04 May 2010

CREA: The Technical Meeting

CREA Monte Maiz Wheat Production Meeting

I was able to attend two different CREA group meetings specifically on wheat production. The meetings were organized and run by the CREA advisor and attended by most of the members.

The CREA advisor compiled the wheat production numbers from the members for previous campaign and the research results from the group and the region. The advisor included additional data deemed relevant to wheat production. 

In both meetings, the advisor went through the agronomic benefits of growing wheat in rotation with corn and soybeans. Here, the water table at the time of planting is a very good indicator as to final crop yield. Historically, they receive little rain during the wheat growing season. Water table levels are up this year. The advisors used data that was analyzed with statistics. I don't think they shared any data that wasn't evaluated with statistics, first. Many of the research data was from farms, but most of those plots were randomized and replicated either across a field, or across many farms. 

The advisors were comfortable presenting LSD's and CV's and other measurements for variability within data. The shared regressions and stability tests as well. 

CREA General Baldissera Wheat Production Meeting

In both meetings, the issue of government policy on wheat exports was a major concern. The general straw poll indicated that most producers would grow less wheat. If they grew wheat at all, it would be in regions of the country that have some better historical yields. Some producers may not grow any wheat at all in Argentina, but may try some in a neighboring country. (Yes, some of these producers have land in Uraguay. Remember, that the business model here is to spread your risk by managing land in different regions.)

These producers are on the top of their game with economics and agronomic data for producing wheat. Even with all of that information, they do not know how the government will react this coming year. That is their biggest question going into wheat this season. 

CREA: The Group Meeting III

When Clint Hardy and Suzy Martin came to visit, we were able to attend another CREA group meeting, CREA Pergamino. Jorge Banciotto is the vocale for northern Buenos Aires and he invited us to this meeting. Our host farm was Estancia Santa Rosa, about 10 or 15 km from the paved road. (Later that turned out to be quite the adventure.)

The morning meeting was different than usual. The morning was devoted to discussing how/if CREA should change. The producers were asked to work in groups, fill out individual surveys and discuss how and if CREA should change. The survey asked several questions from the purpose of CREA to the function of the various components of CREA. I kept a copy because it has some of the same questions we might need to ask if we develop something like this.

Once the morning session was over, we were served lunch. I have been told by more than one member that a good lunch is critical to a good meeting (sounds like home). But, for lunch, we started with salami, cheese, olives and bread as appetizers. After that, we had epanadas, baked joys of beef or ham wrapped in something similar to a pie crust. After that, we moved on to chori-pan, which would be similar to an Italian sausage sandwich with French bread. That was capped off with an ice cream dessert and coffee.

After lunch, the amazing part happened... all of the members stayed and all of the members stayed awake. The three "Americanos" marveled at the Argentines' ability to stay attentive and engaged after such a meal.

The afternoon became the normal CREA group meeting with the presentation by the host and group discussion. This group function was similar to the others I have witnessed. The group members do their best to give an honest assessment of the host farm and to provide valuable criticism.

Equally impressive to the ability to stay awake after a big lunch, was the quietness of cell phones. All cell phones were on silent. During the entire day, only three or four calls were answered. If they were answered, the producer quickly and quietly left the meeting area. At home, it almost seems a demonstration of importance to take a cell phone call during a meeting. Here, it was considered rude.  For the most part, the group members stayed engaged for the entire time of the meeting. They all talked, but they were courteous towards each other. Once in a while, the moderator would have to quiet everyone and restore order. This is the type of engagement we in Extension say we want, but we never quite get there in most of our meetings.

It was nearly dark when it was time to leave... and it had been raining all day. We were 10 to 15 km from paved roads, so the drive to the paved roads was extremely exciting. I say exciting because we never had to get out and push... although we came close once or twice. Jorge, the producer who invited us, was also our driver. If he ever decides to change careers, I think he would do just fine in NASCAR or on the Rally circuit!

Soybean Harvest

Soybean harvest is mostly complete in this region and for the more part, it was a good year. Diseases like frog-eye leaf spot and insects such as loopers may have kept yields a little lower than expected. In spite of this, many farmers were pleased with the harvest.

Yields ranged from about 50 to 70 bu/acre for most full season soybeans.

Farmers start the harvest season with corn. When the soybeans are ready, they leave the corn fields and get the soybeans. Once soybeans are harvested, they return to the corn. Their reason for this is that soybeans do not handle rains and weather as well as the corn. The soybeans are prone to open the pods and drop seeds in bad conditions.

The current financial structure and the current taxing situation allows farmers to make more from soybeans than corn. Many of the rented fields have been in soybeans for two or three years now because of economics. The current restrictions on corn and wheat exports implies that soybeans will be grown on rented and again next year.

Watching a field of good corn or soybeans harvested is a lot of fun. I was able to see several fields while here. You can see a short video of soybean harvest on YouTube. For fun, I included an Argentina song that is supposed to be popular at soccer matches for the World Cup.

