In 1969, Brazil had just under 21/2 acres of no-till land in the extreme southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. Official numbers are hard to come by, but 30 years later, one estimate put no-till acres here at 25 million. And no-till now stretches northward to Brazil's central Savannah.
That first planting was a test plot, seeded by researchers with an imported Buffalo planter. A lack of appropriate equipment, along with a popular view that no-till was beneficial mostly to bigger farms, may have kept the practice limited to test plots at the outset. It wasn't until 1972 that no-till moved two states north of its Brazilian birthplace, and onto a farm.
In November of that year, a small number of farmers in the state of Parana became the first to plant soybeans directly into wheat stubble on a farm. One of those farmers, Herbert Bartz, was impressed enough to later say, "At that time, even though the yield was lower, it was clear to me that the costs were less and erosion was under control."
Bartz says his yields subsequently increased, along with the organic matter in his soil.
In spite of that success with no-till in southern Brazil, producers weren't fast to adopt the technology. According to one report, "By 1976, only 10 farmers were using no-till on about in 3,840 acres in Rio Grande do Sul, and the area increased to a maximum of 11,481 acres and 363 adopting farmers in 1983. The expansion of the area under no-till was quite variable throughout the period. Many farmers returned to conventional tillage after three or four years of no tillage."
One of the corporate leaders of the no-till movement in Brazil at that time was the old ICI company, which introduced the first herbicides specifically for no-till in 1973. The company encouraged no-till adoption by working with the new "earthworm" and "friends of the earth" clubs of interested producers that were springing up in the southern part of the country, where hills predominate. Average slopes in the region range from 5% to 20%. And although producers were extensively terracing their fields, erosion was a serious problem, according to a report on no-till adoption by two researchers at Embrapa, Brazil's national ag research company.
By the 1990s, Monsanto had joined the no-till effort in the southernmost Brazilian state, which included training of extension agents in no-till technology. Meanwhile, soybean plantings - and adoption of no-till - were expanding north and northwest into 100 million acres of Savannah frontier.
One estimate puts no-till acres in the expansion area at about 380,000 at the outset of the 1990s and at more than 6 million by 1997. With longer, drier seasons, the Savannah's main challenge to no-tillers was lack of cover crops during the dry, warm winters.
Today it's fair to say that no-till has taken root in Brazil. Organizers of a no-till event in Rio Grande do Sul this month are expecting 20,000 visitors. Producers can subscribe to Plantio Direto (No Till) magazine. And the local earthworm clubs are going strong. Meanwhile, back in Parana, where no-till made the leap from test plot to farm field, up to 60% of soybean acres were no-till in 1998, according to government statistics.
Correction: In the January "From Brazil" column, page 30, 17 million hectares converts to roughly 42 million acres, not 7 million.