After an overnight flight from Miami, the 2008 Beef Study Tour of South America landed in Argentina at 6 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 20, and were greeted by a beautiful summer morning in the low 80s (see the list of participants at the end of this article).

Designed to provide participants with a first-hand, in-depth look at the makeup and competitive positions of the Brazil and Argentina beef cattle industries, the group will spend five days in Argentina and five days in Brazil. During that time, we are meeting with beef producers, researchers and government officials from both countries, as well as touring cow-calf, stocker, feedlot and processing operations. Also on the agenda is touring some of South America's most stunning tourist destinations.

The early morning streets were quiet as the 34 travelers boarded their bus and cruised through Buenos Aires to their hotel in what is normally a very bustling downtown. Buenos Aires boasts a population of 12 million people, out of a total national population of 37 million. Buenos Aires residents are called "portenos," a recognition of the city's location at the mouth of the Plata river.

The Plata river, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean at Buenos Aires, is the world's widest river at 137 miles (it is only 174 miles long). Plata is a Spanish word for "silver," the precious metal that has figured so prominently in both the glories and the tragedies of this South American country.

Just as it is north of the equator, summer is vacation time for those in the Southern hemisphere. Schools are out on recess and families are enjoying their summer vacations. Thus, the city is a destination for sightseeing families enjoying this multitude of monuments to past heroes and struggles, as well as its wide, tree-lined boulevards, stunning architecture and spacious parks.

After two hours of sightseeing and time to check into the hotel and freshen up, the travelers met with Ignacio Iriarte, an Argentine beef producer and ag journalist. He told the group of the cherished role of cattle and beef in Argentine history and modern-day life. The gaucho (often called Argentine "cowboys") are revered figures, and Argentines are huge meat eaters, consuming more than 150 lbs. of beef annually.

"In Argentina, beef is both our pleasure and the center of all social meetings," Idarte said.

Argentina boasts a national beef herd of 56 million head and its Pampas (which translates into Plains) region is regarded as some of the world's best cattle country. British breeds make up about 60% of the nation's cattle genetics, with Angus dominating Herefords by a 4 to 1 margin, "but there are a lot of crosses -- black baldies," Iriarte said. Continental breeds -- Simmental and Charolais -- make up less than 10% of the national genetics.

Argentine beef producers, he says, are facing "a crisis of alternatives." The Argentine government has staked its future on agriculture. With a third of its national population already in just a single city, it knows it must stem the flow of people from the countryside seeking opportunity in the city.

Argentina was the world's largest beef exporter in the 1950s. Today, it is fourth and headed down. Beef is a staple of Argentine life, and in order to placate the public and keep beef prices low, the Argentine government limited Argentine beef exports to no more than 50,000 tons/month. The market is flooded with beef made relatively inexpensive by government price controls designed to keep the people happy at home.

At the same time, crop agriculture has become very lucrative in the Pampas, which is driving millions of acres of former grazing land into crop production. So, not only do Argentine beef producers face the challenges of climate, precipitation and weather extremes, and the usual vagaries of the marketplace, they also must deal with a government policy that has chosen against them, he said.

"It is projected that more than 1 million more hectares (2.4 million acres) of crops will be produced each year for the next few years in Argentina. And it will come at the expense of the cattle industry, which will be forced to send more cattle to be fed in feedlots," Iriarte said.

With a movement of the cattle herd from the rich lands of the Pampas to more marginal grazing areas to the west and south, ranchers are turning more to concentrated cattle feeding. Most are choosing a "hybridized" system of supplementing about 1% of body weight per day of corn during the later stages of grass finishing. He said the Argentine feeding period averages 90 days, and it ranges from 60 to 120. Still today, just 60% of Argentine cattle are finished on grass.

The competitor to watch out for, he said, is Brazil. "Brazil will be number one, and then there will be everyone else," Iriarte said. "Globally, Brazil has purchased 20 packing plants in just the past year."

Coming up next week is a report on the Liniers Market, the world's largest livestock auction market; and a visit to Cactus Argentina.

Who's traveling in South America? The travelers include: Sara Hunter of Iowa; Walter Major of Kentucky; Jim Almond, Page Anderson, Julie Burke, Jim and June Dahle, Marty Ann Earnheart, Elner and Linda Eaton, Bob and Helen Hanson, Larry Holzworth, Fred Horpestad, Tom Hougen, Alan Johnstone, Bob Sitz, Tim Skinner, Walter and Lila Taylor and Ted Williams, all of Montana; Jim Buell and Eloise McQueary of Nevada; Bill Bertram, Dennis Brown and Edwin Pearson of North Dakota; Robert and Linda Gray of Oklahoma; Alan and Ginger Withers of Oregon; and Robert and Ruth Rose of Washington. Acting as guides are Clint Peck, Montana director of Beef Quality Assurance, and Joe Roybal, editor of BEEF magazine.