Where drought is a threat, organic production is a profitable option

05 Dec 2021

A producer from SW Buenos Aires tells how he has been producing certified barley, wheat, rye, millet and grass-fed meat for 27 years.

Bordenave is a small town in the Partido de Puán, in the SW of Buenos Aires. Located about 35 km from the main city of that district, well known in the agricultural field for the INTA experiment and distant -in a straight line- about 30 km from the border with La Pampa, it is an area in which -according to our interviewee- “you have to prepare for the drought”. And reason is not lacking, because the average rainfall, according to INTA data, is 650 mm per year and, not so long ago, in 2019, it only rained 385 mm.

This says Máximo Magadán, whose father is Spanish -who instilled in him concerns about ecology, care for the environment and the low use of agrochemicals- and an agricultural engineer graduated from FAUBA, who is currently in charge of the family farm La Ventura, in Bordenave, where, since 1994, it produces and certifies as organic all its agricultural and livestock production of meat.

“Here is an area of ​​livestock-agricultural fields,” says Máximo, who recalls that “30 years ago livestock was not done well,” which occupied 60% of production. Regarding agriculture in the area, he acknowledges that much progress has been made with direct sowing in continuous farming systems, but he maintains that “the inputs that are applied must be used more rationally and it is good that (those who today do direct sowing well) have that awareness”. Although organic agriculture is not carried out directly, he comments that in the US this system is beginning to be applied to do it.

The basis of organic farming is rotation. “You can not miss the animal part. We make a livestock cycle with perennial pastures, recovering fertility and controlling weeds. Then we rotate with an agricultural cycle in which we alternate winter greens with vetch, taking advantage of the benefits of these species.”

Máximo explains that the rotation that they ideally do, in 10 years, has, per lot, about 6 from agriculture and another 4 from livestock, although that equation is not fixed. “Currently we are in a situation that is more agricultural than livestock due to climate-economic issues. There is no fixed rotation. The economic part asks to generate more resources and one adapts to more agriculture because -with more risks- the investment is amortized more quickly”. The cattle lots have pastures that last about 6 years. They are based on alfalfa with orchard grass, Australian cebadilla, some wheatgrass and in some lots they include weeping grass.

Prevention and processes

“In agriculture, we are more focused on winter crops than summer crops. We used to grow sunflowers, but the lack of water made it very difficult for us. As a summer crop we grow millet. It grows very well and is less risky than the sunflower. It is in strong demand for bird feed and being organic gives (the consumer) certainty of purity, and it is also widely used for confectionery.”

The big question that a conventional farmer can ask is how to manage weeds and fertility in an organic production scheme. Perhaps it is about going back to very simple and basic principles of agriculture. Or do agronomy, in a different way than the one based on the use of inputs.

“Through the rotation with perennial pastures, we can better coexist with the weeds because they cut their cycle. Our crops are flowery, picturesque, but the density of weeds is not important. It’s about getting used to living with them,” explains Máximo, who adds that “a lot of work is done with the cycle of weeds. There is a lot of knowledge incorporated, with the study of populations and their physiology, and according to that one takes measures”.

Also, he explains that there is a mechanical control through implements such as disc harrows, field cultivators and the so-called “duck foot”, a piece of equipment that does not remove the soil so much, but it does cut roots. “There is a lot of management and process technology, a hackneyed concept, but one that indicates very well what it is and that it is always based on prevention.”

Among the weeds present in Bordenave, he cited the oatmeal, which “is a traffic light that a batch of brewing barley must enter livestock, just like nabón. Regarding this weedy species, Magadán comments that its seed has a secondary market: “they ask for it for direct sowing systems because it develops a large root and removes the soil, improving its physical structure, and the vineyards in Mendoza also use it to combat a nematode (worm) that affects the vine.

Fertility is managed through rotations. “There are no powerful organic products on the market that provide nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The basis is rotations with the use of perennial grasslands and legumes. In this way we reestablish chemical and physical fertility of the soil, and we compare it with some control lot, making periodic soil analyzes.

Organic malting barley

In La Ventura, as a winter crop, Máximo bets heavily on organic malting barley. “It is not a complicated crop at all. The most difficult weed is the annual ryegrass, but it is controlled with some tillage,” he explains.

The yields per ha of an organic barley are lower than that of a conventional one: 1,300 kg/3,000 kg (organic/conventional). “I had lots of 2,700 kg and others that dropped a lot due to weeds and the average dropped. This happened when the wheat for the same period yielded 2,000 kg. That is where the rusticity of the crop can be seen,” he highlights.

