Fast No-Till Adoption in Brazil Without Subsidies:

A Successful Partnership

 

José Eloir Denardin1; Rainoldo Alberto Kochhann1
1
Researchers at the Brazilian Agriculture and Livestock Research Corporation
National Wheat Research Center (Embrapa Trigo)
Caixa Postal 451, 99001-970 Passo Fundo, RS, Brazil
E-mail: denardin@cnpt.embrapa.br; rainoldo@cnpt.embrapa.br

Summary

In a global economy, Brazil is facing a shortage of funding for Research and Development (R&D) approach in the public sector, a pressure for increased efficiency and cost reduction in the private companies sector, and society demands for better quality products at lower prices along with environmental concerns and challenges. Therefore, administrators and other professionals involved in agribusiness need to find ways to overcome these challenges. New organizational forms are a key to strive under these circumstances. Projeto METAS provides an example that it is possible to achieve modern technologies, products and services at lower costs in the agribusiness sector and also contribute to reduce the impact of agriculture on the environment when public and private efforts are complemented by each other. This advance means the adoption of a new paradigm: a partnership of Science & Technology with private companies complementing each other and using the system’s R&D approach, i.e. identification of users and farm production systems demands and needs – R&D approach of solution technologies – validation tests – training extension agents and farmers - introduction of changes by users.

Key words: No-tillage; R&D approach; Partnership; Paradigm; Brazil.

Introduction

Up to the early nineties, public research organizations and rural extension services in Brazil were not used to join efforts with private companies to reach their missions and objectives. The relative abundance of financial resources available for research and extension activities, the subsidized credit to agriculture and consequently the high profitability for farming and for farm supply companies, from the sixties up to the mid-eighties, originated individual efforts by public research organizations, rural extension services and private agricultural sector in Brazil. Afterwards, the shortage of financial resources, associated with the globalization of the economy and demands of organized sectors of the society, led these institutions to establish integrated activities considering the complexity of required actions and the multidimensionality of the unsolved problems. It became evident that isolate institutional actions were inadequate and not cost-effective in efforts such as those to increase adoption of the technology available. The adoption of no-tillage system is a clear example of this problem.

Evolution of no-tillage area in the State of Rio Grande do Sul (RS)

The first attempt to introduce no-tillage in Brazil was done by planting one hectare of sorghum to winter crop stubble without tillage, in 1969, in the county of Não-Me-Toque, State of Rio Grande do Sul, with a Buffalo seeder imported by the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul through a USAID Program. The second and third records on no-tillage experiences were reported in 1971 at FUNDACEP’s Research Center in the county of Cruz Alta, RS, and in 1972 at Embrapa’s National Wheat Research Center in the county of Passo Fundo, RS. In 1973, ICI do Brasil S.A. introduced the first herbicides for no-tillage and concentrated efforts exclusively on farmers’ adoption through Friends of the Land Clubs (Clubes Amigos da Terra). In 1975, no-tillage was included in research programs of two universities, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and Federal University of Santa Maria, and at the State of Rio Grande do Sul Institute for Natural Resources (IPRNR).

The area under no-till in the State of Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost Brazilian state, remained below 48 thousand hectares from 1976 to 1985. From 1985 through 1992 the area under no-till grew at a low rate reaching 320 thousand hectares. Since the implementation of a Research and Development (R&D) approach, of which the Projeto METAS initiated in 1993 is an example, the area under no-till grew to more than 2.2 million hectares in four years (Figure 1).

Background information on southern Brazil

Soils in the wheat and soybean production regions of southern Brazil are predominantly Latosols, Oxisols (10,825,000 ha) and Terra Roxa Estruturada, Alfisols (4,350,000 ha). Under natural conditions both soil types are well-developed and present a well-defined structure. These soils have developed from basalt, are low in available phosphorus, with average pH of 4.6 in their original condition, with high exchangeable aluminum, and low cation exchange capacity, varing from fine textured clay to sandy soils.

Figure 1. Evolution of no-tillage adoption in the State of Rio Grande do Sul.

