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Business Technology Optimization

How agri-tech saw production surge in Uruguay

In its 2014 report [Spanish], the Uruguay Ministry of Cattle, Agriculture and Fisheries announced that agriculture products exported went from being capable of feeding nine million people in 2005 to feed 28 million in 2014, with a projected increase to 40 million in 10 years.

But how did a 3.3 million people country manage such growth in such a short period? The answer lies in smart agricultural practices, or “agro intelligent Uruguay” as the Government calls it.

Cattle

A big pillar of this is the creation of a National Agricultural Information System (SNIA). The systematization of rural information started with indexing and mapping the territory in terms of its capacity for producing cattle, sheep and wool (CONEAT index), available for consultations in every property. About 15 years ago cattle began to be individually identified by herd management tags and RFID tags. Presently 100% of bovine stock is registered from birth to slaughter house to consumer, as well as many other products such as wine, honey, citrus and poultry.

The concept of traceability is now combined with genomics in an experimental project [Spanish] in the Kiyú Testing Facility of the Hereford Breeders society. Using intelligent feeder bins, the society tracks each animal and makes future predictions.

As research engineer Eli Navajas puts it: “We are generating a training bull population to decode the genotype of the animals. This data will be available when they are sold for reproduction, and using it will advance the rodeos”. Uruguay not only exports processed meat, it exports livestock and certified semen too.

Land use

The Information System will also be fed from data contained in the Land Use and Handling Plans (PUMS) mandatory for cultivated areas larger than 100 hectares. Adopted as a response to the increasing soy plantation without rotation, the plans aim to enforce soil conservation politics based on alternating crops to avoid erosion. They are made using a mathematical model developed by government agencies to predict erosion and controlled via drone and satellite image.

Now most medium to big producers have acquired smart machinery, hired agricultural services companies or joined production cooperatives. Eduardo Roland, who farms soy, wheat and barley says: “Today, the times between harvesting and planting are ever shorter or productivity decreases. It´s vital to use technology to ensure quality and speed”.

Rice

The pioneer in using smart technology was rice cultivation, focused on exporting high quality grain. The sector is vertically integrated, with price set by the producers and mills associations. Rice is planted on dry soil and then flooded, with low use of insecticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Seed certification, grain quality and soil status are monitored constantly and joint investigation by the producers and the National Agriculture Research Institute (INIA) have produced new varieties with improved quality and performance. There are many investment projects aiming to increase industrial efficiency and storage capacity.

Milk

Another technology intensive sector is dairy farming, with 83% of milk production done in a cooperative frame. The National Cooperative of Milk Producers (CONAPROLE) owned by 2000 family, medium and big producers is at the same time the biggest exporter in the country and a leader in milk industrialization. Individual producers have a centralized institution that registers fat and protein and is making a genetic base of milking animals.

Dairy producer Juan Ignacio Manado, considers this institution “a fundamental tool for good performance, since the information allows the producer to qualify each animal and make strategic decisions in advance”.

A relatively recent phenomenon is the rise of mega dairies geared to exportation. In Durazno, Estancias del Lago is gradually starting production with plans to export 17.000 annual tons of powder milk by 2017, increasing by one third the current country production. The project aims to integrate animal food farming, cattle breeding, milk production and industrialization, and bio fertilizers and energy (biogas and electricity) extraction. It incorporates artificial irrigation as a tool for alimentary security.

But can all these changes lead to increased development? The Government is focusing on improving the infrastructure, in a joint private-public participation effort. Private energy production - alternative energies from wind force and biomass - is encouraged to increase the countries energetic sufficiency. Technical education is also being extended via public university courses specific to the demands of the industry.

Technology has already seen agricultural production increase a lot in Uruguay. And it looks set to increase a lot further. This is definitely a country in development that needs watching.

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Alice Bonet

Alice Bonet is a freelance writer living in Uruguay. She runs an architectural practice focused on rural buildings, both for dwelling and production.

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