Benetton’s numbers: In challenging conditions, a mega livestock, agricultural and forestry plan seeks to demonstrate that production can always be achieved.

15 Dec 2022

Taken by the extensive steppe, watercourses of various sizes and rock formations that blur the boundaries between the cordillera and the pre-cordillera, the lands whose property is awarded to the Benetton family, in the south of our country, run as far as the eye can see.

At that point on the map, where the borders between the provinces of Río Negro and Chubut intermingle, National Route 40 serves as a peephole of that property in the open sky, revealing an endless number of sheep, cattle and pine trees, many, many pine trees.

And although Benetton is commonly accused of being the “owner” of almost the entire Argentine Patagonia, the truth is that, if one wants to speak properly, it must be said that these extensive lands belong to Compañía de Tierras Sud Argentino, a company that was incorporated in 1889 with English capitals and that in the 1990s -after being in the hands of a national consortium- became part of the Italian family’s holding Edizione.

Another thing that is certain is that without relying on numbers, the totality of this mega agricultural exploitation – which is not limited to the southern region of the territory – would be immeasurable. Perhaps it is for this very reason that Ronald Mac Donald, general manager of Estancias de la Cordillera de Compañía de Tierras Sud Argentino, has them tattooed on his mind.

Of the 920,000 hectares that the company has in total in the country, distributed in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Río Negro, Chubut and Santa Cruz, for the last 31 years Ronald has covered 356,000 of them.

“This total number of hectares is distributed in four ranches, of which 80,000 are in Río Negro. The rest is in the province of Chubut. We have Estancia Leleque, El Maitén, El Montoso near Esquel, and Pilcaniyeu in Río Negro”, the administrator, originally from Tierra del Fuego, told Bichos de Campo.

This vast territory is sustained on three closely interconnected productive legs: cattle raising, agriculture and forestry. The first is perhaps one of the most recognized.

“We have an average of 80,000 sheep, which when the mothers give birth and the number of lambs in season is added, exceed 100,000 animals. They are all Merino Autraliano and Poll Merino. In the case of cattle, all from a Hereford herd, we are around 9,200 animals, including calves,” Mac Donald explained.

The company’s sheep production is mainly for the supply of wool, although they have also started to increase their extraction rate for slaughter and meat production, in view of the conditioning of this breed to the territory. As for bovine production, management contemplates breeding and rebreeding, and the sale of surplus male cattle.

“In cattle, we have a purebred registered and pedigree herd. From there we get the bulls for self-supply, in addition to others that are sent to exhibitions or are destined for sale. The rest of the herd is general rodeo, which is naturally serviced in the field. That is why we produce our own bulls”, said the Fuegian.

He then added: “In sheep we also have three categories. We have a pure pedigree stock of almost 1,500 animals, of which 750 are dams. The rest are all rams. Then we have a registered pure Merino and pure Merino, which are production animals such as Provino and Provino Avanzado. This is a task that is done jointly with INTA and the Argentine Merino Breeders Association. As for the services, the pure Merino registered and all the pedigree are synchronized and inseminated, and then they go to an overhaul. The general herd is done with natural field service with pure registered rams, which are the product of the previous process”.

These bulky numbers open the way to questions related to feeding and environmental care: How do we prevent the high animal load from causing a depletion of the system?

“The main resource we have is the extensive natural forage resource. That which is intensive is for specific things and above all to safeguard the necessary resource for the winter seasons. The resource is protected through rotational grazing management in all fields. It is an annual program of management on a box-by-box basis, where the herd is distributed according to the forage production at that moment. During the year this is studied and the load is adjusted,” said Mac Donald.

The company also carries out monitoring with satellite information that allows analyzing the rainfall and temperatures. This, in addition to the journalists who report to the agronomists and technicians who make up the official staff, allows the rotations to be ratified or rectified as necessary and indicated.

It is in fact this meticulous work that has allowed them to obtain two international certifications.

“On two farms we have an organic production certification through OIA, and then we have one from RWS in animal welfare,” the manager pointed out.

Of the area destined to intensive forage production, which reaches 700 hectares in dry land, 430 to irrigation for the subsequent production of oat, vicia and alfalfa rolls, among other pastures. It also produces some grain for the supply of chopped silage.

The third productive leg, which is forestry, was officially established in 1992. Until then, there was only a trial production for landscaping rather than environmental or commercial purposes.

“Today we have 9,400 hectares planted and growing. All the necessary work is done to have knot-free wood, and it is also used as a complement to cattle and sheep farming, to carry out silvopastoral management,” said Mac Donald.

In addition to timber production, the company is also contemplating the installation of its own nursery that will allow them to provide their own seedlings with those genetics that have been improved and selected for more than two decades.

“We already have the Merino and Hereford herd. This would be like a forestry herd of our own, which will be in operation in the next four years. We estimate that the break-even point will be 16,000 hectares implanted,” the manager explained.

-With this display of numbers, the real dimension of the production can be understood. With these years of experience, what advantages and disadvantages do you recognize in agricultural production at this level of territorial extension and with a climate that shows great fluctuations during the year?

-The advantage is the environment where the animals are raised. All this area and all Patagonia itself has a very important sanitary condition for sheep and cattle production. Everything is done in a natural environment, hence the certifications. These are products that are in great demand internationally. As for the disadvantages, the bottleneck is always the winter, because what is left over in summer is lacking in winter. Everything is always to prepare for the worst winter of all. And based on that, with the technology that can be applied to the field, it is possible to minimize those risks that always exist. The important thing is to have a balance and traceability.

-Let’s say that within your business and cost structure you always consider that something may happen in the winter.

-Yes, but we also include the costs to produce what we need to avoid problems in winter. After that, recoveries are already very slow. The important thing is to have a level of production throughout the year and over several years that is stable, sustainable and always increasing.

-In fact, you have managed to sustain a stable approach for many years. The system has been stabilized. What are the Company’s next steps?

-Stabilizing the system has taken time. You have to think that this company was a sheep and cattle producer and we added forestry, which is technically very intensive. The next step, as always, is to add value to everything we do: wool, meat, and install a forestry industry that will allow us to produce wood. We are making knot-free wood and we hope to be able to access technically and commercially the markets that require it at a national and international level.

Source: Bichos de Campo