Continuous wheat-soybean cropping, burning of crop residues and excessive tillage operations have led to soil erosion, fast soil organic matter depletion, soil structure deterioration, and yield potential decrease. In spite of the relative efficiency of terraces and contour planting to reduce soil erosion, losses were still too high to sustain permanent land use. The average landscape is characterized by undulating slopes of 5-20 %. On the Podzolic, São Pedro soil unit, losses on bare soil tilled can be as high as 220 tons ha-1 of soil, 4 tons ha-1 of organic matter (SOM), and 44 kg ha-1 of potassium.

The geographic location of the southern Brazil region is latitude from 22o30’58’’ to 33o45’10’’ S and longitude from 48o05’37’’ to 57o38’34’’ W. The predominant climates, according to the Köeppen classification, are Cfa (Subtropical climate, humid and without dry spell; the temperature in the warmest month is higher than 22 oC and in the coldest month it varies between 3 and 18 oC) and Cfb (Temperate climate in which the temperature in the warmest month is less than 22 oC). The annual rainfall in the region ranges from 1,500 to 1,900 mm.

Climate and soil conditions allow to grow two crops per year, and in some areas it is possible to grow five crops in two years. The predominant cropping systems in the wheat-soybean production region before the wide adoption of no-tillage were wheat, seeded in May-July, soybean, seeded in November-December, winter fallow or green manure crops, and soybean, seeded in October-December.

The first period: 1976 to 1985

Since the beginning and throughout this period both the research system and the extension service focused no-tillage as an alternative soil tillage method highly efficient in controlling soil erosion. This model involves a highly oversimplified approach.

The main limiting factors during this period were: a) lack of knowledge and reduced trained staff; b) deficient no-tillage seeders and poor spraying technology; c) burndown herbicides used at that time provided poor weed control and allowed perennization of certain weeds; d) predominant cropping system composed by continuous wheat/soybean which promoted disease problems, specially on wheat, provided insufficient soil cover, and also induced the predominance of certain weeds.

The no-tillage system was simultaneously introduced in research programs and at farms. This fact reflected in a large lag time between the identification of problems by farmers and the generation of knowledge by the research system to solve these problems, except for the soil erosion control. Consequently, an intense technology transfer effort directed exclusively towards farmers was led by private companies, mainly by ICI do Brasil S.A. Nevertheless, these activities, that were typically product development strategies, did not contribute to the solution of most problems for adoption of the no-tillage system. In 1976 only ten farmers were using no-tillage in 1,600 hectares in the State of Rio Grande do Sul, and the area increased to a maximum of 47,840 hectares and 363 adopting farmers, in 1983. The expansion of the area under no-tillage was quite variable throughout the period, thus the adoption was also unsteady. Many farmers returned to conventional tillage after 3 or 4 years of no-tillage due to above mentioned problems. The linear model that represents the evolution of no-tillage adoption during this period shows that the adoption was not consistent with an annual rate of 4,659 hectares (Figure 1).

The second period: 1985 to 1992

In the mid-eighties it became evident that no-tillage had to be regarded by research as a system of exploitation composed by inter-related, interdependent and complementary technologies. Therefore, the concept of no-tillage changed from an oversimplified to a system’s approach on R&D. The strategy was to treat no-till as a cropping system in which crop rotation is essential, leaving crop residues on the soil surface and with tillage restricted to the seeding row.

Many exchange of experiences farmers’ groups were formed and searched for solutions to fulfill the lack of information not provided by research institutions. The main cover crop, black oats (Avena strigosa), became largely used as animal feed by being grazed by beef cattle with a direct net return only in large farms. Corn became part of the cropping system, providing another economic alternative for the farmer. Additionally, the corn residue produced is more lignified and resistant to the attack of microorganisms that decompose them very fast under the climatic conditions prevailing in this region.

