19 February 2010

Grain in Silage Bags - Loading

Argentine producers use plastic silage bags to store grain. Most grain is stored dry (13 to 14% for wheat) in the bags. The oxygen levels are greatly reduced and according to the Argentine producers say the grain quality remains stable in the bags.

Each bag will hold about 200 metric tons of grain. Typically, grain is stored for several months, but in some cases, wheat has been stored for a year.

Filling one bag takes about 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on the rate at which grain is brought to the bags.  See the very short video on filling a grain bag. As the bag loader feeds grain into the bag, the grain pushes the loader forward. A brake is applied to the loader to provide some resistance. Using the proper brake pressure is critical to proper filling of the bag. If the brake is too soft, the bag will not be filled completely. If it is too hard, the bag will be stretched too tight and may not last as long. Loaders that have disk brakes with a single control are the best types to use. Some loaders apply a break to the tires and they require separate adjustments to both tires, making proper loading of the bags more difficult.

I met a person who is manufacturing a simple sealer for the bags. The sealer is called La Pipiola. You can watch the video on how the sealer works. They have a second, shorter video that shows some of the loading process as well. They seal the end of the bag and then fold the bag over on the sealed portion. As the first bit of grain loads into the bag, it loads on the sealed portion, helping to keep the seal strong. On the other end, there is no pressure from grain on the bag, making it easy to seal.

This system seems to work well in Argentina where winters are much warmer than in Kentucky or the Midwest. However, winters here are also drier. The wetter winters back home could make storage of grain in these bags more of a challenge. There is certainly some merit to testing this in the States. And, if you're looking for a good sealer, I know a guy!!

La Pipiola bag sealer.

17 February 2010

The Crops to Date

The rain this season has been excellent for much of the Pampas Region and the crops resemble the good growing conditions. Excessive rains and flooding are problems in some areas as well. I've heard several farmers back say that it's better to have some areas that drowned-out than none at all (when some areas are flooded, then the rest got plenty of water). Corn near 150 or more bushels per acre and full season soybeans near 60 bushels per acre seems reasonable for many fields.

Insect pressure on soybeans from loopers (inchworms) have been a problem and there is some frogeye leaf spot (Cercospora sojina) in the soybeans. Both have been controlled with pesticides. The corn has very little foliar diseases and not much insect pressure. The biggest challenge has been flooded areas.

CREA - The Structure

CREA (Consorcios Regionales de Experimentacion Agricola or Regional Consortiums of Agricultural Experimentation) is an organization of farmers who work in small groups to improve each farming enterprise. Each group has about 10 farmers. Several groups make up a region. In the case of Sur de Santa Fe, there are 17 groups. The regions make up the Argentina Association of CREA (AA CREA or AACREA).

Each group hires and agronomic advisor who visits each farm once a month and makes agronomic and economic suggestions to each farmer. The farmers (productores) of the group meet once a month to review crop records, etc. (See the post on 12 Feb for more details about a group meeting.) As mentioned in that post, one farmer provides details of the enterprise (crops, yields, expenses, returns, etc.) to the rest of the group. The group reviews the details and makes suggestions and criticisms to the producer.

The region hires a coordinator who helps plan monthly meetings, works with the advisor, and helps coordinate regional research projects. Seed companies pay to have hybrids and varieties entered into large-scale plots that are replicated 12 to 14 times in a region. Farmers also conduct some research with their advisors and with other farmers in the groups. The results of this research are published and discussed at regional meetings. The region hosts three meetings a year, one for corn, one for soybean and one for wheat. Some of the meetings are repeated in a different part of the region. Farmers, CREA members and non-members, are welcome to attend the meetings. A fee is involved.

Each group elects a president to serve for two years. The president attends a monthly CREA regional meeting. The presidents of a region elect a vocal to serve for two years. The vocals attend the regional presidents meeting and a national AACREA meeting once each month. At this point, CREA appears to be a very "bottom-up" approach, where many decisions are made at the local level. Each group pays money to the region and to the national organization. The national organization also organizes a meeting (or two) once a year for all farmers. They conduct some other types of research, such as the impact of agriculture on the economy. I have a meeting next week with AACREA in the City of Buenos Aires and hope to learn more about the national organization.

Each group is responsible for hiring an advisor and setting the wages, benefits, etc. for that advisor. The advisors are part-time for a group. Some advisors work for two groups, but in different regions. Other advisors take on private clients outside of CREA and/or rent land to make additional income. Most advisors begin as assistants for larger groups. Also, many advisors say that they make more with the private consulting than with the CREA, but being a CREA advisor opens the door for them to do private consulting.

The regional coordinator is also a part-time position and private consulting or management of farms are often done to supplement income.

I have been told by people in CREA and out of CREA that CREA farmers are generally larger and generally known to have good farming practices and good business skills. My view of Argentina grain farming is probably a bit skewed at this point since I am visiting mostly CREA farms.

I hope to visit a few other farms while I'm here, so maybe I'll get a bigger picture of agriculture in Argentina.

15 February 2010

The Back Roads

While the Pampas is full of large level fields that are square and relatively efficient to farm, one major bottleneck in the system can be the roads. There are some good paved roads but most of the roads are dirt. When the weather is dry, there are fewer problems, except for dust. When the weather is wet, the roads can be very challenging.

One night during the Kentucky farmers' visit, we received 3 inches of rain. The next day was a real adventure getting back to pavement. Our host, Carlos Peretti, led the group in a SUV. The five cars followed. Behind all of us was a tractor and a chain... just in case! We slid, spun and flung mud for about 10 km (maybe a little more). Carlos was an excellent host the entire time and he certainly did a wonderful job of getting us through the mud and to pavement. (I need to do an article just on the hospitality here.) When it was all said and done, we made it through with mud on the cars and a great story to tell. While the muddy roads were fun for us, they are not fun when these fields are ready for harvest.

