Brazil­ian farm­ers aim for sus­tain­abil­i­ty

Brazil is known for its soya cultivation and rain­for­est, how­ev­er agri­cul­ture in this eco­nom­ic super­pow­er involves more than that. A lot of Brazil­ian farm­ers also look at the longer term and work on ensur­ing healthy soil.

Farmer Rogério Pacheco is bent over amongst his soya plants. With a knife he pokes into the red soil as the sun burns on his straw hat. “Look!” he proud­ly points. “Just like I said: The soil is teem­ing with life.” Two worms snake across each oth­er and try to find a way through with­ered plant mate­r­i­al.

He grabs a hand­ful of plant residues. “This is our humus.” Then he points to the half-rot­ted maize stalks, rem­nants of the pre­vi­ous crop. “We haven’t ploughed since 1991. It caused ero­sion. Dur­ing tor­ren­tial rains the soil was washed down from the hills and took our crops with it. By not plough­ing we main­tain the struc­ture of the soil and the soil organ­isms remain intact. In addi­tion, this also improves the water-reten­tion capac­i­ty of the soil. I dare say that direct sow­ing is the sal­va­tion of Brazil­ian agri­cul­ture. “

Brazil is well known for its vast soya fields. The coun­try is about 8.5m km2. About 9% of the sur­face is used for agri­cul­ture.

Mr Pacheco has an arable farm in the south­ern state of Rio Grande do Sul, some 1,000km south of São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil. He has 1,000ha of land, of which 800ha is arable land and 200ha is uncul­ti­vat­ed. He is the third gen­er­a­tion in the fam­i­ly busi­ness and is hap­py to take the lead. For the past 10 years his focus has been on pre­ci­sion farm­ing. He reg­u­lar­ly takes soil sam­ples, mea­sures maize yields dur­ing com­bin­ing, uses satel­lite data to visu­alise and assess his land and col­lab­o­rates with a local machine man­u­fac­tur­er when it comes to test­ing pre­ci­sion tech­niques.

His entire busi­ness is focused on improv­ing soil qual­i­ty. His crop choic­es are based on this: He grows oats to improve sub­se­quent soya root­ing in the rota­tion. Pri­or to plant­i­ng maize, he grows sorghum or wild peas as a green manure. Its straw sup­plies nitro­gen. “That pro­duces 90kg/ha of pure nitro­gen for my own use. I only spread potash when the soil sam­ple says it’s nec­es­sary and phos­phate as required. If nec­es­sary, I scat­ter lime after har­vest.”

By not plough­ing we main­tain the struc­ture of the soil and the soil organ­isms remain intact.

Rogério Pacheco

Over the past five years in par­tic­u­lar, he has noticed that more and more com­pa­nies are engaged in pre­ci­sion farm­ing. “Pre­vi­ous­ly, the required knowl­edge and suit­able machin­ery were not avail­able: Soil sam­ples were tak­en hap­haz­ard­ly, and GPS was too inac­cu­rate. If we still intend to farm here in 50 years’ time, we will have to focus on improv­ing soil qual­i­ty. ”

Focus on pre­ci­sion farm­ing

Pro­fes­sor Tel­mo Jorge Carneiro Ama­do: “We ini­tial­ly focused on reduc­ing nitro­gen use, now we are focused on the whole pic­ture.”

Mr Pacheco is not the only one who under­stands this. As a mem­ber of the farm­ers’ co-oper­a­tive Cotri­jal, he is close­ly involved with the lat­est devel­op­ments. In Não-me-toque, the city also known as the cap­i­tal of Brazil­ian pre­ci­sion farm­ing, this co-oper­a­tive works close­ly with the Uni­ver­si­ty of San­ta Maria and a local machine man­u­fac­tur­er, as part of the Aquar­ius project.

The aim is to raise Brazil­ian pre­ci­sion farm­ing to a high­er lev­el. “In 2001 our uni­ver­si­ty was the first in Brazil to col­lect soil data,” says Pro­fes­sor Tel­mo Jorge Carneiro Ama­do. “That went pix­el by pix­el with soil sen­sors. The satel­lites and drones came lat­er. They allow mon­i­tor­ing the field dur­ing the veg­e­ta­tion peri­od.

“We ini­tial­ly focused on reduc­ing nitro­gen use, now we are focused on the whole pic­ture. After all, Brazil is the largest con­sumer of arti­fi­cial fer­tilis­er in the world, so if we can refine pre­ci­sion farm­ing, the advan­tages will be enor­mous.”

The prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor adds: “The Brazil­ian soil suf­fers every­where from a short­age of phos­phate and potas­si­um. Arti­fi­cial fer­tilis­er (NPK) is eas­i­ly avail­able and ensures a high crop yield. But Brazil­ian farm­ers are try­ing to save mon­ey, they buy fungi­cides, but for­get to invest in nutri­ents. They need to learn to look at the entire soil sys­tem. We need to bring our knowl­edge to those farm­ers.”

That works to a cer­tain degree. The use of pes­ti­cides is declin­ing, and soil maps show that the soil is more uni­form and gen­er­ates more rev­enue than 10 years ago, accord­ing to Mr Ama­do.

By not plough­ing the soil life increas­es. The pres­ence of earth­worms is the evi­dence of that.

