After spending over a week in the province of Corrientes, learning about the lives of cattle on a traditional grass-fed cattle ranch, I made plans to head south to the province of Santa Fe, to stay with Pablo’s brother’s family where I would learn about recent changes in cattle production. Pablo’s brother was to meet me in the town of Rio Quarto in the province of Cordoba, where he would take me to a cattle auction. Before I headed south, I made a detour to Iguazu Falls, a must see destination for most tourists in Argentina. After two sun filled days of sight-seeing at the falls, which I would call the Grand Canyon of waterfalls – they are so spectacular- I was happy I made the trek north.
Two busses and three days later Alejandro picked me up at the only youth hostel in Rio Quarto. Rio Quarto isn’t what I would call a tourist destination, but it looked like a nice place to live. On the bus into town, I observed children happily riding their horses down the residential streets on the outskirts of town. The town hosts two colleges, one of them a college of Agriculture. A short drive out of town and Alejandro and I were at the local Asociacion de AnGus annual cattle auction. This is where “cabaneros”, the breeders of pedigree Angus cattle, sell their bulls, cows, heifers and calves to the highest bidder. Since these “cabaneros” don’t raise cattle for the sole purpose of producing beef, they occupy their own niche in Argentina’s beef industry and their farms are called cabanas. These cabanas produce animals of such fine quality that their cattle’s genetic traits are considered to improve the breed. One of the reasons that Argentina’s carne (in Argentina this word applies specifically to beef) is on average better than other beef around the world is partly due to the close attention to the genetic quality of their animals. Argentina’s Angus cattle are so fine that breeders in the U.K. have imported bulls from Argentina to improve their herds. This is ironic because the Aberdeen Angus breed originated in Scotland.
Though the Aberdeen Angus originated in Scotland it has flourished in the United States and Argentina as a popular breed of beef cattle. In fact, Angus isn’t merely a breed, it is a brand – and not a brand as in an identification mark on a cowhide – rather a brand name, a commodity in the marketplace of meat. I know this personally because I worked for many years at a TexMex restaurant that exclusively served 100% Angus flank steak. This year McDonald’s launched an Angus beef 1/3 pounder hamburger product and add campaign. I saw the same bill boards for McDonald’s Angus burgers in my hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado and downtown Buenos Aires – both cities near big beef producing areas.
At the auction I learned that Angus cattle come in two colors – negro (black) and colorado (red). The black cattle command a better price. Why is this the case? Is it because black Angus produce better or taste better I asked? “It is just what people prefer,” Alejandreo told me. Oddly, in India people also have a preference for black cattle because they are considered more “auspicious” (lucky) than other colors of cattle. I find this preference for breed and color in the beef industry much like the campaign that launched pork as a health food by labeling it the “other white meat”, the idea being that white meat is healthier for people. In reality the health benefits of any meat rely on the type of fat that is present in the animal, and that depends largely on what the animal is eating. Pasture raised animals are universally healthier to eat regardless of the color of their meat.
But whatever I think about marketing strategies, beef is no joke – especially in Argentina and I got some good insight into breed standards by talking to a couple cabanaras at the auction. Both Patricia – the president of AnGus Centro – the local branch of the Asociacion Argentina de Angus (who led a club meeting at a catered lunch that I attended) and Diana, a writer from Germany that ran a guest house at her estancia and belonged to a group which owned the top ranked bull at auction that day, were kind enough to speak with me. I accompanied Diana and one of her business partners around the paddocks. They were looking to buy another bull or two to add to their stock. I asked Diana what they looked for in a bull. She told me they were looking for a mixture of phenotype (outward appearance), pedigree, and how the bull ranked on a number of other factors – such as semen mobility, important for artificial insemination and even as a bull’s scrotal circumference (Diana’s bull topped the list in this category at a hefty 46 centimeters). All three of these categories combined to make a number (the Indice Final) by which each bull was ranked and their ranking determined how the bulls were listed in the program from highest to lowest. “It is all very scientific and methodical” Diane assured me.
