Sheep And Stock-raising In Argentina

IN THE last chapter I had something to say of wheat-farming in Argentina. In this l write of sheep- and stock-raising industries, which are infinitely more important to the prosperity and wealth of the country. The Argentine Republic is rather a pasture field than a grain farm. It has, indeed, the largest pastures of any in the world, vast pampas which extend on and on all about you as far as your eye can reach. Not one per cent of the country is agricultural; the soil in many parts is thin and poor, and the rainfall is scanty. Grass of some kind, however, grows almost everywhere, and more than one-half of the country is adapted to sheep-raising. The extent of the pasturage increases every year, while the character of the grasses improves with use; the old coarse grass disappears, and a more tender and nutritious vegetation springs up in its place.

How many sheep the pampas will support is hardly known: the business, as yet, is still in its infancy, although the aggregate number is close upon 100, 000, 000, or so many that, if they were equally divided, each family of Argentina would have a flock of more than 100 sheep. These sheep are scattered over the vast farms of the pampas, generally according to the wealth of the proprietor, but more with regard to the character of the soil. In some parts of Buenos Aires province the pasture is so good that an acre will support two or three head, while farther south four acres is often needed for a single sheep. The average of Buenos Aires province, which is perhaps the best of all the sheep farming country, is 592 sheep to the square mile.

Sheep-farming here is conducted on a grand scale. There are few small flocks, most of the sheep-owners having from 20,000 to 100,000 sheep, and several men have as many as 1,000,000. On all the large holdings the business is managed in a practical way: each farm has its overseer and accountant, and great care is taken as to the breeds and also as to marketing the wool. The sheep are watched by shepherds on horseback, each having the care of one or two thousand sheep. It is the shepherd’s duty to prevent his sheep from mixing with other flocks and to see that they are free from disease. No feeding with hay or grain is needed, for the climate is such that the sheep have fresh grass from one year’s end to the other. They wander off in the morning, grazing in the direction whence the wind blows, and return at night to sleep about the hut of the shepherd.

The Argentine shepherds receive from $16 to $20 per month, which is deemed good pay south of the equator, but none too much when one considers the dreary life which watching the sheep entails. The shepherd’s home is a mud hut away out on the prairie; his chief food is mutton, his employer allowing him to kill enough from the flock to supply himself with meat. He has plenty of land for a garden, but is usually too lazy to break up the soil and plant the seed.

Raising sheep for mutton is a new industry in this part of the world. In the past the profits came from the wool, skins, and tallow, and to-day sheep and cattle are sometimes killed for their skins and tallow, the meat being thrown away. About a generation ago one of the troubles of the sheep-farmer was the too rapid increase of his flock. They soon surpassed the capacity of his pastures, and instances frequently occurred of thousands of the older sheep being driven over the rocks into the sea. At times sheep were used for fuel; long ago, in the days of Spanish rule, an edict was published making it a crime to drive living sheep into the fires of the brick-kilns. At present it is estimated that the Argentine Republic raises one and. one-half billion pounds more meat every year than she can consume, or enough waste meat to give every man, woman, and child in the world a full pound and have a hundred million pounds to spare.

It is this surplus that has caused the establishment of the beef-extract factories, which are so profitable in Uruguay, and also of the frozen-meat works of Argentina, in which beef and mutton are so treated that they will keep until they can cross the ocean and there be thawed out and sold in the meat-shops of Europe.

How would you like to eat a mutton chop two months old ? Yet that is what they are doing in Europe. Hundreds of tons of frozen mutton is monthly shipped from Argentina to London. It is frozen so stiff that it will keep a year, and at the end of that time, when thawed out, taste as fresh as though cut from sheep at the time of killing.

