With a lot of debate about Brazil’s corn crop production this season, is it going to be well over +100 MMTs or sub-100 MMTs, I thought it might be a good idea to take a look back at how the crop has gotten so large. Keep in mind, the USDA is already forecasting next year’s Brazilian corn crop at 107 MMTs. For reference, last year here at home in the U.S. we produced just over +359 MMTs, China just over +268 MMTs, Argentina 56.75 MMTs, Ukraine 46.55 MMTs, Russia 40.5 MMTs, Mexico 30.4 MMTs, Canada 28.5 MMTs.
Corn production in Brazil has grown rapidly over the last two decades and one of the big drivers behind that has been the introduction of “safrinha”, or second crop, corn. The word “safrinha” is actually Portugese for “little crop,” which is a bit misleading considering it accounts for around 70% of the country’s total annual corn production.
Brazil enjoys an extra long growing season which allows for two corn crops in different parts of the country. The first (summer crop) is generally planted starting in September and harvested in February-March. It’s concentrated in the South and grown primarily to meet domestic needs like feed. The second crop is normally planted during the January-March period, directly following soybean harvest, and harvested during the June-August period. The majority of this production occurs in the center-west and southern regions, with the states Mato Grosso, Parana, and Mato Grosso do Sul the and primarily goes towards exports, which helps explain why the country’s second crop is so closely monitored.
The second crop was introduced in the 1980s and by the 1990s had grown to around 100 million bushels, or about 10% of Brazil’s total production. By 2017, safrinha corn output reached 2.6 billion bushels, or nearly three-quarters of total annual production. This growth has helped propel Brazil from zero corn exports in the 1990s to the second-largest corn exporter in the world in 2019, behind only the U.S.
Safrinha corn really surged starting in 2007 when the soybean growing season in the savanna was shortened in an effort to control the fungus that causes soybean rust. The severe disease, which can be spread over vast areas by wind, first impacted southern soy plantations in 2001. As a result, Brazilian farmers lost around 8.5 million metric tons of soybeans between 2001 and 2003 alone, with up to 90% of farms affected by the 2002-2003 growing season.
In an effort to stop the development of the fungus, Brazil introduced a soybean-free period which changed the start of the soybean growing season. This year, for instance, the 90-day period runs from June 15 to September 15. Unfortunately, soybean rust continues to develop and strengthen throughout the growing season, thanks in part to a rainy season that creates ideal conditions for its spread, so timing the harvest is also essential to help reduce crop losses.
That dilemma led to experimentation with early-maturing soybean varieties that ultimately allowed for them to introduce a corn crop in the very same season. Again, a lot of experimentation with short-season hybrid varieties helped make it a viable option. With the intensification of crop management, including soil improvements with nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers, second-crop corn yields have increased by +2.3% per year since the early 2000s.
Still, it can be a risky crop for farmers to undertake as some Brazilian farmers have witnessed this season. Because of a rainy spring, this year’s soybean harvest experienced delays, leading to late planting of Brazil’s safrinha corn. A late planted crop is at greater risk of yield losses due to dryness or freezing temperatures, or both. Brazil’s Conab just recently lowered its estimate for this year’s safrinha corn by -1.6 million metric tons due to dryness in the south. (Sources: CARD at Iowa State University, USDA, Ohio Ag Net, Soybean & Corn Advisor)