Corn has been the big growth story in Brazilian agriculture over the last five years.
Farmers discovered that with a little investment in technology, they could make money out of planting a second crop of corn after summer soybeans.
This led to rapid expansion. In 2012, this growth grabbed the attention of a wider audience after a successful crop dovetailed with losses in the U.S. to yield handsome profits and to temporarily lift Brazil to the No. 1 spot in the world export market.
But a year on, the aura of success has faded.
Brazil produced another bumper second crop in 2013, but prices are much lower. There was no repeat of the bump offered by a serious drought in the U.S., and transport costs continue to rise in the Cerrado.
As a result, farmers will make little money out of the 2013 crop and with few signs of substantial improvement in prices on the horizon, most growers are looking to reduce investments in corn in the 2013-14 season.
“Farmers simply don’t want to know about corn this year. Their priority is to ensure a good soybean harvest,” said Steve Cachia, analyst at Cerealpar, a local grains brokerage.
This aversion is already clear in southern and southeastern Brazil, where farmers have started planting a much-smaller acreage of summer corn.
“Farmers around here are switching as much land as possible to soybeans. They plant the minimum corn necessary for rotation,” said Sergio Dalla Costa, sales manager at the Coopavel cooperative in Cascavel, western Parana.
A quick look at a cost/price analysis for Parana makes it abundantly obvious why growers think this way.
Planting summer corn in Parana promises a negative margin of 26% this season, assuming yields of 115 bushels per acre, while soybeans carry a positive margin of 40%, based on a yield of 45 bpa, according to state agriculture secretariat figures.
The result is summer corn area will decline by 13% to 12.6 million acres in the center-south, according to Safras e Mercado, a local farm consultants.
SECOND-CROP AREA WILL ALSO FALL
Breaking a five-year growth streak, second-crop planted area will also drop, by 5% to 18.7 million acres, according Safras e Mercado — although to listen to farmers, you would imagine the drop to be much greater.
“At these prices, you make no money planting corn come January. We could see area drop by 30% here,” said Laercio Lenz, president of the rural association in Sorriso, the biggest grain-producing district in Mato Grosso.
Lenz isn’t exaggerating about margins, which are even worse in Mato Grosso than in Parana because of poor logistics. Freight from Sorriso to port will equate to 27% of the free-on-board price of corn at port in 2013-14, estimates Agroconsult, a local farm analytics firm.
However, second-crop area won’t decline as grandly as Lenz suggests, only because farmers have few options. Modern no-till practices dictate that the land should be covered in winter and so farmers might as well plant corn, the best commercial option.
They won’t spend as much on the crop as in recent years though. Instead of spending R$500 per hectare ($93 per acre) on the crop, farmers around here will cut investment to R$200 ($37/acre), explained Enoir Primon, inputs director at the Copagril cooperative in western Parana.
In previous years, farmers have cut corners with their soybean crop, planting in dry soil and harvesting in the wetter part of the season, to ensure good conditions for a second crop of corn.
They won’t cut those corners this season though.
“Farmers will prioritize their soybeans. That means planting later and harvesting later, which will leave less time for corn planting,” explains Lenz, who farms 2,000 acres in Sorriso.
Second-crop corn is already a risky crop, maturing as it does in the dry Brazilian winter. Later planting and reduced technology levels will render the harvest even more vulnerable.
Brazil has produced two bumper second-crop corn harvests in a row, but the balance of probabilities dictates it is due for a less impressive one soon.
Uncertainties means 2013-13 corn crop forecasts cover a massive range, from the 72 million metric tons predicted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in September to the 83.6 mmt estimated by Celeres, a local farm consultancy. In 2012-13, Brazil produced approximately 82 mmt.
Still, even if Brazil produces at the bottom end of this range, carryover stocks from the 2012-13 season will be so large that the South American agricultural giant will continue exporting at the same pace.
Year-end stocks will jump from 2.2 mmt in 2012 to 13.6 mmt in 2013, allowing Brazil to maintain exports at around 19 mmt in the 2014-15 commercial year (Feb-Jan), according to Safras e Mercado.
Via Stéphane Bisaillon