One of the world’s largest and newest livestock auction marts in Argentina threw open its doors recently to a visitation of 20-plus UK farmers – some of the first international visitors to view it in full operation.

The ultra-modern facility, which is situated 60km outside Buenos Airies, replaced the long-established and world famous Liniers Market which had operated right in the heart of that huge city since 1901. The old market is now a swanky, upmarket shopping centre but retains a nod to its former life, with carved stone heads of bulls and rams around its interior – not unlike the carved heads inside UA Stirling’s market.

The Scottish Farmer: Scottish farmer Duncan MacGregor on his approach to the new marketScottish farmer Duncan MacGregor on his approach to the new market

The all-pervading smell of an operational livestock market left the city in 2022, for a new home at Canuelas where a 130ha site had been acquired by the new business, Mercado Agroganadero. The green field site allowed for a completely new design and layout with direct access to some of the country’s main arterial routes and also scope for ancillary businesses, such as machinery dealers and the like, to set up shop.

Already the Argentine's Angus Society is in the process of building an exhibition facility, including a show/sale ring and penning, plus offices.

The new market is capable of handling up to 14,000 head of cattle per day and operates three days per week, with the prices there used as the standard price-setter for other markets and the slaughterhouse trade throughout Argentina. Such has been its success, that its operators are already planning an expansion which would make it capable of turning over up to 20,000 head per day

The Scottish Farmer: An auctioneer travelling by golf buggy round the China cow sectionAn auctioneer travelling by golf buggy round the China cow section

On the day we visited, around 270 lorry loads of cattle had been delivered throughout the night and early morning, for a sale to begin at about 10.00am. All cattle were weighed on arrival and this process is all carried out by highly trained gauchos, on horseback – not just as a nod to the history of the old market, but also the fact that it is one of the safest ways to manage the high throughput of animals in the market.

Up to 250 horses can be working on any given market day, with the gauchos being mainly self-employed but aligned to specific auction houses – of which there are 46 operating within the facility.

The ritualistic ringing of the bells prior to the auction starting, plus the cacophony of noise from the large number of buyers in the covered walkway system that looks down on cattle batched in groups of up to 20-or so in each pen, sets the scene for an energetic sale day. And each auctioneer – as in the UK – sets his own style and cadence to the proceedings.

Some of the large supermarkets have several buyers at each sale and it’s clear that having one in attendance at ‘your’ sale is a bonus for any auctioneer and is a key factor in setting the price for clean cattle. Most of the trade is for finished cattle, though up to 15% of the sale is for store cattle destined for some of the feedlots in Argentina.

The Scottish Farmer: Animals are herded into the weigh crate with payment made on the final weight Animals are herded into the weigh crate with payment made on the final weight

There’s also a section of the mart allocated to cull cows, or what is locally known as the ‘China cow market’, simply because that’s where most of the meat from them ends up. This sector highlights the wide disparity available from the live auction system in Argentina, with batches of clean cattle that would be the envy of any country in the world in terms of quality and consistency sharing market space with many animals that would clearly be deemed unfit for public sale elsewhere in the world, including the UK.

On the day we were there, the ‘China cows’ were making on average about $1US (90p) per kg, while the clean cattle for sale to slaughter were making between $1.40-£1.50 (or up to £1.20) per kg. Strong stores would be at a similar rate and would likely be bought by feed lots for fast finishing, with a large proportion of those owned by supermarkets which like to control their supply chain.

Auctioneers charge a commission of 3-4% on trading, but this is negotiable, especially for those with big numbers to sell. The live mart system caters mainly for small to medium herds which we were told ranged from 50 cows up to 3000 head, with the larger units also selling direct to slaughter or straight into feed lots.

The Scottish Farmer: Buyers surround the auctioneer as batches of clean cattle go under the hammerBuyers surround the auctioneer as batches of clean cattle go under the hammer

Most of the cattle we saw were being finished off grass and those going into feed lots would also be fed a forage diet, which included maize silage or high protein alfalfa.

At the moment, Argentina is going through the turmoil of a new government and just prior to our visit, the peso had been devalued by 50%, making $1 buy 820 pesos, though the black-market trade in currency meant that it would be closer to 1000 pesos from the ever-present street traders.

On the face of it, for instance, this means that a litre of diesel had gone from the equivalent of 45p per litre, to £1 per litre almost overnight which has had obvious ramifications for the farming industry, especially its strong arable sector.

Famed for its meat consumption – Argentina has the world's second-highest consumption rate of beef, with yearly consumption at 45kg per person, though that figure is falling – its ability to export cattle has been tempered with political motivation to feed the people first, to try and reduce the cost of living for Argentineans.

That said, it is the third-largest beef exporter in the world after Brazil and Australia and as well as restricting, or even banning export sales, it has also used in recent times a taxation system of export beef to control the level of sales abroad. It has also variously used a quota system to do this.

These measures were met with fierce resistance from livestock farmers, the meat processing industry, and the export sector which argued that it tarnished the country’s reputation with export buyers who required consistency and continuity of product.

On the evidence of the fertility of the huge Pampas region the potential for further production is huge and it is probably only political decision-making that is holding back the agricultural economy of the country on a world basis.

Argentina’s farming world:

Argentina boasts one of the most significant agricultural economies globally, deeply rooted in its vast fertile lands, favourable climate, and rich agricultural traditions – for instance across the huge Pampas region the average depth of topsoil is and incredible 50cm.

With an extensive land area of approximately 270m ha, of which more than 50% is suitable for agriculture, the country’s agricultural sector plays a pivotal role in its economic landscape, contributing substantially to the nation's GDP, employment, and export earnings.

Crops range from grains, oilseeds, and fruits to livestock. Soyabeans, corn, wheat, and sunflower are among the primary crops cultivated, with soyabeans particularly prominent, making Argentina one of the world's leading soybean producers and exporters.

The country's favourable agro-climate, coupled with advanced agricultural techniques and machinery, facilitate high yields and efficient production processes.

Livestock farming also holds significant importance in Argentina's agricultural economy, with beef production very much at the forefront. It is renowned for its high-quality grass-fed beef, and the beef industry plays a crucial role in domestic consumption and export markets.

Moreover, Argentina's agricultural economy benefits from extensive investment in research and development, promoting innovation and technological advancements in farming practices. The country is home to leading agricultural research institutions and universities, fostering collaboration between academia, government, and the private sector to enhance productivity and sustainability in agriculture.

Despite its immense potential, Argentina's agricultural sector faces challenges, including fluctuations in global commodity prices, infrastructure constraints, and environmental concerns such as deforestation and soil degradation. Additionally, policy uncertainties and economic volatility have impacted the sector, leading to periodic fluctuations in production and investment.