CAIUA, Brazil (DTN) -- Brazil has the world's second-largest cattle herd spread sparsely across the country's vast interior.
With few constraints on land, for decades when pasture degraded ranchers simply moved their cattle on to the next block of savannah or cut down a little more forest.
But times have changed and this old exploitative model is no longer sustainable.
Brazilian authorities have clamped down on clearance in the Amazon region over the last 10 years, which means there simply aren't new virgin lands to move on to. Meanwhile, the success of soybean farming in the Cerrado has led to a rapid expansion of row crops across old pastures.
"Ranchers are getting squeezed. They increasingly can't justify low-intensity cattle production anymore," Mauricio Nogueira, ranching analyst at Agroconsult, a local farm consultancy.
One of the best ways to produce more efficiently is to integrate soybeans into production.
Ranchers add a second crop and diversify risks, and they also get to effectively reform pastures.
Cattleman Carlos Viacava, a leading breeder of Nelore bulls, was one of those who took the plunge. Back in 2010, he looked for a way to upgrade his operation and was shown the integrated grain and cattle system.
"It looked like a great way to improve our farms," the 74-year-old told DTN on a hot spring day on one of his properties in western Sao Paulo state.
So, two years ago, he planted his first soybean crop, followed by a second last year.
It has been a rocky start. The first two soybean crops suffered amid long summer dry spells, with soybeans averaging 24 bushels per acre in the first year and 36 bpa in the second.
Still, Viacava said that 31 bpa is enough to cover costs, and he is hopeful for better results in the upcoming 2015-16 season.
He remains positive because the soybeans have really helped the pasture.
SOY HELPS PASTURES
Across his 6,000-acre farm in Caiua, there are dense, lush pastures in evidence at the end of the dry season -- compelling evidence of the benefits of rotating grass with soybeans. The beans help fix nitrogen and the root systems help de-compact the soil, explained Juliano Roberto da Silva, manager of the Viacava properties.
"We thought our pastures were good until we started integration," said da Silva.
The improved pastures have really brought out the quality of his cattle's genetics with weight gain rising from 300 to 400 grams a day to around 600 grams. He also was able to have more cattle on the pastures, he said.
The Viacava farm's rotations are the following:
Year 1 -- soy followed by pasture (brachiaria grass is seeded once)
Year 2 -- soy followed by pasture (brachiaria grass is seeded once)
Year 3 -- pasture (brachiaria grass is seeded twice)
Year 4 -- pasture (brachiaria grass is seeded twice)
Soybeans are planted twice in a row because the soybeans only receive the benefit of fertilizing in the second year, explained Edemar Moro, professor at Unoeste University in Presidente Prudente, western Sao Paulo and a leading researcher of crop-livestock integration.
Standing in front of one of his lush pastures, Viacava explained he would soon douse it with glyphosate to dry it out for soybean planting. He added it's necessary to create organic material on these sandy lands west of Sao Paulo.
The rancher is optimistic about the success of the project. In another two years, he will have rotated all his fields with soybeans, thus reforming all the pastures -- his main goal.
But he admits that adoption wasn't easy and probably isn't for everyone.
INTEGRATION NOT FOR EVEYRONE
Viacava counted on the expert help of Embrapa, the government agricultural research institute, and Unoeste for assistance with implementation, as well as technical advice from the Cocamar cooperative from neighboring Parana. His was seen as a flagship project. Meanwhile, his operations manager embraced the challenge of learning agriculture, something not all managers would be willing to do, he admitted.
The idea of planting soybeans, with the high level of technology involved compared with low-intensity ranching, seems more daunting to most smaller livestock operators who don't have the same support. They typically have no experience of grain farming, and in cattle regions there is little extension-type help.
There are only about 30 agronomic consultants trained to aid with integration in western Sao Paulo, which are a paltry number if the system takes hold, said Moro.
This is a problem across most of Brazil's ranching regions, while specialists in integrated crop-livestock systems are even rarer on the ground.
"The concern is that ranchers try integration and lose money because of lack of support and the system gets a bad name," said Agroconsult's Nogueira.
The other issue is machinery.
Viacava spent R$2 million ($520,000) on tractors, combines and correcting his soil so that he could plant soy, an investment that is beyond the reach of many ranchers. One solution in areas where agriculture already exists is for ranchers to go into partnership with grain producers. In eastern Mato Grosso, there are various instances of this and it has worked reasonably well, specialists said.
If the system proves economically viable, these are teething problems that can be resolved and it can offer the small rancher a way to resist the spread of Brazil's mega soy farms, said Joao Kluthcouski, a researcher at Embrapa.
ECOLOGY AND FINANCING
One massive positive for the pro-integration lobby is that it has been inserted into Brazil's carbon emissions program. Brazil has worked hard to reduce its carbon footprint by clamping down on deforestation, and now attention has turned to degraded pasture.
To that end, it offers R$3 billion ($780 million) in subsidized credit to reform pasture; this acts as a real incentive for ranchers to modernize.
Brazil's proposals to the United Nations Climate Convention include a 37% reduction in carbon emissions by 2025, using 2005 figures as a base. As part of that proposal, Brazil has committed to reform 37 million acres of degraded pasture and implement integration on 12.4 million acres.
"The government has shown a real commitment to integration, which is important for our effort to convince producers and ranchers to branch out into a new area," said Kluthcouski.
Alastair Stewart can be reached at email@example.com
To read the first two installments of this series, see the Farm Life section of DTN.
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