Caterpillars, snakes and a different three-crop rule

My trip to Brazil so far certainly hasn’t disappointed. It’s a truly magnificent country with some wonderful people and the scale of some of the farming is mind-blowing.

The first stop after arriving in Sao Paulo was a flight and a long drive from Sinop into the heart of the Mato Grosso state, the central hub of arable production to Lucas Do Rio Verde.  The first thing that struck me on the road is just how beautiful the countryside is. It’s a lot easier to see when you’re stuck behind the lines and lines of lorries that are transporting produce from the region.  Everything has to go out by lorry and over huge distances as well. It can cost 120 Reals per tonne to haul goods up to 2,000 kilometres (£30) – it’s pretty expensive compared to back home.

Experiencing The Mato Grosso Soya Bean Harvest

Above: Experiencing the Mato Grosso soya bean harvest

My first point of contact was with Lucas, a regional agronomist for Monsanto and he set the tone of what the people are like here: warm, friendly, open and willing to help.  We spent a few days looking at soya bean crops and discussing cropping. Soya beans and corn dominate cropping in the region, and some of the units under irrigation are able to grow three crops in one year.  Quite staggering, with turn-around time for soya beans of 90 days from planting to harvest and 120 days for corn. It illustrated to me how intensive farming is in this region.

However, this doesn’t come without problems. The pest pressure is intense, white fly are a concern and the damage that caterpillars can do to soya bean leaves is devastating.  However, I was able to look first hand at the differences biotechnology can make to crops. Usually soya requires at least 4-5 sprays to try and contain this pest, whereas Intacta line varieties have inbred resistance to them and do not require any. Lucas reckoned they have a 25% market share at the moment, but expects this to double for next season as the yield response on average is 0.6 tonnes per hectare. It is technology that needs protecting as it is vital to growers here.

Below: Spot the difference between Intacta and non-Intacta varieties.

Non -intacta


Snakes are another thing and we had to wear snake protection on our legs to walk these crops, certainly an unusual and different look – not one I would choose every day!

Most farms have been under no-tillage for 20-25 years, but there are a few issues arising with regard to soil compaction and they are taking a long term view in how they treat their soils.  Rice was used extensively in the early years of development until pH balance was corrected, but one grower had reintroduced it for its rooting ability to help with soil structure.  Nematodes are also building and there is a cover crop called bracchiaria which has phenomenal rooting ability to retain moisture.  I will go in to more information on this in my next blog.

Retaining residue is vital for growers to protect their soils. They get 1500mm of rainfall a year, and sometimes 150mm in 12 hours, so residue retention is important to protect the soils from the pounding as well a buffer for the sun.  This is another problem as, due to the high intensity of the sunlight and warm weather, residues are broken down very quickly, so residue retention and maximising residue is important. It’s not easy to do with soya beans.

I met one grower who had 28,000 hectares of soya beans and spoke of the problem he was having with compaction and was having to rotationally subsoil his land. But, doing this, he was benefiting from a 0.5 tonnes per hectare yield increase and was adopting this rotationally. I was initially surprised to hear this and things became a lot clearer in the visits that followed. More to come on that.

Initially I thought two blogs were going to cover my trip, but there are too many things to report back on. They will be a bit more regular over the next couple of weeks.

Next time: Understanding Brazilian cover crops and corn growth rates.



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.