Diana herself is very scientific and methodical, traits which have made her a good business woman and an asset to the Angus breeders association to which she belongs. When she turned her powers of observation upon me and my research I gained some insight into what Angus cattle breeders are trying to achieve. More specifically, Diana was interested in my background in philosophy even though my research on cattle and cultural values didn’t exactly qualify as philosophy, more like sociology or anthropology. I agreed with her about the nature of my research, but also argued that there was some philosophic merit to the project. After all, isn’t there a belief in an ideal Angus bull, steer, or heifer that she and other cattle breeders are trying to achieve with their Angus cattle? Something like Plato’s theory of forms in which there exists an ideal triangle that we refer to whenever we encounter an actual triangle? Diana laughed and said there is no such ideal cow they are trying to aspire to. Instead they are trying to produce ideal cuts of meat that will fit into the ideal packaging for those overseas customers who are willing to pay good money to satisfy whatever they consider to be ideal for their appetites at the moment. Export beef is the only beef Argentine ranchers make much money selling. Instead of the breeders prescribing to a belief of what an ideal cow was and the marketplace operating around that belief, the market place was dictating what an ideal cow was, and the breeders were attempting to create that product – or I mean cow.
What has the marketplace prescribed an ideal Angus cow to look like? It is for a cow that is not too big –otherwise it would take too long to finish, and not too small either. But a nice medium size, which is about what European consumers and chefs are looking for. I imagine there are other things that you can’t see by looking at a cows outward appearance, things that can only be viewed in cross section, like how tender the meat is and how it is marbled which are also important to the meat hungry marketplace. I found it amusing that when I looked at the bulls being advertised by an artificial insemination company, these bulls vaguely resembled sausages. They looked kind of oblong with short legs, like a sausage ready to walk onto a bun. In my outside opinion they looked better equip to squeeze into a vacuum sealed package than to perform the gravity defying feat of mounting the back of a cow.
But clearly a lot of work has gone into making these cows look that way. In theory raising cattle isn’t exactly rocket science. One bull, a few cows, some nice grass and water in a pasture and you will have more cows. Diana assured me it was “absolutely” not simple to breed cattle. There were so many things that must be taken into consideration, things like pedigree, ovulation, nutrition, sperm mobility and fertility, the timing has to be exactly perfect… etc. After watching a couple hundred cows being artificially inseminated the previous week, I knew that more than a basic knowledge of the birds and the bees was required to produce an export quality beef cow in Argentina these days. A lot of hard work, knowledge, and liquid nitrogen went into those perfectly proportioned cuts of meat that would be displayed like pastries in German butcher shops. As we walked through the paddocks looking at some of the best young Angus bulls that Argentina can produce and snacking on beef filled empanadas, I pondered the lengths that humans will go to satisfy their appetites.
Today we often take it for granted that meat is relatively cheap and abundant. Not everyone throughout human history has been able to afford to eat beef. In Europe only the most powerful people were the landowners who had the resources to grow or hunt their own meat. To the rest of the population meat was a desired luxury. Beef cattle are not native to North or South America, but European settlers could see that both the Argentine Pampa and the Great Plains of North America were the perfect places to raise enough beef for everyone. The campaigns against the Indians on both continents were partially driven by the desire to use those vast grasslands for beef production. The near extermination of the buffalo in North America not only deprived the Native Americans of an important way of life and food source, but it eliminated competition, clearing the way for cattle. My research was teaching me that our appetite for cattle is as much a political issue as it is a culinary one. I was about to learn that human appetites for beef continue to influence the tides of history – but more on that in my next post.
The auction finally got underway. I sat next to Alejandro and watched as each bull was brought into the ring by a team of two gauchos on horseback. As the auctioneer called out names, facts, and numbers in the universal rapid staccato of auctioneers the world over, I had a chance to work on learning how to count in Spanish into the thousands (of Argentine dollars). Alejandro’s cattle were ranked somewhere in the middle of the pack, but in my opinion they looked like very fine bulls and they were sold at a price that made Alejandro very happy. The Angus auction lasted for a little less than two hours. A crowd of people had been steadily growing throughout the day. The majority of the Angus breeders left the stands and the cattle auction continued with a variety of breeds and ages of cattle that continued to be brought through the ring. The auction was well attended, but I was told it was growing smaller every year as more people converted their cattle ranches to corn, soy, and wheat farms. It was true, on the drive East to Alejandro’s home in Venado Tureto I barely saw any cattle at all, only field after field with green spring stubble, the commodity crops sprouting between endless neatly plowed rows. The heart of the Pampa looked less like cow paradise and more like Iowa. Thanks to the hospitality and generosity of Alejandro and his wife Carolina, I was about to understand why cattle have been replaced with crops in one of the most famous beef producing areas in the whole world.