Twenty-five years ago, innovative Brazilian soybean growers came to Kentucky to learn about no-till. Today, 50% of the soybean acres in Brazil are no-tilled.
In some areas, 80% of the soybeans are no-tilled. And no-till is practically a religion. Some Brazilian farmers have "no-till farmer" on their business cards.
Why is no-till growing so fast in Brazil, when the practice still struggles in the U.S., especially among Northern corn growers?
The answers are several and very clear-cut, according to Marcio Scalea, a native Brazilian and Monsanto agronomist. He served as escort for a team of 20 visiting U.S. farmers, agronomists and journalists, including this editor, in early January. The trip was sponsored by Monsanto and led by Bruno Alesii, manager of conservation tillage systems for the company.
Here are the main reasons, Scalea says, for the rapid no-till adoption presently going on in Brazil.
* The topsoil, very shallow in some areas and deep in others, is very fragile and erosive. We saw pictures of horrendous soil erosion from years past. No-till, when combined with small terraces that are farmed over, has drastically reduced erosion.
* No-till builds soil organic matter, which is naturally low in the red soils of Brazil's uplands. With higher soil organic matter, the drought-prone soils hold water better and produce higher yields.
* The soil is very low in pH and phosphorus, and if the land is moldboard-plowed, the phosphorus becomes unavailable. The same with lime. If the soil is tilled, the effect of soil pH change is lost, and lime must be applied every year or two. With no-till, lime's benefits last several years.
* Production costs are lower with no-till because of a lower machinery investment and fewer trips over the fields. No-tilling is done with planters rather than drills to reduce machinery costs.
Typically, no-till soybeans are planted in 15" rows, corn in 30" rows. The narrow-row beans canopy quite early to help reduce weed control challenges.
* Compared with most countries, Brazil has fewer and larger-acreage farmers. These well-educated growers are risk-takers, less bound by tradition. They are chomping at the bit, so to speak, waiting for the Roundup Ready technology to become commercialized there. That's not expected until 2000.
"When Roundup Ready soybeans come, it will be real easy and cheaper to raise no-till soybeans," enthused Manoel Henrique Pereira, whose father had traveled to Kentucky 25 years earlier to learn about no-till. Every large-acreage grower we visited echoed that sentiment, although these growers had excellent weed control with existing technology.* Yields have improved steadily with no-till.
"The soils in Manoel's area were very shallow, very poor and acidic when his father and a few others started no-tilling 25 years ago," notes Scalea. "And now they grow 40- to 55-bushel soybeans and 100- to 120-bushel corn. Now, after years of no-tilling, they have among the top farm-average yields in the country and the lowest costs."
* Low temperatures and cold, wet soils at planting time are not a problem for Brazilian farmers as they are in the northern Corn Belt of the U.S. Even if heavy rains delay planting, there is no soil warm-up problem.
In east-central Brazil, where Manoel and his father farm, for example, we saw a field where soybeans were planted into a heavy crop residue on Dec. 20. The beans were about 6" tall Jan. 11, the day we visited. That field has been no-tilled continuously for 22 years.
Planting was delayed because of extremely heavy rains in some areas of Brazil last fall. Normally, October and November are the prime times for planting, but Brazilians can plant essentially over a 90-day period.
When we were there, temperatures in east-central Brazil, away from the influence of the ocean, ranged from about 65-70 degrees at night to approximately 90 degrees for daily highs.