Farm Journal traveled to Brazil this winter, covering 2,200 miles for a firsthand look at a new definition of big
Realizing there is no substitute for firsthand experience, champion soybean producer Kip Cullers invited Farm Journal to join him as he trekked east to west across Brazil in February. A frequent visitor to the up-and-coming production powerhouse, Cullers wanted Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie to see the soils, crops and infrastructure in Brazil—and get a sense of the global competitor.
|During soybean harvest in Goiás, Brazil, Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie (let) and Kip Cullers (right) visit farm manager Leonardo Titoto.
On his first trip to the country, Ferrie landed in São Paulo and hit the ground running. He and Cullers spent five days traveling through five Brazilian states. The trip was all agriculture, all the time, and culminated in Mato Grosso. On the journey, our group spent 40% of travel time on dirt roads, and it rained 25% of the time.
"I expected to see a system similar to the U.S. with production, planting, fertilization, harvest and getting crops to market with the same channels as we have," Ferrie says. "On the production side, there’s a lot that is very similar, but the scope, size and scale are incredibly different. The farms we visited have their own agronomist, deal directly with suppliers and have their own spreading, spraying and application equipment."
During the week, the group visited eight farms, research plots, grain facilities, seed and fertilizer dealers and an operation that included both a sugar mill and an ethanol plant.
"I was overwhelmed by the size of operations and the volume of grain moving through the country. Everywhere we traveled is geared around agriculture," Ferrie says. "It is impressive how fast technology has been adopted. These farms have come a long way in a short amount of time."
The growing season in Brazil is divided into the wet season and the dry season. Not only is water a limiting factor for production but, more surprisingly, so is sunlight. Many days are cloud-covered.
Double crops rule. As the troop moved north and west, they saw sugarcane planting, the beginning of sugarcane harvest, corn and soybean harvest, and then double-crop planting of sorghum and corn—right behind soybeans or corn.
There are 25 million acres of sugarcane in production in Brazil, and 20 million of those acres are in the state of São Paulo. Sugarcane harvesting starts with seed cane in February, while the field cane harvest normally starts in April and runs through November.
|Each node on a segment of sugarcane can sprout into a stalk for a new plant.
It takes one acre of harvested seed cane to plant five acres for the next crop. Once sugarcane is planted, it can be harvested for six years before being replanted.
The seed cane is cut into 8" to 10" pieces, and every node can produce a stalk. The stalk segments are nestled into a knee-deep furrow with a fertilizer that is applied when the trench is dug. Then a machine comes through, applies an insecticide (to control termites) and a fungicide in-furrow and smooths soil over the top.
"I like to learn about sugarcane because it’s grown in a very limited area of the U.S.," Cullers says. "It’s like johnsongrass on steroids, and like a corn plant in that it’s a C4 crop but without an ear or a tassel."
Our group visited the Usina Ipiranga sugar mill in São Paulo to see the crews getting ready for harvest. The technical manager for the mill, Luiz Cunali Defilippi Filho, shared that harvest will last and the mill will run for 200 to 250 days. This is one of three sugar mills owned by his family—and a fourth mill is under construction, which will solely produce cane ethanol.
His family started in this business in 1952. Today, they harvest 170,000 acres of sugarcane with a fleet of 35 self-propelled harvesters. The crew runs day and night, a schedule made easier with the GPS steering installed on the 10 newest harvesters.
It takes 75,000 to 100,000 acres of cane to feed the sugar mill. The average distance from field to mill is 14 miles. The mill uses 8,800 tons of cane daily to produce raw sugar and 80,000 gal. of ethanol. The processed sugar is stored in 2,000-lb. and 2,500-lb. totes, stacked in the on-site warehouse and transported for refining.
- Early Spring 2012