Here’s my final Nuffield report. Just need to do the presentation in November and I’m free.
This is roughly speaking where I’ve travelled. It’s a little abbreviated in Brazil since that got too complicated to map easily. My time in South America is almost up, but there are a few more things to say, and random pictures to insert.
I met a guy from Embrapa yesterday who is running a program near Brasilia where they are comparing conventional and Organic dairy grazing systems. It’s only been going for three years, and I haven’t seen the data (he will email it to me apparently), but they are finding hugely more efficient fertiliser use under Organic management. At the start of the trial both treatments were given the same amount of NPK fertilisers. In the conventional system these came from urea, triple super phosphate and potassium chloride. The Organic sources were animal manures and soft rock phosphate.
In each of the three years there has been a 20-30% yield penalty (measured by tonnes of dry matter produced per hectare) with the Organic management. However, the critical point is that every year the conventional fertiliser must be reapplied in the same amounts, whereas the Organic field is maintaining its yields with only what was put on at the beginning of the trial. How long will that go on for? Who knows, but already after three years it’s a very interesting result. Whether it could be more profitable to grow crops like this, even without an Organic premium, I couldn’t say; it’s going to depend a lot on the value of the land you’re farming. But it does make you wonder how much of the artificial fertiliser we apply is just being wasted.
At a previous Embrapa meeting I was given some scientific papers to take home, and have only just had a chance to read them. One is particularly worthwhile, it’s called “Integrated crop-livestock system in Brazil: Toward a sustainable production system”. The data comes from a 16 year experiment comparing these treatments,
- CS – Conventional System using disc cultivation, growing soybeans with a winter cover crop
- NTS – No-Till System, growing a soya and maize rotation with winter cover crops
- ICLS – Integrated Crop-Livestock System growing two years of soya & cover crop and two years of pasture
- PP – Permanent Pasture
Here are some of the results that I think are notable. I’ve tried to keep it slightly readable.
- “the ICLS system treatment yielded soybean production that was greater than or equal to that of CS and NTS. This higher efficiency of ICLS system may be related to availability of P in organic form” – this tallies with the experimental results found by Embrapa Cerrados
- “Systems with livestock grazing had significantly greater MWD [this is a measure of how stable the physical soil structure is] compared to other systems (ICLS: 4.12mm, PP: 4.93mm, CS: 2.19mm, NTS: 3.18mm) … Ultimately, soils with greater aggregation characteristics are considered of better quality than similar soils with weaker aggregation, mainly because TOC [Total Organic Carbon] becomes physically protected in stable aggregates.” – see the famous Slake Test
- “Concentration of TOC, TOC storage, and POC stock were increased under grazing by livestock at the following order: CS<NTS<ICLS<PP … The labile fraction of organic matter was also greater in ICLS and PP, than in NTS indicating greater energy flux in the soil system. Greater SOM lability was attributed to the presence of the forage, which adds a greater amount of organic matter to the soil than cropping alone. Moreover, there is a continuous exudation of substances from grass roots to the soil during growth which is stimulated during grazing.” – Not very surprising. But it must be noted that of all the systems, it was the NTS which actually lost the most carbon overall. CS was stable, and the other two increased.
- Total microbial activity was greater in the order you would expect, PP>ICLS>NTS>CS – I’m paraphrasing here a bit.
- “Density and taxonomic richness of the invertebrate macrofauna [i.e. worms, beetles etc] community in soil differed among management systems. Lowest values were observed in CS, while ICLS was equivalent to that of NTS and PP and greater than that of CS … Soil macroinvertebrates perform numerous essential functions, including decomposition, nutrient cycling, SOM mineralisation, soil-structure modification, atmospheric-composition regulation, and biological control of pests and diseases.” – I think it’s fairly obvious by this point what direction this paper is heading in…
- Hold on, this is a long one: “Weed community analysis showed that areas without pasture and grazing generally accumulated more weed mass than areas that were periodically or continuously grazed. The area of soil covered by weeds was 87% greater in CS compared to the average of the other treatments. Generally, areas that were continuously or periodically grazed by livestock had fewer weeds than areas where only grain crops were grown. Livestock grazing also affected seed germination: weed seedlings from treatments that included grazing took longer to germinate and emerge from from the soil surface. Regardless of the presence or absence of tillage, crop-only systems exhibited larger areas of soil covered by weeds.” – Phew. I’ve never actually seen this information in a scientific context, and the figure they come up with (87%) is huge. Very interesting.
