Thursday, 29 March 2012


One thing that has struck me, over and over again during my travels, is the passion people have for their subject. I noticed it with Jay Fuhrer in Bismarck and I've just experienced it again with Diego Fontenla in Tres Arroyos.

Diego is a busy man. He gave up the majority of his day today, collecting me from my hotel at 7.30am, to show me around his farming operations, despite his phone ringing whenever it had a signal. Eventually, by mid-afternoon, he had to excuse himself with too much to do, but promised to return later.

True to his word, he returned just before 8pm, to let me know the details of the two visits he had organised for me for tomorrow. Rather than just being allowed to deliver his simple message before racing home, he was instead faced with an Englishman with a host of follow-up questions about his farm. He refused to brush them aside in a rush to get home to see his wife and four children and instead enthusiastically launched into a clear and empassioned explanation of the minutiae of his operation.

(For those who are interested, the gist of Diego's explanation was that, within his rotation, he discovered that crop yields were maintained for approximately five years following the pasture cycle. Beyond this, they tailed off rapidly, hence his 5-year cropping folowed by five years of pasturing of the land. Stretching the cropping to a sixth year meant smaller profits under his all-organic system).

That's one of the most rewarding things about a Nuffield scholarship. I've been given an opportunity to meet and mix with like-minded people. People who, one could say, share my passion for farming. I love it!

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.....!