The main limitation to increase the adoption of no-tillage during this period was the inadequate production systems that would not suit small farms with less than 50 hectares, which comprise 67 % of farms of this state. While the cropping systems were not adjusted for different regions and farm sizes, in which small farmers could not afford to buy corn headers for their combines and beef cattle production was not appropriated to small farms, the adoption of no-tillage remained confined to large farms. In addition, no-till seeders were too expensive and unsuited to operate on steep slope of the small farm. Therefore, during this period the linear regression model that represents the evolution of no-tillage showed a stable annual adoption rate that increased from 4,659 to 39,524 hectares.

Specially at the end of this period the complexity of the problems brought about by the globalization of the economy, besides scarcer and limited funding for research programs extension service, required a new institutional R&D approach. The adoption of this model was implemented through partnerships between public and private organizations, which were supported by interinstitutional, multidisciplinary, system’s approach, and client oriented efforts (Figure 2).

The third period: 1993 to 1997

This period was characterized by adoption of the R&D approach focused on the generation and transformation of no-tillage knowledge into technologies ready for use in different regions of southern Brazil. This approach was led by Farmers Supported Research Centers, as Fundação ABC, in the Campos Gerais region, State of Paraná, and FUNDACEP FECOTRIGO, in the county of Cruz Alta, State of Rio Grande do Sul, as well as by Embrapa Trigo and its partners associated in the Projeto METAS.

The Projeto METAS was a partnership action involving: the federal government agriculture research corporation, Embrapa (Centro Nacional de Pesquisa de Trigo e Centro de Pesquisa Agropecuária de Clima Temperado); the university, Universidade Federal de Pelotas; the State of Rio Grande do Sul extension service, EMATER-RS; the private farm supply companies as Monsanto do Brasil Ltda, Semeato S.A. Indústria e Comércio, Máquinas Agrícolas Jacto S.A., Sementes Agroceres S.A., and Adubos Trevo S.A.; some farmers’ cooperatives; and some private extension agents. The aim of this project was: to conduct research on the main constraints of the system and train the extension agents on the available no-tillage technologies. In 1993 the project trained extension agents from the Planalto Médio and Alto Uruguai regions of the State of Rio Grande do Sul, which comprise 917,450 hectares of cropped area. The success of the project at the end of the first year induced new partners to join the initial group, and from 1994 to 1997 the project trained extension agents from all regions of this state, comprising more than 3,000,000 hectares of cropped area (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Counties initially proposed to be part of Projeto METAS in 1993 and counties involved and impacted by its activities from 1994 to 1997.

Private and public sectors partners of the Projeto METAS joined efforts and shared human, material, and financial resources to avoid duplicity of efforts, to reduce costs, and reduce risks. Embrapa research centers and the Universidade Federal de Pelotas were responsible for conducting research and training extension agents. The extension agents of the state extension service, farmers’ cooperatives, and private extension agents were responsible for installing Training and Demonstration Units. These units served as a means of self-training of extension agents, in a first moment, and as demonstration to farmers of local communities, in a second moment, providing also feedback to the research team. The private farm supply companies financed the project and interacted on research and diffusion of technologies.

The main steps of this project were as follows: identification of the main constraints of no-tillage adoption; identification of research and extension needs; adjustment of technologies to suit different farm sizes; and training of extension agents to transfer these technologies to farmers.

The most relevant activities of the project can be outlined as follow: a) regional adjustments on cover crop management; b) validation of kits to be adapted to conventional tillage seeders allowing no-till adoption by small farmers having less than 50 hectares (67 % in the region and 83 % in the State of Rio Grande do Sul); c) adjustment of the recommendations for liming and fertilizer management; d) improvement of chemical spraying technology; e) training of extension agents; f) implementation of Training and Demonstration Units on farmers’ fields; g) and a research Demo Farm (12 hectares). It is important to mention that the extension agents trained by the project acted as multipliers of those technologies and each one developed their activities with the final users (farmers), so multiplying the project’s impact (Table 1).

