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BOB STREIT

By Staff | Mar 23, 2009

The first day of spring is now officially about a week away. The recent warm weather has made us realize that the calendar has continued the march to our normal spring planting season. The cold weather of last week made the arrival of spring seem a long ways away. It takes a number of warm days to ease people’s fears of continued cold conditions and coax them to start jockeying machinery around and get the first of final preparations made for the spring fieldwork season.

Our grain markets are continuing to jump around as if the traders are completely unsure of what to expect in 2009. The largest question that will help sort things out will be the number of acres devoted to either corn or soybeans.

The latest survey tallying USDA and Informa expectations had a 4.6 million acres discrepancy in the acres that will be planted to corn in 2009. That is a huge number for this time of the year. But when considering that access to credit, lack of fall fieldwork and fertilizer applications not completed, and current prices of commodities, the harsh reality is that many growers still have to see when the ground will thaw out and when their fields will dry out.

Last year I had started using the term “guerilla farming” and this year may contain somewhat the same attach scenario. In other words, be ready to go for 24 hours a day once the ground is ready and focus on the grand goals without getting sidetracked on the small stuff.

After another long winter it is still hard to accept that spring will or has actually arrived.

A very pertinent question by growers to their acknowledged experts is what they should expect for moisture and temperatures this year. Will the fog days we’ve had lately be an accurate predictor of moisture 90 to 100 days later? And will the observations that the sun is in its third year of having a very low level of sunspot activity be accurate in signaling a year that was cooler than 2008?

South America

As in past years, I accepted an invitation to head down to South America to work on crops for a few weeks. Because I always learn so much while down there and from the people we have gotten to know or new acquaintances, packing up to go was not even under consideration.

This year we flew out of Des Moines, then into Dallas, Miami, and finally Sao Paulo. Once we hit SP we hopped onto another airline and bee-lined it to Cuiaba. That town holds about 800,000 people and serves as the capital of Matto Grosso.

When you reach Cuiaba you generally just want to take a shower and sleep. After a good night’s sleep one is ready to get going. This year Carnival was just ending, so we used the spare day before people returned to their offices to tour the Chapada and the Pantanal wetlands. The Chapada is the big area in northwest Matto Grosso and is in several eastern states. It is terminology that refers to pastureland that is covered by scrub trees and an occasional patch of palm trees and grass. With clearing and a sizeable dose of lime and phosphorous, the ground can produce decent crops in year two to three.

The Pantanal is millions of square miles of wetlands in western Brazil and Bolivia. During the wet season much of the ground becomes a slow-moving river or swamp.

It sustains many head of Nelore cattle, as well as lots of wild animals including crocs, or caimans, capybaras, ant eaters, jaguars, monkeys and untold numbers and species of colorful birds of all types. It was straight out of ‘Wild Kingdom.’ I was hoping to see another big anaconda in the wild, but didn’t get to.

We got busy early Monday and other days visiting with co-ops and virtual co-ops that are involved in procuring input products for grain producers to use in growing their crops. Due to the difficulties posed by the long transport distance, weathered soils, low CECs, and high input costs, their farmers are very quick to adopt any new technology or new products that have a chance of boosting their efficiencies.

This had always been the case, but with this being the third year where exchange rates and futures selling kept high grain prices from many of the growers, the pressure is on to make money in raising grain.

In recent seasons many producers were not able to pay off previous operating loans and just rolled debt over or simply didn’t come to terms with lenders on what they were going to do about previous loans.

In the south the cooperatives are well organized and handle most of the grain and inputs. In the north the larger grain-handling firms are involved both tasks. The fear now is that some of those firms were heavily involved in Wall Street derivative trading and lost the money they now owe or need for product procurement.

As is the situation in the U.S., fertilizer costs for 2008-09 and 2009-10 are a big issue. There big P deposits are not online yet, so most of their P is imported. Much of it was coming from Tampa producers, but now places like Russia and Tunisia are the common sources.

Every producer and ag advisor we visited with was looking at doing things differently. The goal was either to boost efficiency or manage technology so they could be low-cost producers. They were also examining ways to use local fertilizer sources and soil biological products as a way to not be as enslaved by the big input suppliers.

Farm and operation size across the country varies by which section of Brazil you are in. In the older, established southern states the average farm size is less than 200 acres per farm. When one gets into the next section north farm size increases into the 400- to 800-acre range. In the northern fourth of the country, operations range in size from 4,500 acres up to 500,000 acres.

Normally the huge operations are spread across several states to spread risk and take advantage of shipping or cropping opportunities. Many of the bigger ones are also vertically integrated and have grain or livestock processing involved.

In the Midwest ,the crops we get to work with and grow include corn, soybeans, oats, alfalfa, pasture and sorghum. Brazilian growers grow the same, but also include crops such as sugar cane, rice, citrus, pineapples, bananas, teak and eucalyptus trees.

Expect the forestry and sugar acres to increase in coming years as several foreign companies are still interest in funding for those crops to fill expected demand over the next few decades. It’s too bad that 90 percent of the new vehicles in the U.S aren’t flex-fueled like SA’s fleets. Internal ag and industry leaders had the foresight to demand that from their car manufacturers. Where would ag producers and Detroit be if they had done that here?

Many groups and companies are heavily involved in SA Ag including genetic and seed firms. At first, growers asked if any crops research from the U.S should be helping their growers.

Now, some of the newer genetics and disease resistance is flowing from south to north. I had the chance to view some of those items and visit with the people responsible for that development. As to the season’s weather and how yields are either coming out or are expected, I will spend more time on that next week. But a summary of it would be that conditions vary widely, as would be expected in a country that large. Beans are typically planted starting in mid- to late-October after the spring rains begin. The rains began late. Then they had droughty periods in both December and January that stunted the early planted crop.

The rainless periods delayed disease appearance, but when we were there it rained a bit every day, so the disease cessation had ended.

Every Iowa farmer that I know would love to travel the country and interact with the Brazilian producers. Those who have loved the sights, sounds, wide horizons, and sense of accomplishment. They have a much stronger brotherhood than they expected or would expect.

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