Source: The Times-News

By Cindy Snyder

Sept. 8, 2013 — ROSARIO, Argentina — After 30 years of rapidly expanding agriculture, South America is turning its focus from developing new fields to taking better care of those already in production.

Victor Trucco remembers his father saying that soybeans would never be grown in their area. Yet Trucco became the first person to grow soybeans not long after he returned to the home farm in the mid-1960s.

Soybeans proved to be a profitable crop but one that came with unexpected costs.

“We have paid a price for the use of the plow,” he said during the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists Congress held in Rosario, Argentina. Virgin soil in central Argentina contains 5 to 6 percent organic matter, but after 30 years of plowing organic matter has fallen to 2 to 3 percent. Plowing also left fields more susceptible to both wind and water erosion.

By the mid-1980s, a group of about 20 farmers began wondering if the no-till technology that farmers in the U.S. were adopting would work in Argentina as well. In 1989, they formed an organization called Aapresid to bring no-till technology to the region.

Trucco was one of those early no-till adopters. He purchased a prototype planter in 1976 that had been imported from Brazil. The first buyer was dissatisfied but Trucco kept experimenting with equipment and methods until he found a system that worked.

It’s Nature’s Way

“Nature does not plow, it has a system of planting one crop into another,” he said. “Soils are not to be plowed but to be planted.”

The arrival of Roundup Ready soybeans in the mid-1990s allowed farmers to more easily utilize no-till practices. Today around 80 percent of cropland is not tilled.

Martin Descalzo Souto, an agronomist with Aapresid, said farmers are changing how they view soil. In the past, they took their productive soils for granted but many are beginning to realize that no-till cultivation alone can’t repair the damage caused by years of planting continuous soybeans.

“No tillage is more than a practice. We talk about it as a system,” Souto said.

That’s why Aapresid has begun a project to encourage farmers to voluntarily improve their crop rotations to include more cereals. Farmers who use crop rotation to reduce chemical use and improve soil, plus keep records of their practices, receive certification. Around 100,000 have been certified since the program began.

Adrian Criolani is a member of Aapresid who owns 2,500 acres of land near Rosario that has been no-tilling for 15 years. Thirty years ago, the farm was a 7,500-acre livestock ranch.

Criolani uses a rotation that allows him to get three crops every two years. Winter wheat is sown in May and harvested in November, soybeans are seeded into the stubble in December. After the beans are harvested, the land rests through the winter and then corn is planted the following spring, followed by winter wheat again.

Following the program takes both time and money, Criolani said, but having the certification allows him to prove he is farming sustainably. “Social sustainability is very important worldwide,” he said.

One of the greatest costs in following a rotation is lost profits. Corn is much more expensive to raise than soybeans. According to figures calculated by the Rosario Chamber of Commerce, an organization that is similar to the Chicago Board of Trade, soybean growers are expected to lose approximately $40 per acre while corn growers will lose around $70 per acre based on expected prices and input costs.

“No tillage is one of the most important techniques in Argentina,” Souto said, adding that crop rotation will be a critical to improving yields to meet the food needs of a growing world population.

Uruguay Experience

Uruguay is using a different approach to increase crop rotation.

Growers in Argentina’s much smaller neighbor are equally dependent on soybeans in their rotations.

Beginning with this year’s crop, farmers are required to use a government developed software to enter their proposed crop rotation, soil type and slope. The model calculates estimated soil loss, which cannot exceed 5 percent on an annual basis.

That tolerance level will prevent most farmers from planting continuous soybeans, said Eduardo Blasina, a grain analyst in Uruguay. Farmers must submit all their cropping plans to the government, which will use satellite technology to check fields against the plans. Any farmer found to be out of compliance with their plan will be fined.

Since it is the first year of the program, Blasina is not sure how well it will work. But protecting soil productivity is a high priority for growers who have seen soybean acres increase from less than 5,000 acres in 2000 to nearly 3 million acres last year.