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Cutting Postharvest Grain Losses in Brazil a Challenge

Jeff Caldwell 08/29/2014 @ 10:06am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

There's growing talk in parts of the central U.S. that once the combines start to roll this fall, getting that crop transported to where it will be stored or marketed could be a challenge.

However, the worries in the Plains and Corn Belt pale in comparison to the logistical hurdles farmers in parts of Brazil face in getting their crop moved to market. It's led specialists to renew their focus on crop losses incurred between the combine and terminal. The ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss at the University of Illinois is one such think-tank for the establishment and implementation of "economically viable technologies, practices, and systems that reduce postharvest loss in staple crops such as corn, wheat, and oilseeds."

Logistics and infrastructure have long been a problem for Brazilian farmers, and as that country's crop land and production increases, it's only taxing the nation's dirt roads and rural highways further. That's been a big driver of as much as a 12% postharvest loss of grain because of simple transportation problems, namely because of a combination of that poor infrastructure and farmers' rush to get their crops harvested and to market. That hustle is made worse by the fact that farmers plant, manage, and harvest not one, but two crops in Brazil each year.

"Clearly there are things that you can do to reduce loss -- you can put bed liners in trucks, you can adjust your combine, you can harvest more slowly -- but for the farmers in Mato Grosso, it’s not a high priority," says University of Illinois ag economist Peter Goldsmith in a university report. "It doesn't seem rational. If you see soybeans bouncing off your windshield from the truck ahead of you and bands of soybeans along the berm, why wouldn't you try to prevent it? It appears that farm managers in Brazil actually allow loss to happen because the cost of reducing loss is greater than the benefits."

Goldsmith, long a student of Brazilian agriculture, works with the ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Losses to create practical, easy-to-implement solutions, but more importantly, to foster understanding among farmers and farm managers in regions like Mato Grosso; by making a few key adjustments in those areas, crop income can rise by a considerable amount.

"Because they are in such a hurry to get the soybean crop harvested so they can get the maize crop planted before the rainy season, they may: harvest too fast, desiccate green soybean to advance harvest, or expose soybean to the weather during transport, all of which results in a 10% loss. The loss isn’t intentional but rather a level that the farm manager is willing to live with in order to get that second crop of corn," Goldsmith says. "When a farmer doesn’t think that harvest speed is important, they have more loss. Likewise, if a farmer doesn't think that combine adjustments are important, they'll have more loss. Those who realize that maintaining equipment is important have less loss. Consequently, technical training in the field with the equipment could be beneficial. But the cost of reducing loss further, using current technology, may exceed the benefits. Farmers may be unwilling to pay or invest in loss reduction."

Factors contributing to postharvest loss that Goldsmith and other specialists are honing in on for farmers in Brazil include:

  • Insect and rodent damage

  • Combine speeds

  • Truck conditions

  • Road maintenance

Goldsmith points out that while these may be obvious factors to consider to U.S. farmers, both a general lack of education and the growing rush to get the crop from the field to the marketplace tend to keep them in the back of Brazilian farmers' minds.

"Why wouldn’t farmers have agreed 100% that harvest speed contributes to loss? Insects and rodents seemed to be unimportant. Truck conditions and bad weather were the top factors to blame for loss, but truck conditions were mentioned by only 62%. These causes should be common knowledge, so I don’t know why 100% of the responses didn’t agree that, for example, poor road and truck conditions contribute to loss," he says. "The lack of definitiveness about this may indicate that loss is not a front-of-mind issue for managers, which, in turn, has significant implications for policy makers seeking to reduce postharvest loss.

"We may think of Brazil as sunshine and beautiful all the time, but farming is really tough in the tropics. There are pest pressures 24/7, soils are poor, there’s an extreme rainy season, the distance to markets is great, and road conditions are very rough. All sorts of factors make farming tough, but this area of the world has the greatest potential to materially augment global grain supplies," Goldsmith adds.

Though these issues have major implications for farmer profitability in Brazil right now, there are also more global implications, both to the grain marketplace and issues well beyond the farm gate. And, how these issues are addressed will go a long way in establishing Brazilian farmers' roles in the global grain market down the road.

"This dominant class of medium- and large-tropical farm acreage operators who are producing most of the new grains are filling the gap between where we are now and where we need to be in 2050 to feed the world," Goldsmith says in a university report. "Sure, we can expand our crop among the developed countries of the world, but we’re only helping at the margin. The potential for new grain producers on new land is coming from farmers in the Southern Hemisphere."

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