We quickly understood how easily the entire harvest season could be slowed down by rain. This has been a wet season, so we will see of the rains continue through harvest.
Carlos Peretti led the group to pavement. This would have made a great commercial for Kia SUVs!

Gerry Hayden drove our car and got us through with no problems.

The soil is very deep here, but easily erodible with heavy rains.

12 February 2010

CREA - The Group Meeting

This week, I was invited to attend a CREA group meeting (CREA Posta Espinollos). About nine farming operations were represented. Husbands and wives were welcome. Most in the group spoke English, but the meeting was conducted in Spanish. Periodically, someone would translate for me. Not knowing Spanish was a limitation in that I missed a lot of the conversation. On the other hand, I was forced to pay close attention to facial expressions, body language, eye contact, etc.

After introductions, the group settled on the covered patio with coffee, yerba mate and pastries. For the first two hours, each person took turns updating the rest on their operations. Most had too much rain. As the morning progressed, we dodged the warming sun... moving chairs to the shade. There were no shorts at this meeting... this was business. But it was more than business. There was lots of laughter, joking, pointing and jumping into the conversation.

The group president is Maximo Uranga and it was his turn to host the meeting. While that meant Maximo provided the food, beverages and house, it also meant that Maximo had to present his business operations for the past year. He took about 90 minutes or so to review a booklet he put together for each person in the group. It included the financials for the last year, the projected financials for the coming year and the objectives for his business as well as his family. Yields, land in each crop and a graph of the past 13 years were also included to help each member understand Maximo's business.

After Maximo was finished, the group broke into two smaller groups and discussed Maximo's questions. Maximo and the CREA advisor, Juan Pablo, were not allowed to participate in the smaller groups. The details of the business and the problems addressed are to remain within the group, so I will not discuss them here. The topics related to farm business structure, economics and family. The smaller groups worked for about an hour on Maximo's questions. One person in each small group  wrote notes. After both small groups were finished, everyone met in one area again. One person from each of the smaller groups read the notes to Maximo. Again, I wish I knew Spanish. I could tell from the facial expressions that Maximo was both excited and nervous to receive the comments from the groups. It takes a lot of courage to take criticism from peers. This criticism is what improves everyone.

Once that was complete, they had a guest speaker talk about something of interest. In this case, I was the guest speaker. I hope it was of interest.

After that, the CREA group met alone (without Juan Pablo or me) to discuss institutional issues of the group. It was a very interesting day.

Maximo presents his business information to the rest of the CREA group.
The smaller groups discuss the questions of Maximo and other issues relevant to his operation.

Maximo receives the reports from the two small groups.

Manuel reads the notes from the small groups as Juan Pablo, the CREA advisor, records the comments.

11 February 2010

Argentina Soils and Climate of the Humid Pampas

One of our first visits was with Tecnoagro, a private company that conducts soil tests and make fertilizer recommendations. The soils of the Humid Pampas are very deep and derived from grasslands (similar to the prairie soils of Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois).

The soils in the Humid Pampas of Argentina have high native K values. Soil pH is not a concern in most of the region. In addition, farmers plan to get about half of their nitrogen requirements from the soil. So, farmers here fertilize N, P and S. Research here has shown crop yield increases from fertilizer sulfur. (Research in Kentucky to date does not show yield increases from fertilizer sulfur.)

Summer here is similar to summer in Kentucky, but winter here is more mild... more similar to central Georgia winters. Rainfall in this region is about 1000 mm, which is similar to Kentucky annual rainfall. Like Kentucky, the amount of rainfall is not the problem, but timeliness of that rainfall is often a concern. For the 2009/10 crop, rainfall has been very high. Parts of this region received about 400 to 450 mm in 45 days. Typically, March is a rainy month so farmers here are concerned about getting the crop harvested.

Right now, corn is in the dent stage and about 1/2 milkline. Some of the corn is already at blacklayer (physiological maturity). Full season soybeans are close to the full seed stage while double crop soybeans at the full pod to beginning seed stage. Insects have been very active this year and most fields have been sprayed with an insecticide. Frogeye leaf spot (Cercospora sojina) is in most fields this year and is a relatively new disease for Argentina.

07 February 2010

Argentina - Getting Started

The goal of this blog is to provide some brief updates on my sabbatical in Argentina. My purpose for being here is to learn more about how farmers here work together to improve agronomics, economics and the sustainability of their operations.

Some farmers here have formed groups of about 10 people. These groups are called CREA (an acronym that I will have to pull in later). These groups hire an advisor who visits the fields of each farmer once a month. In addition, the farmers meet as a group about once a month. In these groups, one farmer will provide all details of his/her operation, including the economics. The other farmers will review the details and provide feedback on ways to improve the operation.

Each group elects a president to serve for two years. The presidents of all groups in a region elect a 'vocal' to serve two years. The groups in a region also hire a regional coordinator.  Santiago Nobile is president of his CREA group. He and his family helped us looked for housing. Jorge Minteguiaga is the Regional Coordinator for CREA Sur de Santa Fe and he also helped us look for housing. Carlos Jolly is the Vocal for CREA Sur de Santa Fe. Both Santiago and Carlos have welcomed me to their homes.

Santiago and Jorge gave an overview of CREA to our Kentucky farmers when they visited the area. At the start of the presentation, our farmers said there was no way this could work in Kentucky. By the end of the week, they thought that CREA might be a possibility. During my sabbatical, I'm going to try to figure out if a concept like CREA would work back home. To do that, I need to learn how CREA works. Stay tuned...