A soybean powerhouse, Brazil is also a growing force in corn, as demonstrated last year when it increased corn production by 31% to almost 2.9 billion bushels. With that record crop, Brazil’s exports also jumped. Now the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service expects Brazilian farmers to set another planting record for both corn and soybeans this year.
“High prices do encourage people to plant more corn,” says Jerry Norton, a chair of the World Agricultural Outlook Board’s Interagency Commodity Estimates committees. “We expect to see continued expansion this year, especially in Brazil.”
So how big can Brazil be in corn?
Much of the answer lies in the Cerrado, a region of grasses and scrub suited to corn production. Brazil’s corn acres have been farther south in Mato Grosso and Parana, where corn is either a second-season crop or the preferred rotational choice after soybeans. Last year’s record corn plantings involved just 25 million of the Cerrado’s 500 million acres.
“Brazil is the one country in the world with the greatest amount of arable land that could be brought into production,” says Jay O’Neil, senior agricultural economist at Kansas State’s International Grains program.
The top 10 U.S. corn-producing states combined are still smaller in size than the Cerrado, he says.
“Cerrado means closed or inaccessible. It’s a big open area with limited roads or rail and a northern river system that is not yet fully developed,” O’Neil says. “Brazil’s problem is making the land accessible, but price will motivate many things. If world prices stay high, expansion will take place.”
For now, Brazil’s infrastructure limits its capacity to move corn through its port system to international markets, according to Kurt Shultz, regional director for the U.S. Grains Council.
“Brazil has so much more incentive to export soybeans that there’s a backlog of storage and transportation to move soy, and corn gets pushed to the side,” he says. “Really, the transport logistics aren’t there to move more corn.”
Marcelo Favarão, a Brazilian farmer, agronomist and Corn & Soybean Digest columnist from the southern Brazil state of Parana, explains what the Brazilian emphasis on soybeans means for farmers there.
“The elevators prefer to receive soybeans at harvest, so if they have five pits to dump grain, they will only leave one for corn, and farmers have to wait a long time to deliver.”
Agronomic factors also complicate Brazilian corn production, he says. “Corn genetics require cool nights for corn to produce its best, but most of the Cerrado is in low-altitude areas, so corn in the summer is not a good choice.” That may change, however, as seed companies develop hybrids that can yield better at low altitudes.
Corn is also a more expensive crop to produce, Farvarão says, citing the cost of fertilizer, seed, harvesting and transportation.
“With just a smell of fertilizer, we can produce 40 bu./acre soybeans, and if we want, we can save and plant our own soybean seed. That is impossible with corn.”
Currently, Favarão believes corn is viable in the Cerrado because of government incentives. Brazil buys corn above market prices for its grain stocks and pays the freight costs to ship it to other regions of the country.
Norton sees another challenge for Brazil. “In terms of storage, they are growing their crops faster than their storage capacity. They are also operating in a different climate [than the U.S.] where they go into humid conditions that aren’t good for storing grain.”
Brazilians know they have logistical problems, O’Neil says. “There’s major government funding going into building new ports in northern Brazil, whereas most of their ports have been in the south around Santos,” he says. “Now, with development in the Cerrado, they are funding a number of ports, including on Amazon River tributaries that reach into the Cerrado.
“They want to make that a barge market. That will make them far more competitive.”
Brazil’s government is also targeting roads and railroads for investment, although Norton notes that Brazil doesn’t have the industrial base to support railroads the way the U.S. does.
So far, the government’s plans have yet to ease farmers’ transportation challenges, according to Favarão. “The administration is all speech and no action,” he says. “To have an idea of the problem, the port of Paranaguá (one of Brazil’s largest for grain exports) had no maintenance dredging for 20 years. Ships had to load half of the payload, then complete their cargo somewhere else.
“Since the 1970s, they have been promising to pave the 1,000-mile road between Cuiabá and Santarem. During the rainy season it is a nightmare. The 600 miles of dirt can take 30 days to drive.”
For 2012-2013, Brazilian sources say an outstanding crop could challenge the nation’s ability to deliver. “This year will be the year when Brazil’s logistics will truly be put to the test,” says Marcos Rubin, Agroconsult, who thinks infrastructure problems could curb Brazil’s corn exports by as much as 2 million metric tons (11% of its 2011-2012 exports). Agroconsult is a southern Brazilian market analysis company in Florianopolis, Santa Catarina, that tracks major Brazilian commodities.
Brazil’s statistics agency has estimated corn output could jump by 27%, and while a growing livestock sector will consume part of any increase, most will go to the export market, according to O’Neil.
“Domestic demand is not keeping up,” he says. “International grain traders are investing heavily in infrastructure, especially in the Cerrado, and expanding their presence. They see the new lands as a major part of future production and Brazil as a major supplier of corn and soy to world markets.”
To Favarão, logistics and storage are critical but (grower) profitability is more important.
“The corn trade is not as good as the soybean trade. We can hardly contract our corn, but soybeans are the opposite, so we imagine how much money we can make. There are very few corn buyers in Brazil, and they manipulate the prices.
“The major reason corn is not king in Brazil comes back to ‘money in the pocket.’ The profit we make on soybeans is better.”