But that does not mean the sec­tor can rest on its lau­rels. Although the mem­bers of the co-oper­a­tive are already con­vinced of the advan­tages of a healthy soil and are immers­ing them­selves in pre­ci­sion farm­ing, a large sec­tion of Brazil­ian farm­ers are scep­ti­cal. “They are pri­mar­i­ly focused on the short term,” says Mr Ama­do. They go for cash crops and only think of prof­it. They think that deplet­ing the soil in this way is of sec­ondary impor­tance. That´s real­ly a shame. They use the argu­ment that their grand­fa­ther nev­er worked with yield maps and soil analy­ses, so why should they,” sighs the pro­fes­sor. “For­tu­nate­ly, the younger gen­er­a­tion of farm­ers are more open to it. That gen­er­a­tion is much more dig­i­tal­ly ori­en­tat­ed and sees the added val­ue of it.”

Nev­er­the­less, in a vast coun­try like Brazil it is pre­cise­ly that dig­i­tal aspect which remains an obsta­cle to be sur­mount­ed. “The poor inter­net cov­er­age leads to prob­lems. The con­nec­tion between the machine on the farm and the office is some­times lost.”

Look­ing after the soil

Agri­cul­tur­al engi­neer and farmer Fran­cis­co Souill­jee stud­ied pre­ci­sion farm­ing for years. He mea­sures yields dur­ing the maize har­vest and has his soil analysed. He bases his fer­tilis­er pro­gram on yield maps, and every 10 days he receives satel­lite images of his land.

As ear­ly as 1995 he decid­ed to not plough and rather sow his crops with­out dis­turb­ing the sur­face. He car­ried out var­i­ous tests on his 700ha of land, includ­ing the use of vetch as a catch crop. “By using vetch my fer­tilis­er demand was great­ly reduced. For exam­ple, with maize we can have two har­vests and I now only need to spread 150kg/ha of nitro­gen per crop instead of 400kg per year pre­vi­ous­ly. It is a nat­ur­al form of fer­tilis­er. We must first look after the soil prop­er­ly. Only then can we focus on high­er yields.”

Agri­cul­tur­al engi­neer and farmer Fran­cis­co Souill­jee stud­ied pre­ci­sion farm­ing for years.

Mr Souilljee’s grows oats, maize and soya, and pro­duces 12t/ha of maize: “In the US, the yield can be high­er, and we should be able to reach that lev­el too.” With soya, he achieves 5.8t/ha, but believes that 7t is pos­si­ble if it is grown with­in a crop rota­tion. “Pre­ci­sion farm­ing is one thing, but there is a lim­it to what is prof­itable and what is not. You can invest more and more, but that also increas­es your risk. There­fore, crop rota­tion is very impor­tant to reduce risk and it leads to high­er yields too.”

He knows mono­cul­ture is a prob­lem. “Many farm­ers grow cash crops, but do not see what that does to the soil in the longer term. They sell the land again when the yields decrease.”

In addi­tion, cor­rup­tion is still a major issue. Seed traders mix bad and good qual­i­ty seed and sell it at high prices as ‘good’ seed. “As a farmer, you only notice it when your crop hard­ly grows. These are addi­tion­al chal­lenges that farm­ers have to deal with here.”

Con­vinc­ing num­bers

Mr Pacheco has now returned to his office. If he has a good inter­net con­nec­tion, he can see exact­ly what is hap­pen­ing on his farm at that moment, and where his machines are. “This is real­ly the future,” he points out. “Since I start­ed pre­ci­sion farm­ing and pay­ing more atten­tion to crop rota­tion, I have demon­stra­bly high­er yields.”

Since I start­ed pre­ci­sion farm­ing and pay­ing more atten­tion to crop rota­tion, I have demon­stra­bly high­er yields.

Rogério Pacheco

He first pro­duced 3.9t/ha of soya, now it´s 5.1t. His maize yield has more than dou­bled: From 7.2t/ha to 15.0t. “I real­ly owe that high­er yield to three things: Direct drilling, a broad crop rota­tion and pre­ci­sion farm­ing,” he says. “I hope to be able to con­vince more Brazil­ian farm­ers with these fig­ures, because if we want to con­tin­ue to offer cheap food to the entire world, tech­ni­cal and genet­ic improve­ments are nec­es­sary.”

Brazil in a nut­shell

Brazil is, with 8.5m km2, the largest coun­try in South Amer­i­ca. It has a pop­u­la­tion of 208m peo­ple (2017). About 9% of the sur­face area of Brazil is used for agri­cul­tur­al pur­pos­es. 23% of the labour force works in agri­cul­ture. Brasil­ia is the cap­i­tal, but São Paulo is the largest city in the coun­try with over 12m inhab­i­tants. The offi­cial lan­guage is Por­tuguese.

Brazil has the largest econ­o­my in Latin Amer­i­ca. The coun­try has high­ly devel­oped agri­cul­tur­al, min­ing, indus­tri­al and ser­vice sec­tors. It has an abun­dance of nat­ur­al resources such as oil and iron ore.

The pre­vail­ing cli­mate is trop­i­cal mar­itime. In the North it is pri­mar­i­ly a trop­i­cal rain­for­est cli­mate, with high aver­age tem­per­a­tures of more than 26°C.

Agri­cul­ture

Brazil is the world’s largest pro­duc­er and exporter of cof­fee. It also pro­duces a lot of cit­rus fruits (espe­cial­ly oranges), sug­ar cane, soy­abeans, rice, grain, cocoa, cot­ton, tobac­co and bananas.

Cat­tle, pigs and sheep are the most numer­ous live­stock, and tim­ber is also impor­tant. 45% of the total export rev­enue orig­i­nates from the agri­cul­tur­al sec­tor.

Agri­cul­ture in Brazil is in part­ly well devel­oped, but improve­ments can still be made. Agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion in Brazil is expect­ed to increase in the com­ing years, as mil­lions of hectares of land are still avail­able for cultivation. Due to the cli­mate, sev­er­al crops can take place per year.