Brazil – Can Cattle and Cane Coexist?

P1090728The final country on our Nuffield Global Focus program is Brazil.  On March 25th, we touched down in San Jose de Rio Preto, a city of about 500,000 people in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil.  We met up with Pablo Manfrim, a Brazilian farmer who guided us through the country for the week.

I quickly realized that this part of the world is much different than home in Canada.  Within about an hour of driving in the country, I saw several things I’d never personally seen before: mango trees, coffee trees, banana trees, rubber trees, eucalyptus trees, sugarcane, and Nelore cattle.  Right now, farmers are near the end of their summer cropping season and are gearing up for harvest and planting of the ‘winter’ crop.

P1090676Brazil is a huge country with a lot of diversity. We spent our first 3 days in the South Central state of Sao Paulo, an area that has traditionally been dominated by beef cattle.  This area of Brazil has undergone a dramatic agricultural transformation in the past 10 years. There has been a massive shift from beef cattle to sugarcane production and we saw plenty of evidence to show us that this shift continues today.  Another big shift has been investment in farming by large companies looking for income and diversification.

P1090765We were fortunate to be able to meet with both small family farmers and large corporate farming enterprises.  They farm side by side on similar land, but have vastly different approaches.  The small farmers we met with were primarily dairy and beef farmers, milking 40-70 cows on 60-200 acres.   The two large farms we visited were each cropping 30,000 to 50,000 acres of land, primarily in sugar cane.  One of the farms also had a 35,000 head beef feedlot, based on a corn silage and corn grain diet and were transitioning to more sugar cane.

P1090468The small farmers we met were taking part in a Brazilian government supported research and technology transfer project – PROJETO BALDE CHEIO, aimed at increasing productivity of small farmers.  This program is targeted toward dairy farmers with less than 250 acres, and includes veterinary support, agronomy and irrigation consultation as well as networking opportunities.  Farmers in this project are growing a fast growing grass called Mombaça, which is mob grazed by their dairy cattle. It was really interesting to learn about their farming systems and see that they are able to support their families in an efficient and productive smaller scale enterprise.

P1090516The large farms we met were diversified and achieve their goals through expansion and spreading infrastructure costs across many acres.  While we were at one farm, they had crews harvesting corn silage, combining soybeans, cutting sugarcane, planting corn and planting sugar cane.  The second farm we visited focussed primarily on sugar cane.  They own several sugar and ethanol plants and own and contract thousands of acres of sugar cane.  It was great to see cane harvest in progress and check out the harvesting equipment.

It will be interesting to see how these farmers fare in the future.  The contrast between small and large is stark, and I wonder if they will be able to happily coexist. Small farmers are generally constrained by the land they own and focussed on maximizing productivity.  Large farmers have access to cash and can expand, but return on investment must be sufficient to keep their owners interested.P1090744P1090741

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