- “Occurence of Rotylenchulus reniformis [a parasitic nematode pest] differed significantly among management systems, with a much larger population in CS [1500x more than the next highest]”
- “In years with ample rainfall, soybean production was equal in the three grain-production systems. In years with poor rainfall distribution, with water deficits, ICLS and NTS exhibited smaller productivity losses compared to CS. In 2010/11, for example, CS yielded only 60% of crop production in other systems.” – No big shock here, there’s a reason all the really dry places in the world have gone to no-till. Although it’s amazing they get droughts here when it rains perhaps 1500mm in the growing season. In the tropical heat it doesn’t take long for it all to evaporate.
I’ve found this to be a useful paper, and to me it suggests that the oft-heard fear that having animals in a system is a drain on nutrients/soil fertility is not just unfounded, but actively wrong. Now who wants to lay some water pipe?
It’s certainly been an interesting trip, but I think I’ve run out of steam. The problem is that I’ve seen enough of the details – just look at how different the first blog posts from NZ are – and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find novel concepts. Particularly here in South America, the diversity in farming methodologies seems very limited, and largely defined by what area/climate you happen to be in. There could be two explanations for this: lack of imagination, or perhaps the farmers are more switched on to the research, and unlike back at home, they are all doing the “right” things already. It’s difficult (impossible) to tell, but I haven’t found the Gabe Brown/Coin Seis sort of guy who is trying something totally different… Well I do actually know one, the problem was that he refused to let me visit! The others are probably hiding somewhere not telling anyone about it. That’s a job for a future traveller.
It’s been great fun, but this may be the last Nuffield post. Ciao.
Last day in Rosario, and here’s a tip if you ever visit. Don’t go to a sushi restaurant.
Again I was hosted by AAPRESID, and it occurs to me I haven’t actually mentioned them before now. AAPRESID is the Argentinian farmers no-till association, and it’s based in Rosario. They organise farmer groups, like CREA, but also run trials, and once a year organise a huge conference. And let’s not forget all the foreigners they kindly show around the country too.
Today’s visit was to a lady farmer who is using cattle to improve her soils. More specifically, there are some low-lying areas which have suffered from water erosion in the past, and she makes more money there with the animals than with crops. In fact, the beef price is so good here compared to grain that the animals are the most profitable side of the business. Given that the pastures are improving the soils, the brave move would be to put some of the crop fields down to grass for a few years. But that’s easy for me to say from here…
The pastures hon this farm are far more complex than others I’ve seen in the country. Depending on the specific conditions in each field they use tall fescue, brome, lucerne/alfalfa, white clover, red clover and trefoil. The farm’s agronomist, Daniel Canova, is a big advocate for having as many different root types in a rotation as possible; he is sure that this helps to prevent compaction and keep the soils productive. These fields tick that box.
One of the problems in the GMO using world is the spread of glyphosate resistant weeds. AAPRESID have a team working on this, and they anticipate the number of resistant species will increase quickly in the coming years. We don’t use GMOs in the EU at the moment, but I’m sure that will change in the medium term. When the day comes, it’s of critical importance that we learn the lessons from all of these countries (north & south America, Australia etc) to keep our chemicals working. The temptation will be strong to be lazy: “it won’t happen to me”.
The biggest problems come from using the same crop every year, and then using multiple doses of the same chemical. Here that plant is soya, in the US it’s also maize. So step one is to keep on rotating crops, both for their differing natural weed suppression, but also because it will allow the use of different types of chemicals each year. But what if you have a field, like the pastures here, with have so many different plant types that chemical control is not possible?