Table 1. Activities promoted by trainees of Projeto METAS multiplying the project’s impact (1993 to 1997)
Activity

Number

Public
On-farm demonstrations

451

7,506

Farmer tours

202

6,747

Regional seminars

113

11,852

Farmer trainings

131

5,085

Field days organized

201

39,555

Community meetings

1,152

19,491

Training and Demonstration Units

194

194

Total

2,444

90,430

Results of "Projeto Metas"

Before the implementation of the Projeto METAS, the access to no-tillage seeders for most farmers was limited by the relatively high cost (at least US$ 10,000.00) and the lack of confidence that the available options were suitable to their farms. The project induced the adaptation of conventional tillage drills (through kits) to operate on stubble, in no-tillage, at a cost ranging around US$ 1,500.00. Many repair shops that improved those adaptations became manufacturers of lower price no-tillage seeders, offering prices as low as US$ 7,000.00. The no-tillage seeder manufacturer, partner in the project, was induced to bring down the size of seeders and to lower the prices of their products to meet small farmer´s requirements.

The main benefits for public organizations were the fulfillment of their missions and duties. For the private companies the main advantage was the direct investment in R&D approach, instead of having their own structure and hiring their own personnel, reducing the risk of low returns. In addition, the private companies reached a great success in developing the market for their products and consequently increased the size of their market and acquired the trust of users by working jointly with research and extension organizations. The mutual trust between public organizations and private companies was recognized by farmers and broke the resistance at the critical factor of moving from soil tillage to no-tillage using burndown herbicides. For farmers and the overall society the benefits derived from the project came from the technical support supplied and , consequently, lower risks involved by no-tillage adoption. Such lower risks are a result of timely seeding, less labor, less fuel consumption, less equipment and personnel involved, less replacement parts, lower soil erosion and nutrients losses, lower variable costs, more stable yields and higher income due to crop diversification and enhancement of milk production (Table 2). All the above benefits are indicators of sustainability and competitiveness.

The increasing competitiveness in a global economy and the long-term trend of lower commodity prices indicate that no-tillage is a matter of survival. It is a must for the farmers that want to stay in agricultural activity without subsidized credit and improve their own quality of life.

Table 2. Environmental impacts of the adoption of no-tillage in 820,000 hectares at 60 counties covered by the project
item

reduction in one hectare

reduction in 820,000 hectares
Diesel fuel

59.30

l/ha/yr

48,626,000

l/yr
Labor

4.77

h/ha/yr

3,911,400

h/yr
Machine-hour

5.23

h/ha/yr

4,288,600

h/yr
Soil losses

14.00

t/ha/yr

11,480,000

Ton/yr
Losses of P

10.00

kg/ha/yr

8,200,000

kg/yr
Losses of K

13.00

kg/ha/yr

10,660,000

kg/yr

The Projeto METAS has proven to be an efficient example of partnership between public and private organizations. Such actions promoted rapid adoption of no-tillage. In 1993, no-tillage was practiced in only 45,000 hectares, from a total of 917,450 hectares covered by the project. One year later, the area under no-tillage had already reached the project’s target set for five years, i.e., 150,000 hectares. From 1995 to 1997, the area under no-tillage expanded to 420,000, 650,000 and 820,000 hectares, respectively, equivalent to 46, 71, and 90 % of the total area. While the increase in no-tillage adoption, in the initially covered area of the project, raised from 45,000 to 820,000 hectares (5 to 90 %), from 1993 to 1997, in the whole State of Rio Grande do Sul the area increased from 620,000 to 2,200,000 hectares (Figure 1). During this period the regression model showed an annual rate of 485,874 hectares. The adjustment of production systems was an important factor responsible for no-till adoption success. The conversion of cover crops into animal feed, for both beef cattle and dairy cattle, allowed the adoption of profitable rotation systems, which is a condition required by the no-tillage system.

The effective technology transfer promoted by this project can be compared to the conditions occurred during the time when subsidized credit for agriculture was available, which also induced large changes in technology adoption and in agriculture production. The actions resulting from the Projeto METAS are an example of programs showing the most economic, social and environmental development experienced in the State of Rio Grande do Sul.

