It makes its own energy, has cows and sheep, and produces very special garlic.

03 Oct 2022

In Tierra del Fuego, at Estancia Viamonte they raise livestock with high technology, use solar panels, run an organic garden and measure the carbon footprint to collect bonuses.

Tomás Ayerza, born in 1968 in the city of Buenos Aires, graduated as an engineer in agricultural production and gained experience in the family’s breeding field in Ayacucho. Time passed and in 1995 he went to the island of Tierra del Fuego to work with his future father-in-law. Shortly after, he married Cristina Goodall, a Tierra del Fuego, with whom he had six boys and had stayed on the island for 27 years.

Today he is the administrator of the Estancia Viamonte, where sheep and cattle are raised as the main activities. But there is much more: in the countryside all the energy consumed is self-produced, measurements are being made to collect carbon credits and an orchard is being developed that produces organic vegetables and black garlic, a specialty with high commercial value.

Well south

The Estancia Viamonte farm, with some 40,600 hectares, is 42 kilometers south of the city of Río Grande, in Tierra del Fuego, at kilometer 2886 of Route 3, which crosses the countryside. Living in that latitude is not for everyone. The average annual temperature is 5.6°C. The average maximum summer temperature is 16°C; that of winter, -5°C, with extremes of -15. The average rain does not reach 400mm distributed regularly throughout the year except in August, September and October. The soils of the region are acidic, with a fragile superficial organic horizon, which does not allow working. Underneath is clay and stones.

Estancia Viamonte was founded in 1902 by Lucas Bridges, who dedicated himself to wool production. Bridges was the son of Anglican Reverend Thomas Bridges and Mary Anne Varder, the first European family to settle in Tierra del Fuego in 1863.

For many years the ranch was dedicated to wool production, first with the Romney Marsh breed, then with the Corriedale and finally with the MPM (Multipurpose Merino). At the peak of wool, in 1997, 21,000 sheep were sheared. Currently, 5,500 remain in the field because it is being reoriented towards beef production.

The reduction in sheep production had a lot to do with the problem of the so-called feral dogs, serious predators of the flocks. These wild animals kill sheep for fun rather than food. The problem has been mitigated lately with sheep protection dogs.

The incursion towards cattle farming has as its flagship the Hereford breed, very well adapted to the area and with the docility necessary for its movement in an area of ​​ñire scrubland and in corrals. Currently, in the field there are 1,300 bellies and 285 first-service heifers, plus 850 calves. “The production system is breeding, but the calves produced are raised up to 330 kilos, and then sold to a feedlot on the island,” Ayerza points out.

Holistic rangeland management

On the island of Tierra del Fuego, there are three zones depending on the vegetation: steppe, to the north; Fuegian forest, to the south, and ecotone, the transition between both areas. Estancia Viamonte is in the ecotone and has 50% of ñire forest; 15% steppe and 33% vegas (more productive humid lowlands).

It extends 30 kilometers along Route 3 and is 12 kilometers above the coast, which gives it a more benign microclimate compared to other fields located further inland on the island. In Monte de Ñire and in Las Vegas the herbaceous stratum is made up of grasses, among which the orchard grass and timothy appear as introduced species.

In Las Vegas you can also find perennial tussock plants of the genus Carex. In the steppe, the poa and stipa are used. The dry matter production of such different environments is very different: it can range from 50kg/ha/year to 3,000. The stocking rate supported by these fields is of the order of 6ha/cow or one sheep/ha.

They make a holistic management of the grasslands. It consists of concentrating troops in small areas, with harvests for 20-30 days, instead of having a lower load of property for three or four months in the summer and winter fields. This management allows many days of recovery of the grazed lots, the appearance of new species and also frees hectares, which are currently being rented to neighbors.

Cría y recría

They started doing fixed-time artificial insemination on Hereford heifers two years ago, with semen from pure pedigree bulls provided by Select-Debernardi, with encouraging results that allow them to produce their own bulls.

In general, the pregnancy percentages of the wombs on the island are very high due to the excellent health. “Here we are free of tuberculosis and foot-and-mouth disease, and there are no venereal diseases, which allows us to reach 95% pregnancy by touch and 82% weaning, with very good genetics,” Ayerza highlights.

