How safrinha is changing Brazil’s crop productivity picture

The second corn crop is now rivaling the first crop due to better genetics and management

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Brazil has seen dramatic increases in its crop production in recent years. That’s a direct result of aggressive productivity gains in soybean and corn production in particular — and without bringing additional, previously forested land into production.

According to Conab statistics, soybean production has risen from 40 million to 110 million tonnes annually in the last 15 years, and corn production has increased from 30 to 80 million tonnes per year during the same time. And since 2012, productivity per hectare of Brazil’s famous second planting, safrinha, now equals or exceeds that of the first or summer crop.

Why it matters: As the world’s largest exporter of soybeans and second largest exporter of corn, Brazil competes with Canada for many of the same international markets.

The gains are driven by improvements in plant genetics like development of shorter season varieties, and better soil management practices including adoption of no-till, as well as government-led extension services.

The National Rural Learning Service (SENAR in Portuguese) provides training programs and technical support to farmers to help with adoption of new technologies and sustainable production practices, and worked with more than 3.2 million Brazilian farmers in 2018.

Soybeans being harvested in Brazil in 2019.
photo: Lilian Schaer

Multinational crop genetics company KWS, ranked fourth in global sales volume behind Bayer, Corteva and Syngenta, focuses its Brazilian activities on corn breeding, with a special emphasis on improving second season crops. The development of early season corn and soybean varieties and planting corn after soy has dramatically changed the importance of safrinha.

“Fifteen years ago, most corn was summer corn planted in October and harvested in January,” explained KWS corn breeder Luiz Pires during a visit to the company’s Cambé research station in Paranà. “Now, it is soy planted first, and then corn that is harvested in July and August.”

More than 70 per cent of Brazil’s corn is now safrinha and an extra 200,000 hectares of corn are expected over the next five years, Pires said. That’s because cattle farmers are starting to rotate commodity crops through their degraded pastures as a way of boosting soil health, fertility and water-holding capacity.

Argentina’s GDM Seeds is the leading soybean genetics company in Brazil, with about 40 per cent market share. The country grows about 35 million hectares of soybeans per year, expanding by five percent annually.

Santiago DeStefano, of GDM, with soy seedlings.
photo: Lilian Schaer

“The south is the traditional soybean area, but the north is growing; short maturity soybeans enable corn during the winter so we always have a crop in the ground,” said GDM’s Commercial Director in Brazil, Santiago DeStefano. “Pasture areas are coming into soybean production as cattle are being integrated into cropping systems, so the growth is expected from degraded pastures – deforestation is not needed to achieve this growth.”

Breeders at both KWS and GDM look for stability, disease resistance and drought resilience in the new varieties they’re developing, and make sure to take Brazil’s many regional climate zones into consideration.

In southern areas, for example, frost, drought and windstorms challenge safrinha, whereas in the north drought is a leading concern. Genetically modified crops are used more in some areas of the country than others, depending on rotation, climate and disease and pest pressure.

Deforestation certification becoming common

The issue of deforestation is an important one in Brazil’s cropping supply chain and part of sustainability requirements increasingly demanded by export markets. Cargill’s recently released policy on sustainable soil commits the multi-national to making its supply chains deforestation-free; the company is releasing an action plan this spring on how it plans to accomplish that.

Under Brazil’s Soy Moratorium signed in 2006, Cargill and other big commodity buyers already committed to not buying soy from deforested lands in the Amazon, an agreement strictly enforced by GPS and satellite monitoring, according to Régis Prunzel, ports manager in Santos.

Trucks wait to unload soybeans at a Cargill terminal in Santos.
photo: Lilian Schaer

To accommodate the production increases, TES (formed in 2015 by Louis Dreyfus and Cargill) has launched a US$110 million U.S. expansion of its port facilities in Santos that will increase its static capacity from 145 to 285 million tonnes and its loading speed by 34 per cent.

“We are very comfortable doing this investment – look at the increase in grain exports in the last five years,” Prunzel said. “We are doing this for the next 10 years.”

Lilian Schaer visited Brazil as part of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ 2019 Exposure-4-Development tour.

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