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.
The energy necessary for milling sugar is self-sustaining. The residual waste from the sugar process is called bagasse and is fed into boilers, which create steam to turn turbines that generate electricity to power the entire facility. The cake byproduct from the sugar processing is rich in sulfur and phosphorus and is reapplied to the fields. Ethanol production has a byproduct high in potassium, which is also applied back to the fields.
From the heart of sugarcane production, the group traveled into more grain acres in the state of Goiás.
"The first corn field we were in was 2,500 acres, and then we were in two 1,000-acre soybean fields with seven combines running in each," Ferrie says. "This redefines what big is!"
|Seven combines, spanning 240', marched side by side across the field. The goal for the farm: harvest 750 acres of soybeans a day with yields of 50 bu. to 60 bu.
Isolated on large tracts of land, farms typically provide housing for year-round employees.
"It’s almost impossible to describe in words how vast the fields are in Brazil. As far as the eye can see, you see corn, soybeans or cotton in all four directions," Cullers adds.
The March 9 USDA reports predict a drop in the 2012 Brazilian soybean crop, estimated at 68.5 million tons or 2.53 billion bushels. Most farms the group visited had hoped for higher yields, but weather stress was a main factor in yield decreases.
"I expected to see a lot of back-to-back rotations of soybeans," Ferrie says. "But it’s not a monocrop system; we saw many different crop rotations, some in response to disease pressures and some in response to strong global crop prices."
The corn crop is expected to increase to 62 million tons or 24.4 billion bushels. The corn yields in the fields the group visited were 170 bu. to 180 bu., which Ferrie thought was impressive for a tropical climate.
Climate inspired. The climate challenges in Brazil sparked Cullers to develop his KT line of foliar feed products. In its first year of field trials, the micronutrient formulations are for corn, soybeans, cotton and sugar-cane. Applied three times in the season, they are piggybacked with
another sprayer application of herbicides or fungicides.
"My theory is to increase photosynthesis in the plant," Cullers says. "The KT product helps stimulate root growth and CO2 production."
|In the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, there was a lot of activity in the field with harvest, double crop planting and
mid-stages of crops.
Harvest presents its own seasonal challenges as soybean harvest is in the middle of the rainy season.
"We saw that it’s not a matter of if it will rain today, but when it will rain," Ferrie says. "But the farmers are prepared with tarps on their combines, trailers and seed hoppers. We saw very little tillage except in the sugarcane. The planters are set up to plant in wet conditions, and apply dry fertilizer."
The unique composition of the soil allows farmers to wait a considerably short time between rainfall and getting back in the field.
"The soils are all red in color and very porous," Ferrie says. "Brazil doesn’t seem to have the variability in soils that we do. But the soils don’t hold water, so I can see how they are dependent on the frequent rains."
One field visited in Mato Grosso do Sul, at the 16,000-acre Maraney Farms, had taken on 2" of rain the day before. Yet, seven combines spanning 240' were running side by side in the field. The operation has an aggressive goal of harvesting 750 acres per day.
Long hours and tough conditions in remote areas is why many combines come equipped with an air compressor hooked to the fan on the radiator, to blow crop residue and dust off, and a set of air wrenches, to handle repairs in the field.
The soybeans being harvested ranged from 15% to 20% moisture, and the dryer setup can dry up to 4,240 bu. per hour.
The grain dryers across the country are wood-fired dryers fed with eucalyptus wood, which is ready to be harvested after six years. The trees are planted about 15' apart; for the first three years, soybeans are produced between the rows, and in the next three years, cattle are grazed
between the rows.
In a portion of the field that had already been combed clean by the combines, three planters were putting in double-crop corn. Using RTK guidance, a 34-row 20" planter with two skip rows for the sprayer tires made its passes and then two 17-row planters filled in the gaps. Double-crop corn can be planted until early March.
The 10,000 acres of Evandro Peixoto’s farm are in the shadow of a newly opened sugarcane ethanol plant. However, Peixoto is committed to growing crops in his chosen rotations, which doesn’t include sugarcane.
He grows two crops every year divided into the following rotations: soybeans followed by corn; soybeans followed by crotalaria (a cover crop); and corn followed by sunflowers.
Corn is part of the rotation to control soybean cyst nematodes, and crotalaria is a control agent for lesion nematodes. In addition, the cover crop is harvested for seed, which Peixoto sells.
In mid-February, the farm was harvesting its first crop and planting the second crop for the year, which keeps machines swarming the fields. Peixoto goes the extra mile for employees to feel a strong sense of ownership. Every machine has the employee’s name who operates it on the equipment. The newest piece of machinery goes to the newest employee.
About 60 miles down the road in Mato Grosso do Sul, Evandro’s brother, Eduardo, and his wife, Margie, also use crop rotation to manage agronomic challenges. Due to heavy white mold pressure, a field was planted to corn-on-corn instead of soybeans.
As the group entered into the state of Mato Grosso, the landscape varied from steep canyons to flat fields.
"You’ve heard of flat black; well, this is flat red," Cullers says. "In this state, you can see a 50,000-acre soybean field."
In Mato Grosso, rain will stop in April, then start back in September. The group was there at the end of Carnival, a nationwide holiday, so harvest was going fast and furious after the break. At the terminal, several hundred trucks were backed up waiting to unload—the wait was expected to be 30 to 40 hours.
Next, they visited a Bom Futuro farm, which grows corn, soybeans and cotton. In total size, this farm spans 10 miles by 15 miles in 150 sections or 600 quarters—a total of 96,000 acres. This is just one of nine farms for the Bom Futuro group, which farms almost 1 million acres. The group produced 815,000 tons or 27.1 million bushels of soybeans in 2010. However, the yields in the area are down 20% due to 30 days without rain during the prime growing season.
|Two of these V-bottom buildings are at the grain storage site, each with 1.2-million-bushel capacity.
One of the grain storage and drying facilities includes two buildings used for dry-holding storage, each with 1.2-million-bushel capacity. The dump pit holds 15,000 bu. There are three dryers on-site, all wood-fired, which together can dry 12,000 bu. an hour.
"A common perception is that these farms are being converted from rainforest, but what we saw is that stage of development is over," Ferrie says. "There are huge tracts of land being used for cattle grazing that could easily be put into crop production."
The cost of land has changed in 10 years. Newly converted farm ground used to sell for $300 per acre in the northern states; now it is more like $6,000 per acre.
"The Brazilian farmer also has to deal with the challenge of strict labor laws," Ferrie says. "We learned that farmers have to provide a cafeteria for all employees, and if one worker is not wearing the farm-supplied boots, the farmer is fined for all of the workers."
Ferrie and Cullers both walked away with a better understanding of Brazilian agriculture. Despite the country’s expansive fields and robust agricultural growth, Brazilian farmers still face challenges with basic infrastructure development, pest pressures, weather restrictions and tightening labor laws.