The service runs from December 10 to February 10, in the season of longer days and greater production of quality grass. Calves are weaned in March-April. “In the last exercise they weighed 210 kilos on average”, Tomás is proud.

In Tierra del Fuego, most of the fields raise calves for sale at weaning because in winter they can lose up to 30 kilos of weight due to the tremendously rigorous conditions. Since Estancia Viamonte is on the ocean, it has less negative influence from low temperatures and snow, which allows calves to be raised up to 330 kilos, always on natural fields, after which they are sold to a feedlot on the island.

Power for the whole field

All the electricity consumed in the establishment is self-generated; It is not connected to the national grid. Power production combines solar panels with gas engines, powered by the grid that passes through the field. There are 24 solar panels with inverters and batteries, which supply the office, the blacksmith shop, the shearing shed, the freezers, etc. of the stay in spring and summer, and gas engines that operate in winter.

“Before installing the solar panels, the motors worked 17 hours a day on average, to meet the energy demands; now we go down to 3-4 hours; it is the first ranch that shears with energy from sunlight”, highlights Ayerza, who explains that the gas savings made it possible to recover the investment -25,000 dollars- in five years. “Also, if properly cared for, solar panels can last 25 years and are more convenient than wind power generators, which have a lot of bearing problems,” says Tomás.

Carbon footprint

This year, they started working on the carbon footprint, with the intention of selling bonds. The process began with a study of the field, because it must be shown that it fixes carbon over time through regenerative practices.

“A first analysis is made in which the composition of the soil, the water absorption capacity and the content of organic matter and carbon per hectare are studied,” explains Ayerza. “Then, year after year, a pasture survey is carried out. In the fifth year, a complete study is carried out and only then is it determined whether or not the field fixed additional carbon. For the latter, measurements are taken. For example, if at the beginning there were 116 tons of carbon per hectare and in the last measurement 118 are measured, 2 tons per hectare could be sold,” he hoped.

With regenerative measures such as holistic grazing, carbon sequestration is increasing and this could be economically capitalized with carbon credits. These are sold by the certifiers to the companies that demand them, such as oil companies or cigarette manufacturers. A bond currently trades at around $8 per ton of carbon.

Organic garden

“A few years ago, my wife and I started a vegetable garden in the countryside, in order to contribute to feeding the family and the people who work in the company. Shortly after, we began to certify them as organic by using, for example, only biological fertilizers such as dung from the shearing shed”, recalls the manager.

“In addition, for a few years we have been producing a very spicy purple garlic, which was achieved by INTA in Santa Cruz. We plant 10,000 per year and a part of it becomes black garlic. This final product is obtained with a fermentation process: with special temperature conditions it is dehydrated, to end up like a raisin. With this presentation, it maintains the properties of garlic, but it is sweetened and tastes like truffles”, he points out.

The produce of the garden is sold fresh in greengrocers and restaurants in Ushuaia, and black garlic is found in dietetics and gourmet restaurants with high value for being an organic specialty and with the Fuegian quality seal. “There are only three black garlic producers in Argentina. In this way, the farm went from being something for subsistence to a business unit today”, summarizes Ayerza. The next stage of diversification will be rural tourism, to serve visitors who will be given accommodation and gastronomy in an environment of dreamlike landscapes.

Guard dogs

Wild dogs cause a lot of damage in the flocks in the south of the country. They are animals that were initially domestic, but then moved away from man, proliferated, and returned to their natural state to become predators.

To deal with them, sheep protection dogs are being used. In order for them to have this characteristic, bitches are made to give birth among the sheep. “The puppies are raised among themselves and have a great affinity with sheep. In some cases, they are even made to suckle from the sheep”, explains Ayerza. In other cases, they are born in a very small herd with sheep and are permanently attached to them. “As they grow, they are placed in more and more extensive pen conditions; When the pups are five months old, they leave for good in the open fields, with almost no contact with humans”, he completes.

Because they are very territorial, guard dogs mark the entire field with feces and urine. In the presence of strangers, they bark permanently. “Also, when you enter a lot with wild dogs with sheep, the first week is one of permanent conflict; the protective dogs chase the feral ones”, assures Ayerza. On the other hand, when there is an entry of predatory dogs, the protectors run over them and scare them away, although without giving direct fights.

Source: La Nacion