Frank Djkstra knew that to continue farming in Parana, Brazil's “sea of hills” region, he needed a revolutionary new approach. Deep gullies and erosion caused by farm machinery were destroying the soil on his Frankanna Farms and productivity was declining.
He studied no-till soybeans, wheat and corn, evaluating their impact on soil tilth and the farm's economics. In 1976, he rolled out a no-till program. Nearly 30 years later, the conversion is a complete success.
“Our productivity has been increasing every year, and fertility is getting better, too,” said Frank's son, Richard. Today, Frank is president of the Brazilian No-Till Association, and frequently lectures on the subject.
The Djkstra family lives in a cluster of nicely maintained houses with clay-tile roofs on top of a hill that overlooks the farm. “We like to keep the family all together here,” said Richard, during a tour of his farm by U.S. agricultural journalists. “It's good for the children, too.”
Parana is one of the well-to-do states of Brazil, and soybean and corn production is well-established here. Producers are highly innovative, purchasing inputs through farmer cooperatives and paying $4 per hectare ($1.62 per acre) to staff and operate a large research center called Fundacao ABC.
The Djkstras, who immigrated from the Netherlands before World War II, use cover crops to address both weed control and soil erosion on the farm's highly erodible land.
“After soybean harvest, we plant our cover crop, black oats,” Djkstra said. “It looks like white oats only the seed is black. It's a very cheap way to produce a cover crop, and it's a very good cover for us.”
The cover is killed with glyphosate in July and corn is planted into the stubble shortly after that in August and September.
Corn is planted in narrow rows (45 centimeters (17 inches)) or wide rows (80 centimeters (32 inches)), “depending on the hybrid that we plant.”
On some corn fields, “we use pre-emergence herbicides for broadleaves; on others, we use only post-emergence herbicides, depending on the type of weed. We run the fields every week or two. My agronomist gives me an advisory for each field. We have fields from 15 hectares (37 acres) to 250 hectares (617 acres), and we manage each field differently.
“Corn is harvested in February and March. We wait until May to plant barley or wheat in the field. We put out a lot of fertilizer, enough for the next crop of soybeans, as well as for the wheat and the barley. The barley and the wheat crops pay for the soybean fertility, so it makes us very competitive. Our production costs for soybeans are only about $200 per hectare ($80 per acre).”
Wheat and barley are harvested in October, followed by soybean planting. “Barley and wheat leave a lot of straw on top of the soil. This is good for no-till, but sometimes it's very hard to plant soybeans, even with a no-till planter.”
Soybean seed is saved from the previous crop and sent to the co-op for processing. Hybrid corn seed from Pioneer and other sources is purchased every year.
Growers often receive a 15 percent premium for non-transgenic soybeans.
Brazil's government is expected to give approval to the planting of Roundup Ready soybeans by the end of 2005. But things could get sticky. According to Sergio Jose Osse, press advisor for Syngenta, Brazil, Parana's governor, Roberto Requiao, is reportedly against genetically modified crops and might approve regulations preventing farmers from planting them, even with federal approval.
Djkstra is trying two row spacings for soybeans — 34 centimeters (12 inches) and 44 centimeters (17 inches). “We are testing the different row spacings to find the best spacing for Asian soybean rust. This is the second year of the study and it will help us make a decision for next year.”
Rust has not been a big problem on the operation so far, according to Djkstra. “We manage it preventively. We use a monitoring system with Fundacao ABC and with Syngenta. We also put out our own sentinel plots.”
The sentinel programs map out the movement of rust in the country and send alerts to farmers, “telling us when rust is close to the farm. Then we spray the field for preventive control.”
The decision usually comes when the rust is within 10 kilometers (6 miles). “Last year, we waited until it was four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the farm. But a lot depends on the weather and the elevation. We are on 900 meters (3,000 feet in elevation) here.
“In (the city of) Castro, it's also around 850 meters, but it's much wetter there. We monitor the condition within each microclimate to see if the conditions are good for soybean rust. But it's not just my decision. It's made by all the group.”
As in corn, weed control in soybeans is different for each field. “We use both pre-emergent and post-emergent products. It depends a lot on the historical type of weed in the field. In some areas, I may have lambsquarter, or grass in another field. We get good control, and we don't use Roundup Ready crops.”
Djkstra's soil types range from 6 percent clay to 90 percent sand. “The land is very shallow. So we have to manage each field differently.”
On the main farm, manure from the family's dairy and hog operations is pumped into an aerobic lagoon where biogas is drawn off and used to power many of the modified farm motors on the farm. “We don't worry much about our energy consumption costs,” Djkstra said.
Eventually, the manure is pumped back onto fields, reducing fertility costs for the farm.