Liniers Cattle Market, Buenos Aires, Argentina

27th Jan 2009


Before heading to Buenos Aires , I'd heard mostly about the steak.  Friends who'd gone had talked fondly of beautiful architecture and vibrant street life.  But their eyes really lit up when they started raving about the beef.   Supposedly, it was some of the best in the world, deep and rich and pronouncd in beefiness. The quality of Argentinian beef is especially significant because the majority of it is grass fed.

In the U.S. grass-fed beef is a specialty item that you might have to ask a butcher to special order; it's associated with buying organic produce and reading Michael Pollan and a movement in search of older natural food production methods.  This is because there is so much cheap corn in the U.S. due to government subsidies that there's no cheaper way to raise livestock than to feed it corn on a feedlot.

In Argentina, raising grass-fed beef is done simply because there it is cheaper.  With abundant land, it is more economical to send the cows out to pasture and slaughter them once they're large enough.  And that's the way it's always been done.  It's just the opposite to the U.S., where grass-fed beef is usually more expensive--the beef finished on grain sold at Liniers commands a 10% higher price, because some people like the flavor.


This speaks to the fact that Argentina is a farming country, not an industrial one.  The wealthiest in Argentina are land-owners, and land is the greatest source of wealth.  While common U.S. crops like soy and corn are grown abundantly, no doubt bound for processed foods, in Argentina there is a huge diversity of crops from citrus to olives to potatoes, due partly to the vast latitude coverage of its geography, over 1 million square miles from the balmy subtropical northern regions bordering Bolivia and Paraguay down to the tip of Antarctica where Magellan sailed around the Americas.  Still, about half of the country is used for livestock, supplying vast demand within Argentina, especially for beef.  The country raises over five and a half million tons of meat every year.  That's 11 billion pounds !

I wanted to know where it all came from .  I wanted to know why it tasted so good .  So one morning I woke up at an ungodly hour (considering that I was supposed to be on vacation) to visit the Liniers Cattle Market, which is located just outside the city center of Buenos Aires.  Accompanied by a tour guide (who helped translate) and my camera, I entered the largest cattle market in the world.


Liniers is in Buenos Aires because the area of the country is central to the cattle-raising provinces.  Yet amazingly, the cattle coming through Liniers (between 10,000 and 15,000 head 4 days a week) is only about 15% of the country's output.  Most of it is destined for consumption domestically.  EU regulations, for example, disallow cattle that have been sold through livestock markets like this one, so none of these cows could end up exported there.  The rest of the country's meat might go through a local processing center, where it is checked and approved, possibly destined for export.

When I arrived early in the morning with my lovely tour guide Maria, we had a cafe con leche while waiting for an official representative of the market.  I remarked about seeing the context of the market, which was decidely urban--leaving the center of Buenos Aires felt like traveling to the outer boroughs of New York, where things turn low-rise and residential but retains the gritty density of a city.  But at just 34 hectares, or a little over 84 acres, it's not a huge place.  I wondered how 15,000 cattle could possible fit.


Maria filled me in on what she already knew about Liniers--which would later be completed by the official representative--about what goes on at the largest cattle market in the world.  While we were sitting there, auctions for lots of Argentinian cattle were already underway.  The night before the cattle had arrived by truck from a radius of 600 kilometers around Buenos Aires.  When they arrive, each lot of cattle -- up to 15 or so cows -- is weighed and inspected thoroughly to strict health standards.  They will not leave the confines of Liniers Cattle Market until they have been sold; in the rare case of a lot remaining unsold that day, it will simply be up for auction the next.  In the meantime, they ingest only water.  No feeding is allowed.  So the more quickly they are sold, the better.

To enter the market, a cow must be at least 2 years old and weigh no less than 260 kilos.  The price per kilo at the market is astonishingly low--between 1 and 3 pesos, which is between 30 and 90 U.S. cents.  So we're talking about live weight of 13 cents per pound!

The picture changes a bit when you think about how much a cow's "hanging weight" is after slaughter.  It's less than half the live weight, at least.  And the picture changes even further when I discovered that the auction participants currently making signals at the auction announcer were not bidding cow-by-cow -- they were buying a whole lot of cows.  So 15 cows later, slaughter, butchery, hanging, etc., and it was a different ballgame.  Nonetheless, this is a very different price scale than in the U.S.

Around 8:45am, our market representative arrived, introduced herself, and kissed me on the cheek in the Argentine way of greeting.  We walked on a dusty path to a metal stairway, which led to a long platform connected to other stairways and platforms.  I quickly realized that a whole system of walkways had been built over the market, allowing anyone to hover over the cattle and never set foot on the ground.


I was struck immediately by how clean everything was, considering the circumstances.  Each pen was a tight fit for its cattle, which were separated by wooden fencing and held until their auction time arrived.  First we passed a TV reporter and cameraman, who was there to report on the day's prices.


This reporting is done every single day, as the public wants to know what beef is going for.  The prices at Liniers are a major influence on prices across Argentina.


The majority of the cattle are either Angus or Hereford, the black/red (above) and brown/white cows, respectively.  I believe they originally both hail from the UK.  Only cows raised for meat are sold at Liniers -- no dairy cows enter unless they are done providing milk and are now sold cut-rate, destined for cheap pates.


Here is an auction taking place.  The man in the center, who is running the auction, is known as the consignatario .  He is a bit like an agent for the cows or the farm that's selling them.  As he goes down the line (each company owns a series of pens, so all are auctioned at once, one by one down the line) he tells the buyers all the wonderful qualities that these cows possess, trying to get the prices higher or pique interest.  Each sale is immediately recorded electronically; a fiber-optic system of cables transmits it to a data center where it's available online.  Bidders are participating based on the weight of the cattle when they entered the market, but they will be weighed again before leaving to determine the final, exact price.

The buyers are generally grocery stores, meat markets or butchers, though occasionally a restaurant will buy using someone called an actioneer, a middleman who does the heavy lifting and takes a cut.  Generally, the public buys its beef from grocery stores rather than stand-alone butcher shops, since the quality of meat is just as good.


Once the lots are sold, men on horses -- gauchos, or cowboys if you will -- lead the cattle away to be organized, weighed again, and trucked out of the market to a slaughterhouse.  These guys are real badasses -- always with a cigarette hanging out of their mouth, yelling at the cows and waving things around to get them to move where they need to move.


I watched more than a couple scenes where one or two cows needed to be separated from the rest of a group, and that is no easy process.


The gauchos can use verbal tactics and wave things around, they they are not allowed to physically hit the cows.  It's quite a song and dance.


As we headed out of the market, I was struck mostly by the openness of the place.  Nobody hesitated when I asked if I could bring in a camera and snap away.  Can you imagine this happening in the U.S.?  But it's for good reason: the cows I saw were healthy, their coats shining.  The place was relatively spotless.  No doubt, this is an industrial operation, with huge numbers of cows in a tiny space--this is not a perfect, stress-free situation.  Everyone I spoke to was friendly and helpful, if quietly curious about what weird interest had led me there.  But I love seeing places like this, the same reason I was drawn to visit the Fulton Street Fish Market in New York. It's illuminating to see where food comes from and how it got there.



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