Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Case Study 12. Alfalfa hay production by small-scale farmers in the Chaco - A semi-arid region in Santiago del Estero Province, NW Argentina[8]

The province of Santiago del Estero, in the heart of the semi-arid Chaco region in northwest Argentina, has a variable climate, both within and among years, because of erratic rainfall. Precipitation decreases from east to west; average annual rainfall is 716 mm (1008 mm high and 455 mm low) concentrated in the summer months (October to April). Summers are warm and humid; winters are cold and dry. The evaporation/precipitation balance is negative throughout the year (see Figure 61). Soils are prone to degradation (by wind and rain), but have no mineral deficiencies, with phosphorus and calcium in adequate concentrations.

Figure 60. Rain and potential evapotranspiration (PET) (average for 1934-1990) for Nueva Esperanza, Pellegrini Department, Santiago del Estero, Argentina.

The natural forest comprises xerophytic species, among them trees, including (quebracho blanco (Aspidosperma sp.); quebracho colorado (Schinopsis sp.), Prosopis nigra, P. alba and Ziziphus mistol); shrubs (Acacia aroma, Schinus molle, Cercidium australe, Celtis spinosa, Capparis sp., etc.); grasses such as Setaria sp., Trichloris sp., Digitaria sp., and Pappophorum sp.; and dicotyledonous species such as Justicia squarrosa, Wissadulia densiflora, etc. The native vegetation is an important fodder source for cattle and goats, which feed on leaves, branches and fruits. Forage quantity and quality are highest in the summer.

Table 36. Number of producers by type and production zone



Dulce River

South Salado River

Horcones River

North Salado River


Small-scale farms (< 5 ha)





2 550

Medium farms (6 to 50 ha)




Big farms (> 50 ha)








2 700

The main productive activities in Santiago el Estero are cattle rearing, forest development (for charcoal, poles and railway sleepers), and agricultural crops such as cotton, maize, soybean, beans and alfalfa, grown with or without irrigation. Alfalfa is produced in some parts of the province, by various producers using diverse technologies. The main areas are along the rivers Dulce and Salado. The common factor in all the areas is the small-scale farm producers.

The study area

The area lies between 26º 15´ S and 64º 10´ W, in the Pellegrini Department of Santiago del Estero Province. The area is far from major towns, such as Santiago del Estero (240 km) and Tucumán (140 km), and from the province of Salta (100 km). Rural roads link the area with these cities. The most important town is Nueva Esperanza, which has services such as schools, sewerage system, running water, electricity and shops. The rest of the area has no running water, only some wells with water of poor quality for human or animal consumption. These wells supply producers with water, especially in the winter. Most farms have water reservoirs where water from rain or wells is collected.

Description of small-scale farm systems

Types of Producers

There are over 400 small-scale farm producers in the area, of which approximately 200, organized in ten groups, are members of this project, aimed at strengthening the organization and productivity of producers. The usual country family is headed by a father, who is the main and often only provider. Most fathers (66%) are over forty years old (Table 37) because most men emigrate when they are very young, and come back to stay at home when they reach this age. To supplement earnings for basic needs, farmers with small holdings must go to other places, such as Salta or Tucumán, to work as bean or sugar cane harvesters, or on big farms. In some months, it is normal see no men on the farms because they are working away from home. The women and children have then to care for domestic animals and crops, and cultivate small vegetable plots for family consumption. The average family has five children, but 50% of the families have six. These children are the family labour force until they reach the age of fifteen, when they usually leave.

Table 37. Producers age and number of children for the families in the case study

Age in years


No. of children


20 - 40


0 - 3


41 - 60


4 - 6


Sample size: 78 families.

The rural home, known as rancho, is built with local material, such as wood from Prosopis, Schinopsis, etc., with adobe roofs and walls. Many producers, however, have begun to build modern houses, using concrete blocks with zinc or concrete roofs. The kitchen and toilet are usually separate from the bedrooms.

All the producers own their farmland. Many land plots average 6 ha, but less than 2.5 ha is productive (Table 38). Only the cultivated part is fenced; the rest of the land is open and it becomes a communal area for animal grazing. The natural pasture, because of the absence of stocking rate management, is in a poor condition, with low forage production and a limited recovery time.