The Argentines have invested millions of dollars in such freezing factories. In one year their sales of frozen mutton amounted to about $2,000,000, and at present they are shipping about 200,000 frozen carcasses per month. They have one frozen-meat factory near Buenos Aires which has cost $4,000,000; it is said to be the largest of its kind in the world, and it is now killing and freezing about 3,000 sheep per day. The factory is known as the Sansinena meat-freezing establishment. Through letters from its owners I was able to visit it. It is situated at the south end of the city, near the wharves, so that the meat can be taken almost directly from its cold chambers to the steamers. It has vast cattle yards and extensive sheep pens. Its slaughter house covers more than an acre; it is of but one story, having a stone floor and a roof of corrugated iron. The floor, when I entered, was covered with flowing blood. A thousand live sheep were in the killing pens, and hundreds which had been skinned and cleaned were hanging from the rafters that they might cool before being put away in the freezing room.

I stopped a moment and took note of the killing. It is so quickly done that in four minutes by my watch a sheep passed from active bleating life to the condition of a carcass, so skinned and cleaned that it was ready for the meat shop, had it not been that it must first be frozen and then sent over 7,000 mils of water to market.

If sheep can understand and feel for their fellows, the killing must seem to them frightfully cruel. Scores of them await their turn, looking on while their brothers and sisters are butchered. In each pen there were at least fifty sheep: along the front, on a bench about as high as one’s knee, lay rows of dying sheep, each with two great round holes in its white throat, out of which the red blood ran down into the stream of water which flowed through a little canal below. Some of the sheep were kicking; others groaned feebly, but I could see that their deaths came al-most instantly. The killing is done with a long, sharp, double-edged knife. Two men catch a sheep in a pen and throw it upon the bench; they turn it upon its back and hold it while the butcher outside seizes it by the chin, bends its head down, and with one thrust drives the steel through its throat, cutting the jugular vein. He then goes on to the next animal, which is lying there ready for him, killing sheep after sheep at the rate of one or more a minute.

The freezing is done in great chambers, each of which will hold 60,000 carcasses at once. The chambers have walls of wood and sawdust a foot thick; their ceilings are covered with cols of pipe, through which flow ammonia and brine so arranged chemically that they reduce the air of the room to 30° below zero. It takes three steam engines to keep the pipes filled, and these work on day and night. The coils, when I saw them, were covered with frost an inch thick, and the chamber was intensely cold. In it, hanging down from hooks with their headless necks toward the floor, were about a thousand carcasses of freezing mutton.

They were almost ready for shipment, and when the chief engineer, who acted as my guide, took down one to show it, I found that it would stand alone and that its flesh was as hard as stone. Within forty-eight hours after being put in the freezing room, the carcasses are perfectly hard. After they are frozen, they are sewed up in fine white muslin cloths and laid away in cold storage to await the next steamer. The average carcass weighs, when shipped, from 30 to 70 pounds, according as it is a lamb or a sheep. The sheep cost about $2 a piece, as only the best animals are used for this purpose. Sheep, as they run in the flock, can be bought, I am told, for from 50 to 75 cents each. The freight to London is one or two cents a pound, and the mutton there sells for ten cents and upwards per pound. Every-thing possible is being done to reduce the cost of production. Much of the work is done by machinery, and the wages paid are lower than those of similar. workmen in the United States. The average for slaughterers, skinners, and general workmen is less than $1.10 a day, and the foremen each receive less than $2 per day.

Leaving the frozen-meat factory, I drove to the ” Mercado Central des Frutos,” the great produce market of Buenos Aires, where wool, hides, and grain are sold in wholesale lots. It is the largest market of the kind in the world under one roof. It covers many acres, and millions of pounds of wool are handled in it every year. It is a brick building of three stories, lying near the docks on the Ricachuelo river, in “barracas.” Barracas means warehouses, and Barracas is that part of Buenos Aires where the export business of the Argentine is done. The wool and hides are taken from the Mercado Central to the warehouses and there prepared for shipment.

