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June 7, 2013

No-till Sugarcane Planting Reduces Costs, Improves Yields in Brazil

Researchers in Brazil recently released results of fifteen years of experimenting with no-till sugarcane production and they are encouraged by the results. No-till planting is when the new crop is planted directly into the residue of the previous crop using a modified planter and without disturbing the soil. The researchers found that no-till sugarcane grows faster and yields up to 10 tons more per hectare compared to conventional planting. The planting costs are also reduced when no-till planting is used. The research was conducted in Ribeirao Preto in northern Sao Paulo state.

In the conventional method of planting sugarcane, the existing residue is burned off before the seedbed is prepared for planting. That practice will no longer be allowed starting in 2014 when burning of sugarcane residue will be prohibited in the state of Sao Paulo.

Most of the burning occurs when the sugarcane is harvested by hand. Even though burning off the dried leaves facilitates hand harvesting, it is being prohibited for environmental reasons. The burning results in widespread pollution and respiratory problems for residents living in the area. As a result, most of the sugarcane in the state of Sao Paulo is now mechanically harvested. There are some exceptions being granted for small land owners or sugarcane grown on steep slopes where mechanical harvesting is not possible.

The research indicated that there are many advantages to no-till planting including: reduced costs in soil preparation, increased organic matter in the soil, improved fertility, reduced fertilizer applications, reduced compaction, reduced erosion, and lower emissions of greenhouse gases.

No-till planting is also considered a sustainable agricultural practice, which is becoming more important for marketing the crop. Sustainability is a growing concern not only for producers, but also consumers around the world. Even bankers are insisting on sustainable practices as a precondition for production loans. The Brazilian government has also committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and no-till planting is an important part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

There is no need to talk about sustainability if a producer is losing money on his sugarcane production. Without sufficient resources to invest, he cannot afford to renovate his sugarcane fields every 5-6 years as recommended. The cost savings and increased yields associated with no-till planting will allow some producers to increase the frequency of their renovation efforts.