Table 38. Distribution of the total and cultivated areas by percentage of producers

Total farm area (ha)


Area cultivated (ha)


< 5


< 1


5 to 10


1 to 4


> 10


> 4


Sample size: 78 families.

INTA is trying to ameliorate this situation by fencing these areas with electric fences, establishing areas banned to animals, seeding subtropical pastures (mainly grasses) and managing stocking rates. Arable land is developed by forest clearing and subsequent preparation and cultivation with the farmers' own implements. However, the land preparation is not ideal because of ground levelling problems, which still prevail after several years of cultivation. Resolving this constraint would allow better use of irrigation water, and decrease watering time and cost. Farmers sow between 0.5 and 4 ha with alfalfa; the average is 1 ha. The rest of the arable land is planted to maize, squash, melon and watermelon production (Table 39).

Table 39. Distribution of cultivated area and by percentage of producers





< 0.5 ha


< 0.5 ha


0.5 to 2 ha


0.5 to 2 ha


2 to 4 ha


2 to 4 ha


Sample size: 78 families.

Maize is the main cereal (see Figure 62) and production is based on regional varieties, with low technical inputs. Incomes are low, because yields do not exceed 1 t/ha. Production is for the producer's own consumption and his livestock; any surplus is sold or bartered. The stover is all used as forage. Maize is grown by all the farmers in the area, so improving its productivity can have a very significant impact. Technology must be oriented to improve grain yields through new cultivars and improved management, especially considering stubble management and incorporation of organic matter into the soil.

Figure 61. Distribution of maize and alfalfa area by number of producers

Most producers (78%) have horses for transport and draught, and also have pigs (79%). An increase in poultry, and, to a lesser extent, cattle (44%), goats (26%) and sheep (18%) has been observed. The basic diet of these animals is from three sources: alfalfa, crop residues (mostly maize) and natural pasture. Since horses need to be kept close for work and transport, they are fed with alfalfa (either fresh or dry), fodder maize stubble, and, sometimes, natural forages. Agricultural plots are the only fenced land producers have, the rest being open. Pigs are fed with fresh alfalfa and maize, and occasionally forage in natural woods and stubble. They are kept in pens mainly during birth and rearing. Cattle, goats and sheep (for meat) feed mostly on natural pastures.

Cultivation is mostly with animals (horses and mules). Simple ploughs and tooth harrows are used, and other hand-tools to cut and rake. Some producers in the region have farm machinery (such as tractors and harrows), which can be rented by other producers, who pay per hectare. The provincial government offers an alternative by placing "mechanized stations" in the zone, that provide services to producers, who only pay for fuel, with maintenance and personnel paid by the government.

The irrigation system is old, based on water some producers derive by channels from the Horcones River; other farmers pay fees for channel use. Irrigation is possible while the river carries water (usually during the rainy season, when irrigation needs are lower). During the summer, the water reaching the area is insufficient, so water must be taken from further north (El Mojón o La Fragua). This increases costs, which are estimated to be $ 2-3 per hour, and between 6 and 16 hours are needed to irrigate one hectare, depending on the volume. On account of the cost, producers farthest away are deprived of irrigation due to the distance from the water source to the plots (approximately 30 km). Water quality is good (with sediments) during the rainy season, but it decreases in the dry months, as the salt concentration increases, though levels are still tolerable for crops.

Irrigation availability is an important constraint to production, because water availability is not permanent and its management is still in the hands of big producers. To solve this situation, an integrated effort by the provincial government and producers is required to build a channel with a greater capacity. It will allow delivery of larger volumes of water at the times of high crop demand. The system should be operated by groups of producers.


Alfalfa is the main crop in terms of its contribution to family income, providing food for the most part for domestic animals. In rotation with other crops (maize, cucurbits), it improves nitrogen availability in the soil.

Soil preparation for seeding is as follows: the soil is worked once with a mechanical harrow. This service is paid for, costs ranging between $ 35 and 40/ha. Frequently, during periods of high demand, there is a shortage of equipment for this service, making it difficult to prepare the soil for seeding. The work is not usually satisfactory, because it tills only the upper 10 cm, leaving clots and weeds (for example, Cynodon dactylon, Sorghum halepense), so the producers have to do final seed-bed preparation using tooth harrows.

