Cake for breakfast

After a brilliant week in the Mato Grosso region it was a journey to Brasilia (the capital of Brazil and  quite a beautiful city), as I ventured to the Goias and Minais Gerais states.  One thing I hadn’t realised that, apart from cake being an option for breakfast at most hotels, lunch is important here as well and they are reasonably-sized too. 12 o’clock is the key time, and a good quick lunch certainly sets you up for the afternoon.  Some meals that were prepared for us on farm were outstanding.

My first port of call was to Arno Weis, whose family had moved up from southern Brazil in the 1970s. He was one of a group of four that introduced no-tillage to the region and his family were responsible for introducing early mechanisation in Brazil.  It is usually fairly obvious as you head down a farm drive what the quality of the visit is going to be like, and Arno’s entrance and farmyard was no exception – immaculate and well laid out, much like his farming practices.

With Arno Weis In One Of His Corn Crops

Above: With Arno Weis in one of his corn crops.

It was immediately obvious how good Arno was at crop production, with the number of awards he had received for growing corn. He was achieving between 248-300 sacks per hectare (14-18 t/ha) – quite a phenomenal achievement and a barometer for some of the seed breeders.  He had an excellent right hand man in Farm Manager Fernando. Arno was the ideas man, brimming with them, while Fernando was responsible for interpreting and implementing them and was fastidious in his attention to detail: a great combination.  Arno believed in delegation and learning from others and was a keen global traveller, wanting to learn more about farming across the world. He would have been a great Nuffield Scholar, I’m sure!

A familiar story cropped up with their history of no-tillage. Water infiltration rates were far better and the retention of organic matter was viewed as vital. Fernando felt they could generate 30% more foliage with placed fertiliser at planting as well. They had organic matter levels of 4-5%, quite impressive when a lot of the Cerrado region is only 3%. In the right circumstances he could raise the  levels by 1% in five years, and increasing the organic matter levels was considered crucial to increasing the nutrient-holding capacity of the soil.  Arno mirrored a conversation I had with Bill Ritchie at Cross Slot: both felt that securing humidity in the pore spaces of the soil through reduced soil movement was vital for optimising establishment in dry conditions, crucial when the drier periods are getting longer and hotter.

Corn Planting In To Soya Bean Stubble Straight Behind The Combine

Above: Corn planting into soya bean stubble straight behind the combine

Many will have heard of John Landers, considered the father of no-tillage in Brazil in the 1970s and Sebastiao Conrado who was involved with him in the early stages of no-tillage adoption, and was someone I was fortunate to meet.  Sebastiao had two farms, one in the Cristalina region and also one in the Parana state in the south, so he had a great appreciation of different conditions.  Erosion was one of the early issues, due to the combination of cleared land and high rainfall, and that was when they realised that things had to change. There was certainly some pain and suffering in the early stages of adoption.

As the soils improved they were able to remove the contour banks that helped prevent erosion and Sebastiao felt that cover cropping was essential for soil protection, predominantly with black oats in the Parana, and he considered that compaction was linked more with management than anything else.  However, he advocated remedial work if it required doing and stressed how important it was to stay focussed on no-tillage to maximise the benefits.  Fertiliser placement at seeding in all crops, especially phosphate, was a key feature for him, and all his planting equipment was able to do this.

Below: the inspirational Sebastiao Conrado

The Inspirational Sebastiao Conrado

When we discussed the key features of making no-tillage successful he definitely gave me plenty to think about, starting with making sure you don’t mess up your soil in the first place! But he also talked about using rotations that gave you enough cover to protect your soil throughout the year and that also contribute to increasing organic matter. He also argued that by maximising cover crops you can potentially reduce herbicide usage.  Certainly some of the evidence I saw in Australia pointed to a reduction in seed bank numbers when the weed seeds were left on the surface rather than inverted.

Crucially he said the difficulty with making a mistake is planning how to manage those risks as they will definitely happen, and to use herbicides wisely.  When I look at where we are with the black-grass situation across the UK, I have to ask: have we really used our depleting chemical armoury wisely over the last 15 years?  We are having to look outside the growing crop to beat an increasing problem. No-tillage, balanced rotations and growing decent cover crops may not be the total cure but I’m fairly sure they are some of the key components to improved soil and crop system management.

Next time:  Different scale and scenery in Southern Brazil



Russell McKenzie farms 750ha on predominantly heavy clay on the border between Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. He grows seed on contract as well as soft and feed wheat, and his usual rotation is wheat, OSR and spring beans. A Nuffield Scholar, Russ has been researching direct drilling in extreme weather in 2013 and 2014.