Sunday, 1 April 2012

Conventionally Unconventional

There is a group of nine farmers in the Tres Arroyos region of Argentina who have formed a 'discussion' group where they share, 'warts and all', the physical and financial performance figures for their businesses. Diego Fontenla is one member; yesterday I was introduced to a second member, Patricia Coll and her brother Alejandro.

Patricia is a special person. She's Argentinian by birth but speaks excellent English. She's passionate about cows, which is just as well as she has 1,400 suckler cows on her five family-owned and run farms. She loves talking about her farm, which was just as well as she was stuck with me for nearly twelve hours and I'm a listener not a talker! And she is an excellent, intuitive businesswoman who clearly has her finger on the pulse of her cattle enterprise down to the last little detail.

She's a conventional farmer who does things unconventionally. For example, she too includes her cattle within the arable rotation to build fertility, control weeds and strengthen overall profitability and financial resilience of the business. This is as unusual in Argentina as it is in the UK.

Patricia talking to one of her modern day Gauchos. The group of Angus steers can be seen in the far distance. They are grazing a field of sorghum and Patricia was discussing when they should be moved onto the next block. This new block can just be seen behind the horse, fenced off with a single strand of electric fence

The rotation, as Alejandro explained to me over a two-steak lunch, is based on an eleven-year cycle. During the first three years, the land is down to pasture. For the next eight years, a rotation of wheat followed by Sunflower (or soya) is practised, with oats being planted during the winter period following wheat (and hence preceding the sunflower) for grazing with overwintered steers - effectively double cropping the land in those periods.

The key driver behind selecting this rotation was the discussion group they belong to. Prior to joining, Patricia explained that the farm didn't have any arable crops and all the land was down to grass for the cattle. Her father owned the farm and whilst he took an interest in it, he was an opthalmologist by training and profession and so didn't dedicate a lot of time to the running of the farm. Patricia returned home to work on the farm and, despite no formal training in agriculture, soon realised that, whilst not losing money, the farm was merely covering its costs - it was 'ticking over'.

She pushed, and eventually persuaded, her father to let her join the discussion group - or rather apply to join the group. With such a group, where you're laying your books and records open for all other members to see, it is important that each member trusts everyone else implicitly and that the dynamic of the group is correct. Fortunately for her (and I suspect for the rest of the group) she was accepted.

Almost immediately the group recognised that the farm had large areas of land that were suitable for cropping. Other parts could not be converted to arable and remain as pastureland. Over time, Patricia and Alejandro, in conjuction with the other members of the discussion group, developed the above 11-year rotation.

Additionally, on intermediate land which is not quite good enough for cropping but is more productive than the poor quality soils of the permanent pasture land, Patricia includes sorghum in the rotation. This is an important winter feed for the cattle and, despite being killed off by the first frosts of the winter, retains sufficient nutritive value and, more importantly, dry matter bulk to sustain the cows during the three months.

Patricia was told that one hectare of sorghum would sustain 100 cows for 1 week. When she first tried it, she got nowhere near to this level of stocking before the feed disappeared. However, after discussing it with other practitioners, she adjusted the method of feeding and now gives the cattle access to it for four hours a day only. This is sufficient for them to fill their rumen. For the remaining 20 hours they are brought off the field and kept in a corral with only water available. This ensures they eat what they need without gorging and/or trampling/dunging/wasting any plants.

As well as providing winter feed, this technique also keeps the cattle away from the grazing pastures, giving the grasses valuable time to recover. When the early spring calving starts, the pastures are refreshed and growing away nicely, providing a good source of nutrition for the cow and growing calf.

Sorghum fenced and ready for grazing by the newly weaned cows. Despite the first frosts, expected in c.10 days, killing the plants off and turning them a pale brown colour, they retain sufficient feed value to sustain the suckler cow for the winter period

Patricia is a 'conventional farmer in as far as she uses fertiliser and sprays and is not, therefore, organic. Virtually all crops are direct drilled and she recognises the value of retaining litter on the soil surface. Drought has played a big part in the farm's decision making having endured three years of little rainfall. Including pature and cattle in the rotation also increases soil organic matter and no doubt reduces the farms' susceptibility to drought - though there's little you can do when the drought is as hard and lasts as long as their recent spell did!

The business also has to endure the difficult economic climate that is Argentina. As Diego explained the previous day, and Patricia confirmed, taxes are extraordinarily high, corruption is endemic, regulations (such as meat export bans) stifle growth and a high welfare-dependent society has little inclination to work. There is little governmental help to grow the business and often policies seem designed to actually hinder growth and development.

In spite of all this, there was a lot to admire. What was really impressive was the level of detailed analysis carried out by Particia, her brother and the group. Performance figures were monitored closely. For example she knew how much weight gain she could expect from the steers on different crops at different times of the year: On oats during the winter, the cattle would be in a store period, putting on frame but gaining no weight; At turnout onto fresh grazing in the spring, they would gain up to 1.2kg/hd/day as compensatory growth and the higher plane of nutrition kicked in.

Newly weaned cows on Patricia's ranch. The average weight of the cows is much lower than in the UK, with cows being between 470kg and 517kg, the latter being considered too heavy. The reasoning was the same as I learned in America - the heavier the cow the higher the maintenance costs (ie the amount of feed she consumes) despite they both produce calves of similar value

She knew the total weight of carne production for the farm for each year and plotted such physical outputs against costs and compared them to previous years' performances to check they were making improvements.

As a result of her influence, and that of the discussion group, the farm had, despite the drought and hail and economic climate, become profitable. Patricia's unconventional approach was paying dividends.

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