Between 25 and 40 kg/ha of seed is usual. The excessive quantity of seed is because of low botanical and physical quality. The seed is produced by farmers themselves, from the hay fields. Sowing is manual, by spreading the seed and then covering using a branch dragged by horses.

Eighty percent of the alfalfa area is seeded with the Saladina ecotype (Creole). It is not resistant to aphids and has a period of dormancy. Productivity is good, but the quality is low because of the large stem-to-leaf ratio.

After sowing, plots are irrigated, to allow seeds to germinate and establish quickly. At least 2 hours of irrigation are necessary, because of bad soil levelling, bad seeding and the low water volume.

Harvest is manual, using machetes or scythes. Plants are usually cut very close to the ground, to control weeds and renew the crown. This type of harvest does not take into account re-growth from the base. Four to five days are required to harvest each hectare, and an additional day to manually turn the alfalfa to ensure drying: a tedious and exhausting job. Some producers use a hand rake with 30-cm-long teeth to drag the cut fodder into windrows. The dry herbage is then loaded into a zorra (a long narrow cart) and taken to the backyard (if more drying is needed) or a shed. Eight cuts are made annually.

The main pest of this cultivar is Aphasia. Perfektionä, applied with bags, is used to control it. Though recommended quantities are applied, there are mistakes in bag calibration, and distribution when walking through the lot. The beneficial fauna is not recognized by farmers and it is not respected when applying insecticides. Little red spider can be a pest in dry conditions and with high temperatures. It is also controlled with Perfektion.

Bales are made by an artisanal procedure. Bottomless boxes, built from the algaroba tree (Prosopis juliflora), are laid on the ground and crossed with plastic fibre to tie the bales. The hay is then added and packed until the required weight is reached, and the bale tied. A pack usually has 7 pieces and weighs between 8 and 14 kg.). Alfalfa bale production is variable during the year. In spring and summer months, it is about 150 bales per hectare cut, while in the rest of the year it drops to 80 per hectare cut. Annual average production is estimated at about 920 bales/ha. Because of the variability in bale weight it is hard to estimate the dry matter produced per hectare.

The hay quality is very good (in colour and dryness), because of the way the producers work the alfalfa. After cutting, the forage does not remain more than 24-36 hours in the open before it is moved to the store, where it continues to dry until the right humidity for baling is reached. The forage retains a dark green colour and a high leaf percentage. The green colour of the hay, the leaf content, the drying and the absence of weeds are the qualitative parameters of quality used in commercialization.

The bales are sold to buyers who come from Salta and Tucuman, and prices range between US$ 0.80 and 3.00. The lowest prices are because of excessive supply in summer months. At that time, production is high and there is low demand, aggravated by the producers need of money and the scarcity of storage capability, which forces them to dispose of the product.

Technical assistance

Under these circumstances, technical assistance has the following objectives:

- To improve alfalfa production through adequate field management practices, including land levelling, seeding time, determination of cutting time, and harvesting systems.

- To introduce alfalfa varieties that are more productive and resistant to insect pests and diseases. This includes identifying diseases, pests and beneficial insects, control methods and specific control products, and establishing dosages and application procedures.

- To consolidate the organization of the groups, and to motivate and strengthen the groups for developing integrated activities, including problems and solutions analysis, buying and selling products, and making joint demands for the solution of regional problems at local and regional government level.

Activities towards attaining the objectives include group meetings and personal visits, where socio-organizational and technical production topics are considered. In addition, there is also training provided by experts in the relevant fields.

To assist consolidation of group organisations, other group institutions are used: meetings of delegates and a Group Federation. Together, they consider common aspects of the regional problems and try to suggest solutions. Training related to socio-organizational problems is the responsibility of technicians from the Social Livestock Programme (SAP- a national programme of the Secretariat for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food). It developed the idea of persuading the Group Federation to address irrigation problems. Another topic that has been proposed to the groups is the joint marketing of alfalfa bales, to reduce price fluctuations. When prices are low, bales are stored in a communal storage facility and producers receive the market price. Later, when prices increase, bales are sold and producers receive the difference. To begin this system, SAP lends money to producers for both the construction of the store and to establish a capital fund to pay the low market price for the bales. The producers commitments to the group consist of paying back the loans, in giving part or all of his bales to this system, and to contributing a percentage of sales to maintain the capital fund.

