8 December 2000

Key lessons to

be learned from

the Argentineans

Big-acreage farms, low-input

costs, benign weather – its

easy to be jealous of

Argentinean farmers.

But is that the secret of their

success, or are other factors

involved? Mark Ashbridge

went in search of an answer

IF you were to ask anybody in the UK what Argentina meant to them it would be something along the lines of: Falklands; Maradonna: beautiful women, polo and beef. Having spent four months in South America at the beginning of this year, mainly in Argentina, I can confirm that these views are rightly justified.

My visit was a personal one, aimed at satisfying a desire to see foreign parts before the inevitable ties of life take firm hold. I began in Buenos Aires in the scorching heat of high summer.

Within a few days I was two hours south of BA in the Pampas staying with my host family in their colonial-style estancia.

The farming here is suckler beef – mainly black Angus cows crossed with an Angus or Hereford bull – and combinable crops such as wheat and soyabeans. The wheat harvest had just been completed by the contractor who was making his way down the country just as they do in the US.

Better grassland

From here I went to another farm of the same family, situated in the province of Neuquen and on the eastern side of the Andes mountains. This farm was only 8000ha, (20,000 acres) having been 40,000ha (100,000 acres) in the early part of the century and supported a 700-head sucker herd. This gives a stocking rate of one cow/11ha (27 acres). These calves are weaned at nine months and then finished on the better grassland further east.

A finished animal here weighs around 450kg at two years old and fetch about $0.90/kg (60p) liveweight. At these prices scale and low input costs are needed to survive; a typical farm worker earns $400-$800/month (£250-£500).

Just outside San Martin de los Andes I stayed at the Estancia Cerro De Los Pinos, an enormous farm extending to tens of thousands of hectares and supporting 5000 suckler cows. It is an area of outstanding beauty and has two well-stocked fly fishing rivers running through it. Both are fully exploited for their sporting value and guests are accommodated on the farm in five-star luxury. A fine example of the opportunities which are available for tourism.

Further south you enter the main wool-producing region that runs all the way to Tierra Del Fuego. This area has become economically vulnerable over recent years as the price of wool and sheep meat have declined. The soil in this region is thin and dry, the summers are short and the winters long and cold. So it cant support any mainstream agricultural enterprise other than sheep. Some farms in the area are already deserted; others continuing only on the back of tourism.

All this is in contrast to the northern part of the province of Buenos Aires, where most of the best arable land is located. It will typically yield up to 6t/ha (2.4t/acre) whereas south-west of BA this reduces to 2t/ha (0.8t/acre).

At the main agricultural show near Rossario I saw machinery demonstrations, livestock and many disillusioned farmers unsure how they will cope with the decline in commodity prices. I also got a lift with a car full of bankers who said lending for working capital costs anything up to 17%. This might explain why there is a lack of re-investment in the industry. The cheapest money comes from machinery dealers.

Very extensively

Around Trenque Lauquen, six hours south-west of BA, the farms grow soyabeans, sunflower seed, maize and wheat. The livestock is mainly beef with some dairying.

The farms are typically run very extensively and range in size from 1000ha (2500 acres) to 16,000ha (40,000 acres). Field size is up to 150ha (370 acres) and the farms are normally in a ring fence.

I joined a group of Argentine farmers who meet once or twice in the year to look at each others businesses. I was impressed by their level of business knowledge and the technical skills used.

First we visited a dairy farm which had its own cheese processing plant. The dairy herd was 1800 cows and produced milk for a market which paid around $0.17/litre (11.3p).

In the afternoon we visited a 16,000ha (40,000 acre) holding which fattened beef and rotated the grassland with the normal arable crops. This farm employed only 45 people but finished 12,000 beef animals a year in addition to the arable crops.

My final farm visit was to a 30,000ha (74,000 acre) unit 450 miles south of BA on the coast, near Bahi Blanca. The main enterprise was suckler beef and the farm carried 5000, mainly Hereford, cows.

This low level of output means that the land is probably only worth $200/ha (£53/acre). However, a government scheme has meant that it is now possible to irrigate up to 1000ha (2500 acres) of this land, so the best land is rented out to onion growers who pay $450/ha (£120/acre)and can irrigate to their hearts content.

Right: Mark Ashbridge (right) inspecting a herd of cattle at an enormous 30,000ha estancia near Bahi Blanca with farm manager Alberto. Below: Heavy-duty machinery at the main agricultural show near Rossario.

Above: Colonial-style estancia east of Buenos Aires.

Left: Hereford heifers at Estancia Cerro De Los Pinos.

Below: Extensive ranching at the foot of the Andes.