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August 28, 2014

Pasture Conversions Source of New Soy Acreage in Central Brazil

In their second estimate of the 2014/15 soybean crop in Mato Grosso, the Mato Grosso Institute of Agricultural Economics (Imea) increased their estimated soybean acreage for the state to 8.80 million hectares which is 1.5% more than their estimate in May and 2.15% more than what was planted in 2013/14 (8.615 million hectares).

The main source of new soybean acreage is the continued conversion of degraded pastures to row crop production especially in eastern Mato Grosso, which has long been known for its cattle ranching. A good example is the municipality of Paranatinga located 370 kilometers east of the capital city of Cuiaba. The municipality was first settled in the early 1900's by cattle ranchers and diamond miners.

The municipality has a sub-tropical climate with 90 inches of annual rainfall occurring between September and April and a four month dry season between May and August. Paranatinga is famous in Mato Grosso and Brazil for its large cattle ranching and feedlot operations, but ranchers in the region have quickly caught onto the advantages of a long term rotation of row crops and pastures.

The definition of a degraded pasture is a pasture with low fertility, a low carrying capacity, higher amounts of soil erosion, and a pasture that has not been renovated for an extended period of time. In fact, many of these pastures have never been renovated since their conversion from native cerrado (savanna) vegetation to pastures maybe generations ago.

This conversion of pastures to row crop is a win-win situation. After several years of row crop production, the land is put back into pastures for 4-5 years and then the process is repeated. The fertility of the soil is improved with fertilizers and lime applications while the row crops are being grown. When the area is rotated back to pastures, new species of grass are planted and the combination of improved grasses and higher fertility greatly increases the carrying capacity of the pasture. In the end, more cattle can be produced on reduced acreage of pastures and they have row crop production as well.

Similar conversions are occurring all across central Brazil not just in Mato Grosso. This conversion process offers many environmental advantages as well since no new land is being cleared and the existing land is being farmed more intensely. Brazil has millions of hectares of degraded pastures that are available for these long term rotations.

Imea is now estimating that the average soybean yield in Mato Grosso in the 2014/15 growing season will be 52.4 sacks per hectare (3,144 kg/ha or 45.6 bu/ac). According to Imea, the average soybean yield last year in the state was 51.9 sacks per hectare (3,114 kg/ha or 45.1 bu/ac)