Uplift in Brangus genetics follows soya invasion

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The wet Pampas to the South West of Rosario used to be prime beef country, but when the past government placed huge taxes on exports and made beef unprofitable, much of this area was converted to soya.

As a result, land is now worth up to US$20,000/ha, compared to US$10-15,000 in the drier “wet pampas” to its south.

The Groppo family used to produce Angus genetics for the wet Pampas region, but a reduced market meant they had to change track. They decided to develop Brangus genetics instead. This Angus cross Brahman (Bos Indicus) is ideally suited to the north of the country, where many beef produces were pushed out to following the development of soya.

The Brahman genetics mean that cattle are better suited to the high temperatures of the north (45C) thanks to:

  1. Their skin folds which increase their surface area and make them more able to release heat
  2. Their ‘hump’ which means they have more fat reserves relative to an Angus so are able to cope better with draught
  3. Black or dark skin pigmentation which is more resistant to the sun

Their resistance to ticks is also a huge selling point in the northern region. Ticks cause blood and weight loss. However more significant are the diseases that ticks spread, which can lead to anaemia and death.

Mauricio Groppo now sells 120 Brangus bulls, 150 heifers and 750 embryos a year under the La Saltana brand. He has seen a marked increase in interest in the breed and believes the breed is taking over from the Hereford as second most prevalent in the country after Aberdeen Angus.

Herefords were predominantly found in the better grass growing areas, but as these are now taken up by cropping, the Aberdeen Angus has become more prevalent. Producers believe Angus are better at making the most of the more hostile territories that beef has been pushed out to.

The development of the Brangus is just another example of the resilience of Argentine farmers and the fact they have had to be willing to adapt to challenging conditions created by politicians.

Argentines take surprise lead with technology

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I’m happy to say that my preconception that Argentine farmers would operate low tech, livestock farming systems has been proved wrong – and actually British farmers may be a step behind.

In the last two days I’ve met a commercial beef finisher using satellite mapping to determine grass covers, budget feed and plan rotations. Another uses soil and yield mapping to decide where to plant specific crops in specific parts of the same field in order to get the best response.

It’s all about making the most of the conditions on the Pampas. They’re known as the prime beef growing area of the country with grass here seen as the best in Argentina. Generally, the warm environment and average rainfall of 850mm/year combine to create what the Argentines believe are the ideal, temperate conditions for grass-fed beef. British genetics – in the form of Aberdeen Angus and Hereford – are prevalent here due to their suitability to the climate.

Most of the grass is permanent pasture, with crop rotations on the better ground. Ryegrass is planted in some better ground, but is not common. It’s mostly fescues and native grasses. Compared to the lush pastures of the UK, these look like standing hay – although the region is currently in what some farmers say is the worst drought in 100 years (blog post to follow).

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The typical grass of the Pampas region known for its beef production (above).

Soils vary hugely within relatively short distances, so understanding soil fertility on your farm is a hugely valuable tool, according to beef farmer Roque Cassini.

Roque runs five farms over 10,000ha in the south west of the wet Pampas region. He is the second biggest producer of breeding Aberdeen Angus, Braford and Brangus animals in Argentina (more on that later). I visited his main unit, La Cassina which is across 6,000ha.

Patch farming

The farm’s “hilly” ground, which is 2-3 metres above the rest, is sandy and low in organic matter, making it only capable of growing Lloron grass. However patches of ground in the same field are higher in fertility and able to grow crops like wheat, sorghum, maize, oats, sunflower and barley. In Argentina, oats, barley and wheat are seen as winter greens and grazed by livestock in July. Oats for example are grazed as a forage at about mid-calf height.

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The low organic matter area on the left is only suitable for growing Lloron grass, whilst the patch next to it can grow winter greens for growing cattle.

To determine where to plant which crop, all of the five farms are soil and yield mapped. The farm managers then have yearly meetings to determine which crop should be planted where. It also enables fertilisers to be targeted effectively.

Granted, field areas are pretty large over here. The average at La Cassina is 80ha. However, Roque would happily plant 10ha areas with a different crop, within the same field and graze specific classes of stock on that area. He calls it “patch farming”.

Satellites

Beef farmer, Nicolas Lafontaine is also trying to maximise use of grass on his beef farm where he produces beef for both internal consumption and export to the EU under the Hilton Quota.

He was part of a trial run by Buenos Aires University and ACREA – an independent farm discussion group – looking at the use of satellites to monitor grass covers.

Many of the farmers I’ve visited are part of ACREA. This is divided into regional groups and district groups of about 12 farms each. Farmer members visit each other’s farms and share and compare performance figures.

IMG_0307Nicolas Lafontaine is one of a number of farmers in his discussion group using satellites to monitor grass covers.

Nicolas is now using satellite imagery as a practical, day-to-day tool on his farm to plan rotational grazing. This is based on historical grass growth data from his farm which was collected in the seventies by his father as part of another trial. The programme uses this information, inputted data on current rainfall, and satellite information on how light is reflected off pasture, to predict grass growth and covers. Nicolas can then plan where to graze different classes of livestock depending on grass growth.

Nicolas is also one of a number of beef farmers trying to raise production of permanent pasture by applying fertiliser and over-seeding grasses (all Argentinian farmers operate no-til). After several years of politics which made beef unprofitable, many producers pulled back on investments. However, with the new government making positive moves to support farming, farmers are starting to gain confidence.

Nicolas has conducted trial work to establish the benefits of applying fertiliser to permanent pasture and recorded a 15-20% increase in yields from applying urea and DAP.

Government backing

The government is also backing technological development across all aspects of agriculture. The National Institute for Agricultural Technology (INTA) has a handful of research centres and 54 experimental farms located across the country. Each farm focuses on conducting research which is relevant to farming systems in that region, whether that’s crops, beef, fruit or forestry. Farmers are the key drivers behind which topics are investigated, with most of the research farms run as commercial, money making enterprises.

Disseminating research findings to farmers in practical terms is seen as hugely important, with extension officers communicating findings to farmers and running discussion groups.

All-in-all, it’s pretty impressive how Argentine farmers are embracing technologies to help maximise performance in what can be challenging conditions. Soil mapping and precision farming is only just starting to be talked about by British livestock farmers, whilst – as far as I’m aware – the use of satellites to assess grass covers is only in the trial stages. Perhaps we have a bit of catching up to do!