The major benefit of Projeto Metas for both public research and extension organizations involved in this partnership was that they fulfilled their missions and duties at a remarkable level. The private companies benefited mainly from lower costs of product development due to the new relationship of increased trust between farm suppliers and no-till farmers developed in the course of the joint activities. Farmers adopting no-tillage benefited from more time available, reduced production costs, timely seeding, and consequently higher economic returns with lower risks on their farm operations. The society in general benefited from more stable production of grain and increased milk and meat production, lower environmental impact and cost savings in city water treatment due to lower portion of sediments in water.

No-tillage expansion in the Cerrados (savannas) of Brasil

The main areas of widespread adoption of no-tillage were in the Campos Gerais region of the State of Paraná, followed by the State of Rio Grande do Sul, in southern Brazil. The major increases in no-tillage adoption are now occurring in the Cerrados, in the west-central, south-east and north-west regions of Brazil.

The Brazilian Cerrados are considered the last large agricultural frontier of the world, comprising more than 50 million hectares of arable land that can be brought into production. Adoption of no-tillage in the region has been increasing fast, from 180,000 hectares in 1991 to 3,000,000 hectares in 1997. This region differs from the southern states by having a long season without rain and higher temperatures.

The development of no-tillage in the Cerrados region has been led mainly by farmers and agronomists coming from southern Brazil and trying to adapt technologies from this region. In spite of the flatter topography of the Cerrados, soil and nutrient losses by erosion (annual rainfall 2,000 mm) are a major threat under conventional tillage, as it is in southern Brazil.

Under such environment, the main limitation is the lack of a winter crop (dry season) to produce mulch. Due to the long dry winter period, the major challenge of the region was to provide sufficient plant biomass for soil cover to turn the no-tillage system feasible. Cover crops and the cropping systems adopted in southern regions of Brazil, where winter crops are feasible, are not suitable to the Cerrados region. In the late seventies, studies were done to overseed wheat into the soybean crop, having a soybean/wheat double cropping system and taking advantage of the efficiency of water use. However, a broader solution and adoption of no-tillage came with the introduction of pearl millet, Pennisetum americanum (L. Leek), in the cropping system and by developing shorter cycle soybean cultivars that can be double cropped with cotton or pearl millet. The main cover crops in the region are: black oats (annual crop), specially in southern part of the State of Mato Grosso do Sul, southern end of Cerrados; pearl millet (annual tropical grass) throughout the whole region; and Brachiaria decumbens (perennial tropical grass) in pastureland for three years preceding no-till soybean.

There is a major potential for increasing soybean, corn, sorghum, cotton, and upland rice production in the Cerrados region. Part of the area has to come from the need for renovation of millions of hectares of degraded pastureland and part has to come from clearing new areas. The amount of area brought into cultivation will depend on available financing to apply the adequate technologies.

Conclusion

To increase no-tillage adoption most organizations need to concentrate more efforts on organizational aspects than on technical aspects. This circumstance is due to the fact that no-tillage is a complex of technologies that act integrately and interdependently, what maximizes soil and environmental factors to express the genetic potential of cultivated species, with low impact on natural resources. The no-tillage system seen as such is a mechanism of transformation, reorganization and sustainability of farm activity.

The success of the increasing area under no-tillage in Brazil is strongly related to a new paradigm: adoption of R&D approach through partnerships among public and private organizations allowing the accomplishment of their missions and duties with more efficiency and cost effectiveness.

These organizational aspects will have an increasing importance to solve the problems of the no-tillage system that still remain or, further, to solve problems about soil and crop aspects as those related to site specific management, also called precision agriculture. The main reason is that those systems and technologies require more qualified, more intense, more integrated, broader and more complex interventions at lower production costs. In other words, the establishment of partnerships even among competitors in agribusiness, is a must to acquire the required scale, share costs and benefits and develop the multifaced solutions needed for major profits.

The institutional efficiency and competitiveness are increased as the partnership reach increasing degrees of complementarity of interactions. In addition, objectives and targets have to be set, in order to converge interests, and share human, physical and financial resources as means of reducing duplicity of activities as well as reducing costs and risks and increasing efficiency and work quality.

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