These pastures are normally kept for four years, by which time they are getting a bit tired (I can’t help but feel some more involved grazing management would help here). At this point field is sprayed off with glyphosate. If there are enough resistant weeds left over, they will then drill oats. The reason for this is simple – their roots have strong allelopathic effects. This means that they exude chemicals which stop other plants from growing. [We currently have a field of oats at home which will hopefully reduce the amount of black grass in the following barley crop.]
Once the oats have grown enough, they are grazed, and then forage sorghum is planted on top of them. Again this will be grazed, but not when the plants are small as it can cause nitrate poisoning which is undesirable in cattle (their mouths turn blue and they die). There might be time for a couple of grazings before the new pasture is sown, but by now the weed burden should be reduced significantly. I think one of the reasons this works so well here is that all the weed seeds are left on the surface because of no-till, and in this climate they will be decomposed very quickly – even after maize the residue is totally gone within six months.
So there we have it, some ideas for farming in Europe in the ’20s. I’ll end with this photo of a typical Argentine motorcycle rider, taken on the motorway outside Buenos Aires.
Carmen is a huge farm – 10,000ha in an area where the average is 200. Not only that, but it is the biggest dairy in Argentina, with over 6,000 cows producing 100,000l of milk every day. It’s a massive operation, and is owned by one of the country’s agricultural behemoths, Adecoagro.
Eddie Nolan is the arable manager, and luckily for me he speaks great English because that’s the only way he could ask his Irish grandmother for sweets. Like everyone else in this country (continent?) they grow a lot of Soya, both on its own and as part of a double crop with wheat. The third part of the rotation is maize, which is either grown for grain, or for silage that is fed to the dairy cows.
As well as normal grain maize, they also grow hybrid seed for Syngenta (more profitable) and popcorn for cinemas et al (more delicious). Most of the maize is GM, and does not need to be sprayed with insecticides. Contrast this with the three sprays that the non-GMO varieties get: “I know which one I would rather eat” says Eddie.
Eddie is mindful of his soils, and so after taking maize silage he tries to grow a cover crop. They have been doing this for about 12 years, which makes them incredibly early adopters in Argentina. The cover crop is usually wheat, but they are just starting to play around with adding vetch as well. I asked why he didn’t grow Avena Strigosa/Black Oats/Bristle Oats/whatever else you want to call them. The answer was that they are so good that the dairy boys sneak in and cut it for silage, so there is no organic matter returned to the soil, which somewhat defeats the purpose.
The soil here is pretty sandy, but it is a very fine textured sand. Like at La Florida, there are high and low areas, called Loma & Bajo. Now I don’t speak Spanish, but I’m going to take a guess that these mean high & low… The soils are very deep; I couldn’t get an exact answer, but it is apparently much deeper than the roots will go. Eddie confirmed what I had heard a few days ago, that maize will root to 2m and wheat/soya to 1m.
Water is a big deal here, and the dairies use 1,000,000 litres (yes, million) per day in total. Almost all of this finds its way into a lagoon, where is waits until it can be used to irrigate the maize being grown for seed. Each pivot irrigator covers 150ha, and can put out about 10,000,000 litres of water in a day, which is 7mm over the entire area. Like I said, it’s a big operation.
It was speckling rain as I left Rosario, heading towards a darkening sky.
Pretty soon “what pretty lightning” turned in to “this is quite heavy rain”
Not long afterwards we got to “Holy crap, where did the road go?”
You can’t quite see it in this video, but there was a car stuck in the junction to the left – it had flooded. Some of the junctions had river over a foot deep running through them. Downtown Parana would be a great theme park if you had an inner tube.
By lunch there had been 109mm, and outside visits were pretty well out of the question. But I did spend a few minutes in a maize field. One of the benefits of no-till is supposed to be better water infiltration, and on the 40% clay vertisol soils they have here, walking in the fields immediately after the rain was no problem. A good demonstration.
