Agriculture: Argentine style with a twist

Taylor Olson
SDSU student, Trimont, Minnesota
SDSU student group learning about soybean production in Argentina. Courtesy photo

As we were driving through the flatlands of central Argentina, looking at all of the cropland, it was hard to believe 15 years ago it was native prairie grassland. Argentine farmers used to be heavily focused on grazing cattle on open range pasture before crops like corn, soybeans, sunflowers and wheat became more common and profitable. Once this happened, farmers started tilling up their pasture ground and turning it into productive cropland. Cattle then got placed in feedlots and farmers used grains produced as feed to get cattle to market weight. Our student group got a first-hand look at current agriculture in Argentina, and found it was a lot different than we expected.

Trip begins

After our 10-hour plane ride, we traveled by bus into the heart of Argentine agriculture. Our first stop was La Candeleria. This operation included the largest feedlot in the country with a maximum capacity of 50,000 head and 75,000 acres of cropland. Cattle breeds included both crosses and purebreds of Angus, Herefords and about five percent of the feedlot had Brahman influence. Calves enter the feedlot around 350 pounds, and are sold when they are 900-1,000 pounds, so, the market weight in Argentina is much smaller than in the U.S. At La Candeleria, their average yield for corn was 145 bushels per acre and average soybean yield was 60 bushels per acre.

The next day, our guide and translator Alejandro Casella took us to see one of Raul Fossati’s farms, La Maria. Mr. Fossati is president of Bilkura S.A., a large company that owns and manages 13 different farms throughout the La Pampa state and surrounding areas in Argentina. La Maria is a 2,500 acre farm with 400 head of two-year-old bred heifers whose calves will be replacements into the herd. The farm also grazes 900 head of yearling cattle on pasture until they are heavy enough to go into the feedlot. They rotate the cattle between native grass mixes and alfalfa pastures. Cattle bloat from alfalfa is not as much of an issue because of the drier climate. Once the calves are heavy enough, they are transferred to the feedlot (Don Pancho), another farm Bilkura S.A., owns and manages.

After a relaxing ‘Año Nuevo,’ we travelled from Santa Rosa to Catrilo to La Colonia, a registered Brangus cattle operation where they raise and sell prize breeding bulls. Brangus cattle are a cross between an Angus and Brahman and are a treasured breed in Northern Argentina because they tolerate heat better than purebred Angus. All these Brangus were what we would call Red Brangus in the U.S., as they were red-hided but in Argentina they don’t specify by color. La Colonia included 14,000 acres of cropland raising sunflowers, soybeans, and corn. They have similar pests including aphids, corn rootworm, and palmer amaranth (a weed in the same family as waterhemp), therefore they use many of the same herbicides, insecticides, and seed genetics we use.

When we visited Don Pancho, (another Bilkura S. Agropecturia site) manager Raul Fossati, gave a presentation showing the company’s 22,630 acres of cropland (3,000 acres feed livestock) and 13,403 acres dedicated to livestock production. He had many graphs and charts in his presentation, so it was easy to see this operation was very data driven. Some of the charts had information dated back to 1989. Now, that’s what I call dedication!

We learned farming in Argentina is similar, yet very different to farming in the U.S. For example, they do not have sections, half sections, quarters or 80’s to divide their land into fields. They simply plant their productive ground in one rotation, and plant their less productive ground in another rotation. An example of a rotation on productive ground would include corn, soybeans, and sunflowers, followed by either wheat or soybeans. An example of a rotation on less productive ground would include soybeans, a cover crop, and then late corn. This rotation scheme is a new concept of farming in Argentina, but it has been proven very successful. Almost all Argentine farmers use the no-till concept of farming, and work hard to increase residue by the use of cover crops. Their ground is generally very sandy and low in organic matter, so by building up residue they hope to increase their organic matter levels in the soils.

During a roundtable session with our hosts we learned more about Argentina agriculture and the government. The government makes it very hard for farmers to be successful in Argentina because of such high taxes, interest rates and inflation. They do not have any type of crop insurance, and credit is also non-existent for farmers because if they take out a loan, they pay 25 percent interest rate. If farmers need to buy seed or equipment they use all cash. The inflation rate in 2003 was 0 percent, today it is 40 percent and steadily increasing. Argentina is a country set up for failure with a government like this. If they want to be an agricultural powerhouse, they will need fast, drastic change.

Visit to Uruguay

Our tour time in Uruguay was limited, but we did get to see what agriculture was like there. Santiago Narbaiz, our Uruguay host/agricultural producer, showed us farming equipment, crops and livestock. Their equipment is much like ours, modern in style with auto-steer and even variable rate planters and fertilizer spreaders. Compared to Argentina, Uruguay’s equipment was much newer and nicer because their government allows them to import equipment from other countries like the U.S. and Brazil. We even got to see the sprayer Santiago Narbaiz shipped all the way to Uruguay from Madison, South Dakota, after purchasing it online. We were amazed to see this!

Uruguay crops were similar to here in South Dakota. Two crops are planted each season, usually soybeans, corn, or canola, with cover crops like oats being planted in-between the growing seasons. Here bean yields averaged 45 bu/acre., we also noticed they have many of the same crop insects we have.

Overall, the trip was extraordinary. It will be an experience none of us will ever forget. Who knew that immersing yourself in an entirely new culture could make you so much more aware of your own? I would encourage every student to travel abroad before they graduate, because it opens your eyes to an entire new perspective on not only your career, but your life as well.