have consequences in the future," said Raúl Castel, 53, an auctioneer at Liniers Market in Buenos Aires. "Unfortunately, Argentina has definitely lost prominence in the world of beef."
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