At shearing time wool is sent here in train and shiploads. Usually there are not enough cars to haul the crop, and the vast market house is so full that one can hardly get through it. Its three floors are then packed with stacks of dirty greasy wool. Carts and waggons loaded with wool obstruct all other traffic; boats of wool crowd one another in the river, many of them being unloaded with steam cranes; and the cars are run right into the market itself and there discharged. Each man’s wool is put in a pile by itself. It is taken out of the bales and piled loosely in a stack, so that the buyers can easily examine it. In going among these piles you ‘have to be careful to keep your clothes from touching them, for the wool is unwashed. It is so filled with grease that when I thrust my hand into a pile of it, it came out shining as though I had dipped it in vaseline. The shippers tell me that the wool crosses the ocean better in its unwashed state, and that it thus brings a greater profit. Wool loses from fifty to seventy per cent of its weight in washing, and the Argentine farmers prefer to sell it at the lower rate and allow the European buyers to clean it.

The wool exports of Argentina are yearly increasing in volume; in 1860 the clip amounted to only 45,000,000 pounds. In 1891 it reached 310, 000, 000 pounds, and in 1897 472, 000, 000 pounds, or more than 100 pounds for each man, woman, and child in the Republic. The product per sheep is also steadily growing, and the average fleece-yield today is one-third again as large as it was in 186o.

Argentina not only surpasses the United States in its number of sheep, but it promises soon to surpass us in the quality of its wool and mutton. At present our average fleece per sheep is higher; but the Argentines are steadily improving their breeds by crossing them with the best rams that can be imported. Every day or so there is an auction sale of imported rams in Buenos Aires, at which fine animals bring phenomenally large prices; not long ago a California merino sold for $2,000 in gold. I have visited some of the auctions and was surprised at the quality of the animals; they are superior to anything I have ever seen in the United States, most of them coming from well-known stock-breeders in England. I am told that shipments of so-called fine stock from the United States to the Argentine have usually resulted in loss to our shippers, as the stock was not up to the grade demanded by the Argentine buyers.

The wool of the Argentine is improving. For a long time there was only coarse wool, but now all kinds of fine wool are produced, and the Argentine merinos rank as high as any in the market. The merinos are, however, comparatively few here. The chief breeds are the Leicesters, Romney Marsh, Black-Faced Downs, Oxfords, and Cheviots. There is a cross of the Leicesters and the Merino which gives such excellent wool that at the Paris Exposition of 1889 Argentina stood first as a wool exhibitor, receiving one hundred and two prizes, of which twenty-three were gold medals.

Argentina is growing not only as a frozen meat and wool ex-porter, but also as a shipper of live stock. At the Buenos Aires docks there are large cattle and sheep yards, filled with animals awaiting shipment to Europe. I saw a large number of ships loading cattle and sheep there during a recent visit. The cattle are put into open pens, made of American pine, rudely put together on the deck of the steamer. Each animal has just enough space in which to lie down, and is so tied that its head is turned away from the water. The voyage is over such warm seas that no boarding in is done, and the cattle are practically all the voyage over out-of-doors. Above the stalls, roofing them as it were, are open pens, in which sheep are carried; these pens have no roofs whatever, while the sheep are packed in so closely that there is scarcely room for them to move about. From 1,500 to 2,000 sheep and from 200 to 500 cattle are taken on a single steamer, the result of the overcrowding often being a considerable loss. One of the ships I saw leaving for London had 300 steers and 1,500 sheep, and another was loading a cargo of 500 steers and 1,700 wethers. At present more than 50,000 live sheep and 10, 000 live cattle are exported monthly to Europe.

The Argentines are now raising cattle for milk and improving the common stock by importations of fine animals. They have several bulls, each of which cost over $5,000 in gold. and during the past year as many as 1, 600 fine bulls have been imported. I have never seen better animals than those offered for sale at the Buenos Aires auctions, and the cattle on the farms are of a high average. No steer is accepted for export which weighs less than 1,320 pounds, and many of those shipped weigh 1, 600 pounds. The average price per beast paid by the shipper is about $20 in gold.

The wild cattle of the Argentine pampas of which you have read in your geographies have long since disappeared, and questions about them create considerable laughter. A few months ago a resident of Buenos Aires received a letter from a professor in one of our leading American colleges stating that he ” expected to take a hunting trip to the Argentine and would like to know if he could shoot the wild cattle near Buenos Aires without a license.» The man evidently had not learned that every beast in Argentina has an owner, and that all stock here is as carefully watched and tended as is our stock at home.