The last chapter (well, nearly)
Each day in Argentina started with the compulsory cake and great breakfast layout. There was even some champagne on offer in one of the hotels I stayed in – something you don’t see in the UK! We could learn a lot about hotel breakfasts from South America! They certainly helped though, as each day started with the best part of at least a 150 kilometre drive – but driving that far is the only way to really see the differences in Argentina.
The endless count of brilliant no-till practioners continued as I visited Luis Sabbatini, a farmer to the west of Buenos Aires who is actively involved in one of the no-till associations that meet on a different farm at least once a month. On his lighter soils, wind erosion was again the major issue and this prompted his conversion to no-tillage in 1986. Luis told a great story about when he started – his neighbours thought he was crazy, but within three years they had followed suit as they could see the benefits he was reaping.
Below: Discussing the long-term gains of no-tillage with Luis Sabbatini
He lived and breathed his soils. In his opinion, Luis said, to really make no-till work you need to have straw and residues retained in the upper soil layers as this is vital in helping regulate the temperature and speed of moisture evaporation. Once again, the value of pore space came up and how this can be destroyed by tillage, but also how important it was to balance the carbon within the rotation. Crucially, he was seeing his yields stabilising and continually rising the further down the line he got. A great person to meet and to once again see some great crops.
The following day I encountered a farm manager with the most staggering attention to detail I have ever come across. Nicholas employed contractors to plant his 6,000 hectares, but they were all under firm instruction from him and he looked after them well to achieve his targets on some incredibly difficult soils with huge variability. He showed us an example of one of his fields where the hills were regularly underperforming compared to the rest of the field. To mitigate his risk, he focused on bringing up the average of his lowest yields, rather than aiming for top end performance. This was apparent with delaying his planting dates to avoid the very heavy rains that cause erosion, and he also would plant two different varieties. On the poorer potential hills he would also plant two different varieties. I learnt in Brazil that, in soya production, the early maturing varieties suit poorer ground. Nicholas planted a quicker-maturing variety on the poorer-potential hills – getting his contractor (without GPS) to plant these separately – and on the good ground, he planted a longer-maturing variety. It was painstaking work but Nicholas was a standout grower very focussed on the finer points.
Above: An example of an early maturing variety planted in zones amongst the main crop.
The final visit of my South America trip was to Bernardo, who rounded off my trip brilliantly. He firmly believed in never leaving his fields uncovered and used a variety of rye and vetch cover crops in between crops. He had increased his organic matter by 25% in the 30 years he had been using no-tillage and valued its presence as a buffer and a sponge in both the good and bad years. He had seen a 20% increase in yields over eight years and Bernardo felt that it can take between 8–10 years for the system and soils to really stabilise.
It was very apparent that Bernardo was at the top of his game, as his soils looked full of life and there was even moisture still present after a prolonged period with no rain. He made it clear that you have to be prepared to spend well in the early stages to get the soil organic matter increasing and that fertilising for maximum potential was also vital. It was his understanding of what all the different components of his cover crops did which was a great indication of his line of thought; always thinking and looking for the next step to improve things.
Below: An example of the level of residue Bernardo placed so much value on
The residue levels were hugely impressive and that was Bernardo’s focus – to keep raising these levels through robust cover crop mixes. He had been pretty successful from what I had seen. But he gave a hint of caution as he mentioned a farm his father had taken on, which had organic matter levels up to 5%, but through intensive cultivation he had reduced it to 3.5% within five years. Organic matter can be lost so quickly but it takes a long while to build, so it has to be protected and without doubt is the central cog to making the system work.
So, after 12 weeks, 6 countries, 37 flights and 80,502 air miles, my Nuffield travels are complete. The tricky part of report writing is what I have got to do now and my conclusions are…………………………….?
Well, if I made it that simple no one would want to read my report!! There will be the occasional blog still from me in the run up to the report release and conference, but I would like to thank anyone who has taken the time to read my blogs over the past year. I have enjoyed writing them and there may just be a few more to come.