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The View from Here: No access to technical advisers

Mike Gangwer Published on 09 August 2013

Reporting to you from Alexandria (Noubaria), Egypt …

We are working this week in a rural area south of Alexandria, very near the desert road connecting Alexandria and Cairo, about 220 kilometers.

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The farmers here are growing citrus, vegetables, grapes and tree fruit including apples, peaches and pears.

What is interesting almost immediately upon my arrival at every farm is the lack of connectivity with technical advisers. The exception is the retail owners selling manufactured fertilizer, seed and farm equipment.

There is no functioning extension service here along the model we are used to in the U.S. And there is no functioning Ministry of Agriculture, similar to Farm Service Agency (FSA) or my own agency, NRCS.

Farmers are certainly literate and understand farming largely based on the law of primacy … that is the handed-down ways of doing things from the previous generation.

There is value in primacy. Certainly, a son learning about farming, especially the unique landscape of an individual farm field, is something no technical person or even a fertilizer salesman can teach. It is learned over the long years of growing up on the farm.

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However, what we know about farming does change over time. Scientists and engineers have brought us new ideas, new methods, different approaches and performance monitoring so we can operate our farms more efficiently.

Farmers themselves learn on their own, trying something different on part of the field or adjusting some input into a dairy ration to see what happens to milk yield or cow health.

These Egyptian farmers do not have access to knowledgeable people with the technical skills to provide unbiased recommendations.

For instance, the manufactured fertilizer recommendations are provided to the farmer by the retail owner that is in business to sell multiple fertilizer products. And these farmers do not use a functioning soil testing laboratory that is nearby.

These facts, albeit anecdotal from just a dozen or so farm visits, disturb me. While visiting the soil laboratory in Alexandria earlier in the week, the manager and his five employees were doing nothing related to laboratory work.

In fact, the equipment was completely at rest. The manager showed me some recent soil fertility analyses and, while dated September of 2012, they appeared to be done correctly for these kinds of arid soils.

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I always suggest that soil fertility analyses are not a cost but an investment so farmers can make better decisions. The investment cost here is minimal; I was told just the cost of the laboratory materials.

Another problem is irrigation scheduling. Farmers here appear to have no methodological rationale for how they irrigate. None of them know the volume or rate of application; they all know timing … some once a day, others twice a week and so on.

We used a soil auger to look at the wetting zone to a depth of 150 cm, or about 5 feet deep. We compared the moisture content of soils by observation and by hand-feel method all the way down to see where the root zone was wet and at what depth.

Our investigation was done in tree fruits and citrus, and the wetting depths were in excess of a meter (3 feet) deep.

The farmers were interested in the rationale behind adjusting the timing of irrigation application, as they all knew that excess water leached nutrients and may predispose plants to disease, especially root disease.

None of them understood anything about photosynthesis, soil root aeration or the fact that manufactured fertilizer must be transported into the plant via the soil solution.

Most of them thought the plant root could absorb the nitrogen or phosphorus molecule apart of the water entering the plant root that is part of transpiration.

We talked about placing a pan in the field that will help the farmer know how much water is evaporated every day. I suggested that this simple and inexpensive method can help us know how much water enters the atmosphere as vapor from liquid.

One step better is installing an atmometer, a very useful device built in Colorado. The Ministry of Agriculture does maintain regional weather stations, but I am told the data is proprietary.

Data from our U.S. weather stations, including the ones maintained by most of our land-grant universities, is in the public domain, and farmers and the public can have near-real-time evapotranspiration calculated data and other atmospheric measurements.

Our tax dollars pay for this valuable service, but not here in Egypt or many of the other countries in this region. (I clearly remember the weather station data managed by the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture was not available for the farmers or the public.)

I am not carrying a flow meter with me. Such a device would have helped us know irrigation pump output so we could calculate volume by pump rate per unit time, the time the pump was turned on, and then the rate given the time each millimeter of water depth was applied. Having an unobtrusive or exterior flow meter would have been helpful – very helpful, in fact.

Building the tool box for our technician, then, includes a soil auger, a pan evaporator or atmometer and a pump flow meter. One additional item is a timer on the pump that records the on-off time period so that the pump rate multiplied by the time on can tell us the volume per total time.

I have not talked with these farmers about soil moisture sensors such as the relatively low-cost Watermark or the Decagon EC5 sensors. I did not bring any of them with me.

Yet downrange, the use of these sensors can help confirm the relative water withdrawal from the root zone as per evaporation of water from the field soil surface and the transpiration of water by plants through the shoot and stem and leaf via conversion of liquid water to water vapor at the leaf (stomata).

I have one more day of work here in Noubaria, and my final-day seminar will be particularly geared toward the handful of extension engineers that will carry on this work after I am gone.

I can positively report to you that the farmers earnestly seek these new methods for scheduling irrigation application, and so we will take pretty small steps to begin with.

Let me write here about another interesting visit, this one at an artificial insemination facility here in Noubaria. I looked at their lineup of about 20 Holstein bulls – and they did have a few water buffalo.

The semen processing equipment is out of Germany, and the laboratory appeared to be clean, well-run and operational. The manager tells me he is selling semen to many dairymen within the area. I am told there are herd sizes here of up to several thousand cows.

The manager reported to me that there is little in the way of progeny testing. In other words, the dairymen are not using a testing program, something similar to our DHIA.

I asked, “Then how does the dairyman select a bull from his lineup?” Appears upon the recommendation of the salesman, and that recommendation is based upon the first offspring on the co-owned dairy farm of 400 cows.

On our dairy farm in Parkdale, Oregon, one of the most important envelopes that came by mail to our mailbox was the big package from Provo, Utah, the site of the DHIA testing and computer equipment. This data is essential for testing the performance of bulls at stud.

Interestingly, the manager – a warm and very eager young guy – admitted that the testing part was a critical gap that needed to be filled.

Unfortunately, I had just a small time with him, so we could not talk operationally, but if what he told me is true, can you imagine a 1,000-cow dairy without the kind of cow records and herd records that resulted in the huge productive gains made by the U.S. dairy industry?

I’ll try to follow up on this part of the dairy industry. Surely these larger dairy herds have some form of record-keeping.

I have some exciting work ahead, and I will report to you what I learn in the next article. And I am really enjoying the work here, although the heat in summer can be brutal … just like my time in Iraq a few years ago. PD

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Mike Gangwer
Agricultural Scientist
USDA-NRCS

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