RANCHERIA, Brazil (DTN) -- Nearly two decades ago, Edinaldo Mathias decided to experiment with soybeans instead of cattle on a couple of fields on his ranch in western Sao Paulo.
The initial results were good, but his sandy soils couldn't sustain fertility and erosion started to take hold. Unperturbed, and armed with initial recommendations from Brazil's state crop research institute (Embrapa), Mathias started to experiment with alternating beans and cattle.
"We discovered that one helped the other. The soybeans fixed nutrients for the pasture and the pasture helped the beans," he told DTN recently while on his 1,400-acre farm in Rancheria.
The discovery Mathias and other pioneers made in the past could be changing the face of present-day Brazilian farming.
The integration of grain farming and ranching offers soybean farmers the opportunity to intensify production by introducing a third crop, increasing revenues and diluting costs. It also offers a sustainable solution to a number of key issues facing Brazilian agriculture: How to efficiently reform degraded pasture; How to produce row crops on marginal land; How to reduce carbon emissions; How to break disease cycles in intensive grain production.
"It represents a revolution in farming and it is gaining momentum," said Joao Kluthcouski, a researcher at Embrapa and an integration evangelist.
The success of the pioneers has caused many farmers to try using the system during the last five years and Embrapa estimates crop-livestock integration, and the more sophisticated systems that include forestry, are now utilized on 7.5 million acres of land across Brazil. According to Kluthcouski, the goal is to double that over the next five years.
GAINS IN EFFICIENCY
The development of tropical farming across Brazil's Cerrado savannah regions opened up the possibility that farmers can produce 365 days a year.
The limitation is not cold weather as in the U.S. but rainfall, with sixth months of intense rains in and around summer followed by a very dry six months.
Farmers discovered that by planting short-cycle beans early, they have enough time to plant an economically viable second crop of corn afterward. As a result, second-crop planting area has grown 75% over the last 10 years, reaching 14 million acres this year.
Now, the most popular system of integration allows farmers to take this a stage further. By planting brachiara grass along with the second-crop corn, they create pasture once the corn is harvested on which cattle can be grazed for three months.
"It's a very efficient way of extending the use of the six-month rainy season," said Kluthcouski.
The integration system is good financially because it allows farmers to diversify their revenues and they can spread costs over three harvests. It also allows farmers to cover the soil and breaks the cycle of soybeans and corn that dominates the grain belt and has contributed to a significant increase in disease and insect pressure, as well as the development of glyphosate-resistant weeds.
For ranchers, integration offers a way of rejuvenating degraded pasture and intensifying cattle production. Walking around Mathias' property, the intense lushness of the pasture on fields that were previously planted with soybeans is obvious.
"It's an effective way for ranchers to compete for land resources with grain farmers," explained Mauricio Nogueira, cattle analyst at Agroconsult, a local farm consultancy.
The pressure of the expansion of soybeans onto pasture is unremitting. The area planted with the oilseed has risen 57% during the last nine years to reach an expected 80 million acres in 2015-16 and most of that expansion is onto pasture. With Brazil finally cracking down on deforestation of the Amazon, ranchers are left with a choice of modernizing or renting out to grain farmers who boast much higher revenues per acre.
Integrating crops with pasture will also help reduce agriculture's carbon footprint.
It eases the pressure to deforest, and also offers a way to reform the vast expanses of degraded pasture, which significantly contributes to Brazil's carbon emissions.
Depleted pasture itself is an important emitter of carbon, but the real problem is the low-intensity ranching that is conducted on it. Brazil averages one head of cattle for every two acres of pasture at present. Embrapa estimates that the system on reformed pasture reduces the area needed to produce a kilo of carcass by 80% by shortening the cycle, thus significantly lowering methane and other emissions.
If forestry, in the form of eucalyptus, is introduced into the system, zero-emissions farming is possible.
Such a program has huge possibilities when you bear in mind that Brazil has around 150 million acres of degraded pasture.
It also allows Brazil to meet what has, to a certain extent, been competing demands to increase grain and beef production, two areas where China is expected to drive buoyant demand over the next decades.
Anyone who has sat through a presentation about Brazilian agriculture over the last decade knows it is just about the only major food producer with substantial arable land yet to exploit. But the reality is that a lot of these 180 million available acres are in remote, inaccessible regions and only about a third is suitable for commercial agricultural production.
In this context, intensification of production in and around current producing regions is desirable as it doesn't require expensive logistics.
"We expanded production on the basis of technology and we will continue to do so, with integration playing a key part in this," said Paulo Hermann, president of John Deere Brasil and heavily involved in promoting integration.
Next in this series: DTN looks in-depth at how integration benefits grain producers.
Alastair Stewart can be reached at Alastair.firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @AStewartbrazil
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