BRAZIL has one major advantage over the U.S. when it comes to grain and soybean production: two crops, in a sense, are better than one.
According to research from Brown University, the benefits of growing two crops per year on the same parcel of land actually go far beyond the farm.
Focusing on the state of Mato Grosso, one of the most productive regions of Brazil (Figure 1), Brown sociologist Lean VanWey found that the intensification of agricultural production through double-cropping has allowed Brazil to become "an agricultural powerhouse" while improving the well-being of average Brazilians in rural areas.
VanWey found that over the past decade, gross domestic product and median per capita income were both substantially higher in counties where double-cropping is common. What's interesting is that double-cropping was also associated with higher-quality schools and better public sanitation.
"We looked at two indicators of private goods and two indicators of public goods," VanWey explained. "Overall, we found this really nice pattern of impacts on development associated with double-cropping. These benefits seem to be widespread through the population."
On the other hand, converting pastureland to single-crop fields appeared to have no effect on the economic variables studied. In counties where double-cropping was most common, median income was substantially higher and would be as much as 58% lower without the effects of double-cropping. (Meanwhile, if all areas in the state double-cropped, income could increase another 33%.)
There appear to be two major reasons for the widespread economic benefits, according to the study. Double-cropping is more labor intensive, which creates more jobs, and it also is more lucrative, which generates additional tax revenue that funds public investment in schools and infrastructure.
"The community with the most double-cropping also has a soy processing plant that employs thousands of workers as well as complementary poultry and swine raising and processing," VanWey observed. "In the long run, there isn't much money in just growing things and selling them, but processing allows the local area and workers to retain more of the per-unit cost of the final product."
Any way you slice it, Brazil is growing more corn and soybeans, and double-cropping is playing a major role in that production growth.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Brazil's corn production area for 2013-14 is forecasted to be 15.5 million hectares, down slightly from 2012-13. Total production, on the other hand, is forecasted to be 72 million metric tons, well above the average production of the past decade (Figure 2).
USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service noted that the recent surge in production — from 57.4 mmt in 2010-11 to a record 76 mmt for 2012-13 — resulted from larger area and record yields in the second crop.
In fact, second-crop production is now estimated to account for as much as 55% of Brazil's total production.
First-crop yields typically have been larger than yields for the second crop, but for the past two growing seasons, the opposite has occurred. An extended rainy season and above-average precipitation in Mato Grosso contributed to a bumper second crop in both cases (Figure 3).
Mato Grosso is Brazil's largest producer of second-crop corn, and planted area has increased swiftly. USDA noted that second-crop planted area has more than doubled in size since 2008-09.
As much as 42% of the state's soybean area is now seeded to corn immediately following harvest. Market incentives have led farmers to trade lower first-crop soybean yields for larger second-crop corn yields.
Earlier this month, Brazilian consultancy Agroconsult said it expects soybean acreage to expand 4.3% next season to a whopping 71.9 million acres, despite the realization that prices will almost certainly be lower.
Part of the reason is that second-crop corn production has gone so well that producers feel more comfortable planting first-crop soybeans at the expense of first-crop corn acreage.
Weather and planting progress continue to be central features of market psychology.
Farmers planted an astounding 43% of the nation's corn crop during the week ending May 19, getting nearly three-quarters of intended acreage planted.
After being woefully behind schedule through mid-May, farmers pulled within eight percentage points of the five-year average pace.
"Corn and spring wheat planting were higher than trade expectations at 71% and 67%, respectively, while soybean planting, at 24%, came in as expected," Rice Dairy senior feed grains analyst Jerry Gidel said. "The northern states' and Iowa's progress were a big surprise."
Iowa farmers, in fact, planted 56% of the state's expected corn acreage as of May 19, matching the national percentage of 71%, while Minnesota and the Dakotas all ranged from 60% to 75% planted.
Wisconsin, at 43%, is the furthest behind of the 18 major corn-producing states USDA tracks in its weekly "Crop Progress" report.
"Farmers have the technology and the drive to accomplish more in a week than we could have in three only a few decades ago," National Corn Growers Assn. president Pam Johnson said. "Last week, we knew that we needed a week of drier, warmer weather, and throughout much of the Corn Belt, we got just that. Taking shifts and working together, our nation's family farmers will get the crop planted and work just as tirelessly through harvest to make sure that we provide the food, feed and fuel America needs."
Emergence, not surprisingly, was still well behind schedule. Just 19% of the crop had emerged as of May 19, compared with a five-year average of 46%. With planting progress advancing so rapidly, this week's emergence number will likely change dramatically as well.
For spring wheat, planting progress also moved swiftly last week. Farmers planted nearly a quarter of the crop in seven days' time, hitting 67% completed as of May 19, compared with the five-year pace of 76% for the week. Emergence hit 22%, compared with the five-year average of 49%.
With so much corn and wheat getting planted in such a short window, traders are now assuming that fewer acres will be "switched" over to soybeans.
As of May 19, 24% of the nation's expected soybean acres had been planted, well off the five-year average pace of 42% but fairly close to traders' pre-report estimates.
Only 3% of the soybean crop was emerged as of May 19, but farmers' attention will shift more to soybeans once the corn planting push is completed, perhaps as soon as this week.
Winter wheat condition remains a key area of concern, particularly as global competitors — including countries in the Former Soviet Union — appear poised to reap record harvests.
Only 31% of the U.S. winter wheat crop was rated in "good to excellent" condition in the most recent "Crop Progress" report, with 43% of the crop now headed.