The role of the farmer and contractor is similar to what I described in the corn harvest post. The farmer and the contractor agree to a price (whether that is cash or a share of the harvest). The contractor wants to get as many fields harvested as quickly as possible. The farmer wants a good harvest in his fields. The contractor wants to get the same job again next year. Both work with those goals in mind.

Many of the contracting combines seem to be in excellent condition. Tractors that pull the grain carts, may or may not be in great shape. I saw more older tractors pulling grain carts than anywhere else. Normally, only one tractor and grain cart were used per combine. In soybeans, this was not an issue. But in corn, the combines were harvesting faster than they could unload, creating a bottleneck. Of course, that extra grain cart, means and extra tractor and an extra employee. It appears that most contractors have decided that one grain cart per combine is sufficient. This probably explains why most grain heads here are smaller than the ones back in the States. I saw some class 6 combines with 20-ft grain heads.

But, now that harvest is mostly over, I can see that they get it harvested. They may use some different techniques than we, but they get the crop out of the field.

A lot of the grain gets put into silo bags, really opening up the old bottle neck of waiting for trucks.

Sitting in a new Claas Lexion was a lot of fun. Harvesting soybeans at about 65 bu/acre was fun as well.

A field of about 200 acres... a thing of beauty.

Working until it's dark is common if the condition of the crop is suitable for harvest. (Just like home.)

Roads and Railroads

A grain truck on the road next to an abandoned railroad. The poles for the old telegraph still remain.

Living in the center of the "Bread Basket" for Argentina, one common question asked my many visitors is, "Where are the trains?" Asking that question gets you about the same answer from every person in the area. "The British built a great train system, but the government took it over and ruined it."

This region (southern Santa Fe, southwestern Cordoba and northern Buenos Aires) is the heart of corn and soybean production in Argentina. This year was a great one. Yields were massive. Almost every seed company has a base here. Seed corn is grown here. Venado Tuerto hosts almost all of the farm machinery manufacturers. Harvest was very exciting because of the yields. And the roads were clogged with semi trucks loaded with grain driving the hundred or so miles to Rosario. And that brings rise to one of the greatest seasons for everyone else... passing semi-trucks on the road.

Semi-trucks can only go 50 miles per hour (80 km/hr) while cars can go 68 miles per hour (110 km/hr). The main road from Venado Tuerto to Rosario is a two-lane road. If you are in a car, sooner than later - - usually sooner - - you will be slowed down by a semi-truck only going 50 mph. In some cases, you will be slowed down by a truck going much slower... usually a very old Ford, Chevy, Dodge or Mercedes Benz. In these cases, semis are trying to pass semis. Your challenge is to pass the semi without getting plastered by a semi coming back from Rosario, or by a car trying to pass that semi. You also have to make sure a car behind you isn't trying to pass you as you are trying to pass the semi. This game is not for the faint-of-heart.

You do all of this while driving parallel to an abandoned railroad. While you are stuck behind one of these semis, or getting up the nerve to pass, you ask yourself.... "Why are there no trains?"

As was told by many, the British did come to Argentina to build railroads. However, so did the French. According to people who remember, those railroads were very good. They were credited with helping to improve the economy of the entire country. But, the railroads were foreign-owned and were built to help export products... not necessarily help products move within Argentina. During World War II, Argentine products became very valuable and the country was running a surplus. President Juan Peron purchased the British and French railroad companies and nationalized the railways.

The government was not able to integrate these rail systems or make money with them. Eventually, transport of goods by truck took over. Today, the truck drivers' union is very strong. For the foreseeable future, trains are not going to transport all that grain to port. Maybe someone could convince the government to build an extra lane or two.

The Back Roads II

An earlier posting on the roads in Argentina addressed some of the challenges of getting around after rain. I've been on a lot more roads since then and the same theme holds true. Rain and back roads in Argentina are a bad mix.

Most farmers are not happy with their roads, or with their government in managing these roads. One farmer told me that they pay taxes based on their land size. All of those taxes go to the government. A local consortium comprised of local citizens then gets 55% of those taxes to manage the roads. The remaining 45% is gone. . . or at least it appears to be gone. The citizens use the 55% to purchase equipment, operate equipment and maintain the roads as best as possible.

Almost all of the back roads are dirt. Gravel is a rare commodity. I am not a civil engineer, but I wonder what just a little gravel on the surface good do. However, if 45% of your money for roads disappears, can you afford to purchase gravel?

Farmers in the States are used to rain keeping them out of the fields at harvest, but they are not used to rain keeping them off the roads. (Of course, I am writing this as many places in Kentucky are under water from heavy rains.)

Because of these roads, many farmers and their families live in towns. Better schools, consistent electricity and access to goods, services, etc. are all good reasons for living in town. About the only people I have witnessed living on the farm have direct access to paved roads and/or do not have children.

With 30% retention on soybean, 20+% retention on corn and a 45% "disappearance" of the road tax and a 21% sales tax, I can understand how a producer may not want to invest any more in the roads. . . or in much of anything related to public services.

In addition to this, there are not as many grain bins and grain elevators as in the States. Also, there are almost no railroads.