To support training in technical production aspects, some demonstrations were established in three small producers lots. The cultivars used were Cuf 101, INTA Salter and others. The aim of the trials is for producers to see and compare the behaviour of these varieties with the creole. They will also serve to demonstrate some technical management practices recommended for the improvement of alfalfa crops, namely:

- levelling of the plots by using practical levels (tubes) and the use of simple implements and animal power;

- early preparation (a long fallow period before planting) of the ground to control weeds and finish seedbeds;

- sowing at the correct time in autumn (mid-March to mid-May). The best time is April, because temperature and humidity are optimum to ensure fast germination, emergence and establishment. There is also less competition from weeds;

- sowing in 12 to 15 cm rows, by using an animal-drawn seed-drill;

- programmed cuts according to basal re-growth or 10% bloom;

- observation of the decrease in the plant stands and comparison through the years;

- recognition of beneficial insects (parasites and predators of pests) such as coccinelids, microhymenopters, carabids, hymenoptera and diptera; and

- correct use of specific pesticides.

In those experimental plots, quality evaluation and comparison between the creole and other cultivars is carried out all year. These comparisons include leaf:stem ratios and several chemical analysis, including fibre (ADF, NDF), crude protein (% CP) and in vitro digestibility. Technicians from INTA EEA Santiago del Estero are in charge of training producers and carrying out the experimental trials.

Economics of alfalfa production

The economics are based on costs of establishment, production costs and gross returns from crops for hay. To calculate the costs, the farming system characteristics shown in Table 40 were used. To analyse the costs, all of the producers' expenses were considered, as well as costs of machine services or hiring workers. The costs were divided into establishment and production costs. The former includes expenses for soil preparation (cost of services), irrigation, and seed. These are are amortised over four years, considered to be the useful life of an alfalfa crop. In the production costs, all the expenses involved in bale handling, crop protection and irrigation were considered. The highest costs are hired help for cutting, raking and baling. Hiring is mainly in the months the producers are away from home, working in other places. The analysis is shown as Table 41.

Table 40. Farm system parameters for alfalfa production

Annual yield

920 bales/ha

Cuts per year


Spring-summer yield

150 bales/ha

Autumn-winter yield

80 bales/ha

Average bale weight

14 kg

Average bale sale price

$ 1.53

Crop life

4 years

Table 41. Costs and returns in alfalfa production

A - Total cost ($/ha)

B - Work-days per farmer


Establishment costs (discing, seed, irrigation and irrigation work)



Establishment costs on a per-year basis (A or B amortised over 4 years)




Production costs (irrigation, pesticide, mowing, raking, carriage to shed, baling, baling twine, feed for work horse)




Total direct costs (1 + 2)




Total gross return (yield ´ price)

1 407.6


Gross margin (4 - 3) $/ha ´ years



Equivalent day work (5/3B) ($/dw)


The annual gross margins per hectare for the producers are acceptable, compared to other production alternatives in the region. The bale price is high compared with bales from other regions, which are heavier (20 kg). When we consider the gross margin related to the days the producer works in alfalfa crops, it is 40% higher than the daily wages he receives working away from the farm. The producers' main source of income comes from this system of bale selling, and it is supplemented by off-farm work, in other provinces. Sometimes the sale of animal products (such as young goats, domestic fowls, eggs, etc.) increases family incomes. Subsistence consumption prevails in most families.


With this project, INTA - SAP is endeavouring to increase the standard of living of producers. This goal will only be reached if there is a joint effort between producers and government institutions. This project became operational in 1995, and already important advances have been achieved in organizing producers (grouping; common problems analysis and solution; and commercialization) and in improving the alfalfa crop. There are still many aspects to cover, both organizational and technical, but the only way is to strengthen relationships between producers and technicians. In this process, nothing is imposed: it begins with a statement of the problems by the producers, a proposal for solving those problems by the technicians, and a search for financial support, as cash loans or subsidies. Producers have understood that only joint efforts will succeed: forming working groups, training themselves and leaving personal demands aside. At the same time, the technicians have learnt to understand the producers' timing and to respect their empirical knowledge, resulting from years of accumulated daily experience. It is clearly not an easy task, but the journey has been started and there is no turning back.

[8] This case study was prepared by Hector Eduardo Perez, INTA, Santiago del Estero.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page