The South American country is recognized around the world for its pioneering role in the development of no-till farming.

By Dario Bard

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When it comes to sustainable farming, Argentina is recognized internationally as the leader in one particular practice that is catching on worldwide: no-till farming. On a recent trip to the country, a delegation from Australia’s Conservation Agriculture and No-till Farming Association found that 90 percent of Argentine growers practice zero-till farming.

Farm Products, an Argentine company involved in the commercialization of confection sunflower seeds, reports that the use of this technique is increasing year after year as its advantages become more and more evident. No-till benefits include higher productivity due to increased moisture retention, less soil erosion and increased organic content in the soil due to greater ground cover, reduced greenhouse gas emissions due to soil carbon storage, and reduced costs due to savings on equipment, manpower and fuel consumption. According to Farm Products, no-till farming is the most sustainable agricultural practice available today.

“In Argentina, we started to see the expansion of no-till farming with RR soybeans around 1995,” says Facundo Quiroz, Chief of the Sunflower Group at the Balcarce Unidad Integral of the Instituto Nacional de Tecnologia Agropecuaria (INTA) (national agriculture and livestock technology institute) and the Department of Agricultural Science, National University of Mar del Plata. “Then corn and wheat followed. For sunflower seeds, it began to take off in 2002.”

It is estimated that during the 2001-2002 growing season, 30 percent of the sunflower crop was sown using the no-till method. That figure grew gradually over the years to reach today’s levels. Even so, Quiroz points out that sustainable practices, such as no-till sowing, are more advanced with respect to oil sunflower than confection sunflower production. This is due in part to modest investments in research for the latter given its relatively smaller market size.

For many oil sunflower growers, the shift to no-till sowing was made possible in 2002 thanks to the availability of weed-resistant varieties. In this respect, Clearfield technology was especially important. Sunflower seeds with Clearfield technology have weed resistance built-in at the genetic level. This was achieved not through genetic modification (Argentine sunflower products are GMO-free) but rather through the identification of a naturally-occurring wild sunflower mutation and its incorporation into commercial seed varieties through cross-fertilization.

Clearfield technology has less of an environmental impact than traditional herbicides and is also more effective because it has a wide-spectrum of weed control and is not as sensitive to changing climate conditions. With this advanced seed technology available for oil sunflower production in 2002, growers quickly saw greater yields as losses from weeds were significantly reduced.

“Disease control is important in sunflower production, and especially in confection sunflower production,” explains Quiroz. “Confection sunflower plantings are less dense than oil sunflower plantings. If you plant more than 50,000 plants per hectare, you could affect the size of the seed, and that will affect the quality of your product. And so the disease factor is especially important in confection sunflower because you are dealing with lower densities.”

201304-sunflowers-feature-sustainable-practices-in-argentina-dario-bardFor this reason, confection sunflower growers also utilize integrated pest management strategies, including careful selection of lot and sowing date, crop rotation, infestation monitoring and the use of decoy crops.

“In La Pampa, pigeons are a problem for confection sunflower. So, together with their crop, farmers are planting a particular type of sunflower that grows with its head held upright, as opposed to others, which grow drooped over. This can even be an oil sunflower type. The important thing is that it is attractive to the pigeons, which have an easier time feeding off sunflowers with an upright head.”

Another move to sustainable sunflower growing involves the use of fertilizers.

“About 20 years ago, the thinking of growers was that sunflowers didn’t respond to fertilization, so fertilizers weren’t used,” says Quiroz. “But now we see a considerable increase in the use of fertilizers.”

Farm Products cites the use of fertilizers to restore the soil’s chemical composition as one of its sustainable farming practices.

“No-till farming has been important in Argentina as a way to address soil erosion. If we are indeed a leader in sustainable agriculture, it is mostly due to no-till planting,” says Quiroz.

No-till planting is a sustainable farming technique that Argentina seems intent on improving even further. At the 18th International Sunflower Conference held in February 2012 in Mar del Plata, Alfredo Lange, a consultant with CREA Mar y Sierras, gave a presentation on the challenges facing no-till production. These include, among others, the difficulties of using mechanical seeders on non-tilled lots and the development of favorable breeding habitat for slugs and woodlice in the crop stubble. In his presentation, Lange states that the no-till method presents more challenges for sunflowers than for other crops.

Nonetheless, he says there are solutions or at least means to lessen the impact of many of these problems. He concludes by stressing the importance of continued research on no-till sunflower growing, noting that research for other crops is far more advanced in this regard, and warning that unless this gap is closed, the sunflower industry may find itself losing acreage to these alternative crops.