Drought Kills Off Cattle by Thousands
SAN MIGUEL DEL MONTE,
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
"The weakest ones die," she said. "They fall to the ground and they don't have the strength to stand up."
"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
The cattlemen at the century-old Liniers Market in
"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
The southwest area of
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,
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.
"You are killing the meat machine," he said.
In San Miguel del Monte, a rural area south of
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.
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,
"We are in a difficult moment that will surely have consequences in the future," said Raúl Castel, 53, an auctioneer at Liniers Market in