March 26, 2012

Mechanical Sugarcane Planting Being Rapidly Adopted in Brazil

In recent years, Brazilian sugarcane producers have been rapidly purchasing mechanical harvesters for their operations and now they are also investing heavily in mechanical planters as well. It is currently estimated that 30% of Brazil's sugarcane is planted mechanically and that is expected to increase to 80% in three or four years.

Mechanical harvesting of sugarcane in southern Brazil is being mandated by the federal government as a way to reduce air pollution that results from the burning of sugarcane fields before they are harvested by hand. The dry leaves are burned off in order to facilitate the cutting of the sugarcane by hand, but the burning releases tremendous amounts of particulates into the atmosphere resulting in respiratory problems for nearby residents. In order to reduce this problem, the practice of burning is being phased out.

Mechanically planting sugarcane has only become a common practice in Brazil over the last five years and producers are adopting the new technology at a rapid pace not only because it is more efficient, but also due to a shortage of labor in the sugarcane fields of southern Brazil. The booming Brazilian economy has lured many workers away from the back-breaking jobs in the sugarcane fields to more lucrative employment in other sectors. As a result, sugarcane producers are being forced to import seasonal workers from northeastern Brazil in order to meet their labor needs.

A sugarcane field should be replanted every 5-6 years if it is to maintain maximum productivity. Replanting is accomplished by placing cut stalks of sugarcane (usually 15 inches or less in length) into an open furrow and then covering it with soil. Planting the sugarcane by hand is a slow and cumbersome process requiring a substantial amount of labor.

Mechanically planting is more efficient and precise requiring a few as two men to conduct the operation. The sugarcane is mechanically harvested and cut into appropriate length pieces. The pieces are then transported by truck to where the planters are operating. The planter opens a furrow, puts in the stalk, applies fertilizers and insecticides if necessary and then closes the furrow in one operation. The operation only requires a tractor driver and one additional individual to monitor and control the sugarcane stalks as they are being planted.

The use of mechanical planters is also encouraging new planting techniques. One of the more recent innovations is the planting of mini-stalks that are only 1-2 inches in length and contain one node from which the new plant emerges. These mini-stalks require only one ton of stalks per hectare, which is a significant saving over traditional methods.

How fast mechanical planting continues to be adopted will depend on the general health of the sugar/ethanol sector. Mechanization requires heavy capital investments up front and producers will only make those investments if they are assured of good prices for their sugarcane.