The flight didn’t turn out so badly; I was asleep before the drinks came round, and woke up 8 hours later. After watching the excellent film Boyhood, which I couldn’t figure out how they made, we landed and got in line at immigration. A few hours later, and with some black market Pesos in my pocket, I headed south towards Trenque Lauqen. It was coming up for lunch, so I kept my eyes peeled.
A quick u-turn was needed as I saw a place with loads of cars parked outside, and my Spanish dictionary confirmed “Parrilla” means “Grill”. The guy at the table next to me had a good looking rib of beef, so I pointed at it. “Asado?” “Si”. Three minutes later a piece of meat easily big enough to flip Fred Flinstone’s car turned up. It was a generous two person portion, or a stingy eight peoples’ worth. I didn’t manage to finish it.
The next day I met up with Eduardo Herrmann, who runs a company which has three farms. One of them is near the small town of Casbas, it’s called La Florida.
Eduardo started the day by giving us a short presentation on the farm. I say us because there were also teachers present from the local agricultural high school, and some of the farm employees too. Straight away he said that the most important technology on the farm is CREA. CREA is a nationwide organisation that gets small groups of 10-12 local farmers together to share ideas and problems with each other, aiming to make everyones’ farm better. It’s a spirit of cooperation that is unfortunately rare in the UK.
The farm is run with a long-term mindset, so the soil quality is considered carefully. They grow four main crops: soya, sunflower, maize & wheat (occasionally barley). Between sunflower and wheat they will sometimes use a cover crop of triticale or forage rye. The cover crop is grazed if it’s on the better soils, and left to be incorporated on the worst ones.
There are three main types of soil here. In ascending order of quality, Loma, Media Loma & Bajo. All of them are predominantly sandy, going from 82% in the Loma to 70% in the Bajo. SOM levels increase as the sand content goes down, but even on the best land they are rarely above 2%. Needless to say, the farm has been no-till for 18 years, but apart from a small layer at the top, it is very difficult to add OM to the soil: as Eduardo says “the sand eats organic matter”.
There was a good demonstration today of the perils that can await when comparing different areas of a field. These two soya plants (see below) were taken from opposite sides of a small road. One is Loma soil, the other Media Loma. In just a couple of meters the soil has changed so much that the plants it raises are at opposite ends of the spectrum. The moral of the story is, if you want to compare the soil from two different management practices, take them from as close together as possible.
On the very worst soils they plant a species imported from Africa, called Weeping Lovegrass, which provides some cattle grazing, and also stops wind erosion. It is unique in my experience, as it seems to have been successful at what it was meant to do, and hasn’t gone out of control. If only all the other introduced species were the same.
One of the techniques which came out of CREA was to measure the water table. There are 13 different sites around the farm which have 3m deep plastic pipes sunk into the ground. Every month the levels are measured with a dipstick and recorded.
This information is used to decide before planting crops what sort of potential they have. If the water levels are high, Eduardo knows that they will not need a lot of rain, so he feels confident in using more expensive varieties and putting down more fertiliser. Something I found very interesting was that this data allows them to see how deep the plants can send their roots, as they can check the water table height when signs of drought start to appear. Maize and sunflower will root to 2-2.5m, but wheat and soya will only go to 1-1.5m. That is pretty important, and has potential implications for nutrient scavenging too – I had been wondering how deep wheat roots go.
15% of the farm’s maize, and some of its soya, goes to their on-site feedlot. According to Eduardo most of the beef in Argentina is now finished on grain. What about the grass-fed reputation? “It’s history”. One of the peculiarities of the beef market here (where the average person eats 70kg per year) is that they really like their carcasses to be as small as possible. In the government’s opinion this got out of hand as smaller and smaller animals were being slaughtered, and so it is now illegal to kill a heifer or steer which weighs less than 300kg. That really means the race is on to get to this weight as soon as possible, and the animals here are finished for 90 days on a maize & soya diet and killed before the age of two. I couldn’t believe they do not feed any fibre to the cattle; apparently this causes them to get liver problems, but by the time it manifests they are hanging from a hook anyway.
I started off talking about food, and that meal was good. But this one was even better, and what a location. The seven hour drive to Rosario after lunch was less enjoyable.