Organic barley is included in the rotation after greening with vetch or pasture, depending on the lot. “We see organic malting barley with a very great possibility of growth in the area. I believe that new actors are going to be incorporated into this, because in these 27 years of experience in organic production, at the beginning it was all export of small quantities, with which it was difficult to fill the containers.”

“On the other hand, today there is a very important national demand that exceeds exports. In La Ventura, as a winter crop, Máximo bets heavily on organic malting barley, through a contract with Cervecería y Maltería Quilmes (CMQ). “It is a very good thing to have passed the barley to the organic system because it is a very rustic crop that grows very well.”

In the palette of products that we have, malting barley becomes important because “we have replaced a lot of wheat with barley, which today represents 45% of our agriculture. The relationship with Quilmes began 3 years ago. We sold him the first organic barley, which we had produced on our own, in the 2018/19 campaign (the one with the great drought). It is with this barley that they began to ‘clean’ the malthouse to carry out the first trials of Patagonia Sendero Sur”, the product that CMQ recently launched on the market as the first Argentine organic beer.

“In 2019, our first organic barley harvest was not good; in 2020, it was good and this year looks pretty good”. There are about 400 ha of organic malting barley that Magadán sows, of the 5,000 under that condition that CMQ has contracted to supply raw material for its organic product. “The contract I make is for one year and because Quilmes is organic, it recognizes between 20 and 30% more than the price of forage barley, with whom we have a mutual benefit society because there is not a great offer of organic producers like us” . (In total, the producers who sell organic malting barley to CMQ add up to some 5,000 ha, in this campaign). “Our organic barley is certified for Argentina and Brazil, and Quilmes uses it for malting for domestic consumption or export,” explains Magadán.

“We had a rough stage. Little by little, a greater internal consumption was generated. There is currently more demand than supply for organic grains. Quilmes gives us a very important opportunity, they are working seriously and for us it is spectacular and for the system it serves as “organic blackboard”, he highlights.

Wheats: bread, candeal, Kamut

Although it occupies 45% of its total agricultural area (winter and summer), there is much more than organic barley in La Ventura. “We also make bread wheat, durum wheat – for mills that make whole wheat flour, such as Campo Claro, in Carlos Keen, Partido de Luján, who have been clients for 20 years – rye, oats, and they also produce an old variety of wheat from the United States, the Kamut, very sought after, old, tall, with a very large grain that replaced the candeal”.

They have also done tests with peas and lentils. The lentil is a very fast and very short crop, and if they lack climatic conditions, it suffers. And the cultivation technology is complicated. Peas have better prospects. “We are learning” admits Magadan, who like any dedicated and organic-focused grower knows that trial and error are part of the daily life of his farm work.

Comparisons are usually odious, but necessary for information purposes to know what the yields and values ​​of organic and conventional production of the crops that Magadan produces in Bordenave are. Here are some numbers per hectare and ton, quoted in official dollars: Organic wheat: yield 1,800/2,000 kg; value: 320 dollars to pick up in the field.

Conventional Wheat: yield: 3,000 kg; value: 240 dollars to pick up in the field.

Organic malting barley: yield: 2,500 kg; value: 30% premium on the value of feed barley in Bahía Blanca, which is quoted at about 230 dollars.

Conventional malting barley: yield: 3,000 kg.

Rye: organic: 1,800 kg; value; 500 dollars to withdraw; conventional: 2000kg; value: 350 dollars to withdraw. Organic millet: 1,200 kg; value: 550 dollars to withdraw; conventional: value: 270 dollars to withdraw. It is a small and variable market.

Rotation, livestock, organic meat

Regarding the rotation sequence, Magadán explains that “we left the pasture with a summer crop like millet, which is rustic, establishes itself well and always has an outlet, and is good for cutting the weed cycle. Then we intercrop with winter crops and make oats+vetch for grazing.” This greening, due to the vetch, fixes nitrogen and complements well the diet of the steers. When left over, we incorporate it as green manure. We grazed it for a while and there is the possibility of incorporating it with a disc harrow.

The cattle side of La Ventura has about 250 breeding cows that are the initial link of a complete cycle meat production with rearing and fattening on pastures and pastures, and finishing on winter pastures. “The discard grain is given as supplementation; Triguillo is used, as permitted in organic livestock production.

Máximo explains that the organic meat was sold to Moo, a butcher of this specialty who sells cuts online, and also to Carrefour, which offers this type of cut in some of its stores. The value of the live kilo, for steers and heifers between 380 and 420 kg, organic, is calculated 10% more than the maximum for these categories, in Liniers.

Source: Clarin