This weekend, we drove down to the valley to check out the new farm.
It’s about 500 acres along the river, abandoned for 50 years, but can be irrigated and put back into service. And it’s a two-day cattle drive from the ranch at Gualfin.
The idea is for the two places to work together.
The cattle will live up at the ranch, grazing in the high meadows. Then the calves…and some mother cows… will come down to the valley, where they will be fattened up for sale.
In case of drought — which seems common — the animals will be driven down to the lower farm, where they can wait it out on stocks of hay.
‘No more skinny cows,’ says Gustavo, the foreman at Gualfin.
Salt in the ground
Our guide on this visit was our neighbour, Lucas, a larger-than-life character who knows everything and everybody in the valley.
We hired him to set up the farm the way it should be.
‘Oh…you can’t plant alfalfa there,’ he said, pointing to the low-lying land near the river.
‘Too much salt in the ground. We’ll plant agropida. And over there…a bit higher…we can plant fescue. It’ll take a little more salt, too.’
‘And here, we’ll put the fence line…and over there we’ll put a stockyard. I ordered a rake and a new baler…We’re putting in a corral there…And I’m going to get you a couple of horses. You’ll need them when you are here.’
Lucas never stops talking. And he speaks with a heavy local accent… in addition to his own distinctive patois. We strained to keep up with him and his plans.
‘Of course, you’re the owner,’ he finally reassured us. ‘You can do what you want.’
By then, we had begun to doubt it.
First, because we had no idea what to do. We have some distant memory of how to grow tobacco in Maryland, but none of how to run a cattle operation in Argentina spread over thousands of acres and 3,000 feet of elevation. (Up at Gualfin, it is cold and windy. Down in the valley, there are figs and pomegranates.)
Second, because we had begun to think that Don Lucas was going to do whatever he wanted anyway.
Tide of Malbec
We rode on horses all day — peruanos — which are bit like Tennessee walkers, or so we’ve been told. They glide down the road with an even gait, unlike the criollo horses we keep at the ranch. But they were well-mannered and comfortable.
They were also essential.
Half the farm — including the house — is on the far side of the river. When the water is high, as it is now, you can’t get across in a truck. But the horses made their way through the chest-high water, with us on their backs, without too much trouble.
At Gualfin, Bill crosses the river on horseback
[Click to enlarge]
After hours out in the sun — checking the irrigation ditches, the fields, the piles of burning brush, the roads, and the fences — we retreated to Lucas’ asada house, a comfortable building near his stables used just for hosting barbecues.
The conversation was jovial, punctuated with oversized servings of goat meat and home-grown salad, and washed down in a tide of local Malbec.
But we tried to bring Lucas back to the real subject: business.
‘Let me be sure I understand. With this extra hay and corn, we should be able to add about 100 kilograms to every animal we sell.’
‘Not only that,’ he replied, rolling his head, cranking himself up like an old tractor, ‘the fertility is going to increase, too. Your cows don’t get pregnant because they’re not in good physical condition. We’ll bring them down here for a few months. Then, when we take them back, they’ll be ready to conceive again. We’ll end up with more calves. And heavier animals.’
‘Yes, that’s the idea,’ we reminded him. We are trying to reduce our annual losses on the ranch so we won’t feel guilty about eventually passing it along to the children.’
Plenty to eat
‘Let’s see…’ We were determined to do a little math. ‘We only sell about 200 animals a year now…and only about 100 kilograms each…for about $100 each.’
‘Well, of course. With the drought…what did you expect?’
‘And so, now, with more food available, we should have twice as many animals to sell…and each one should be twice as heavy. So instead of selling 200 animals — mostly calves — each year, we’ll sell 400. And instead of selling them at 100 kilograms, we’ll sell them at 200 kilograms. Right?’
Lucas rolled his big, wily head.
‘Well, it will take a few years to build up the herd.’
‘Yes, of course, I understand that. We have to keep all the young females.’
‘And your calves are a criollo mixture. They don’t gain weight readily, even when they have plenty to eat. So we’ll have to bring in some new bulls. White-faced [Braford]. It will take a few generations to get a stock that is really adapted to this climate.’
‘And I wouldn’t count on 400 animals. I’d rather say 300.’
‘That way, you won’t be disappointed. But if you want more cattle, you can buy La Banda Grande, El Churcal, or Luracatao.’
Lucas had rattled off the names of three large ranches in the area, all said to be for sale.
He had a sly smile on his face. One of them is 400,000 acres. Another is about 150,000. But no matter how big they are, it is almost impossible to make money on them. Like Gualfin, they are too high, too dry, and too remote. Only a fool would buy them, say the locals.
Lucas’ smile broadened.
‘The owners are all hoping to sell to you.’
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