Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Buenos Dias Buenos Aires

"Are mob grazed cattle the perfect arable break crop?" This is the title of my Nuffield study and, up to now, I have focused on the 'mob grazed' aspect of things. The farmers in North America taught me huge amounts about what to do and how to do it.

Now, the new year brings a new continent and a new area of focus, it's time to look at cattle as an arable break crop.

Hence I find myself standing with Diego Fontenla in the Pampas of Argentina, surrounded by Hereford cattle, talking rotations.

Organically reared yearling heifers (this side of fence) and steers (opposite
side of fence) close to finished weight and condition in Santa Elena, Tres Arroyos

Diego is manager of a large farm in the Tres Arroyos region of Buenos Aires, some 15 miles from the sea. The land is all organic, growing a mixture of crops, predominantly sunflower and wheat but also barley and rye. Effectively, the farm operates a ten-year rotation, the first 5 years being down to pasture to build fertility followed by five years of combinable crops. All crops are planted in the spring and combined in the autumn.

Following combining, Diego plants cover crops of either rye or oats to be grazed through the winter months by yearling steers. These cover crops are ripped up in the spring to allow for drilling of the combinable wheat or sunflower.

From a farming point of view, the system appears to be working. The sandy soil benefits from the large amounts of cattle dung and organic matter from the roots of the pasture plants, improving fertility and water holding capacity. Because of the weed burden, no-till drilling isn't practiced and instead Diego uses neighbours with high capacity disc-tractor units to cultivate the fields. I questioned whether this practice loses too much valuable moisture but, as Diego explained, it's quid pro quo - what is lost through water evaporation is gained through better weed control.

Unfortunately, whilst it works as a farm , as a business it has been hit hard by government intervention. In the past, virtually all of Diego's cattle were sold as organic beef to Tesco. In 2009, though, the government banned the export of all beef and Diego lost his marketplace overnight. As demand for organic meat in Argentina is low, he has had to work really hard to continue to make the enterprise profitable.

However (and this highlights their true worth) Diego continues to farm cattle within the rotation because of their invaluable contribution to the production of the cash crops. Maybe cattle, even when one's marketplace disappears, really are the perfect arable break crop.....!

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