Brazilian farmers planted more soybeans than ever this year, but it’s still unclear if the country will produce another record-breaking harvest in a drier-than-usual year with uncertain yields.

The country got off to a slower-than-normal start for planting amid unusually dry weather this year, but forecasts for the crop are still optimistic as soybean farmers sowed a record-breaking 95 million acres. That’s an up from about 91 million acres last year, but many farmers have been forced to replant, switch crops or just give up during sporadic rains and dry spells over the past couple of months.

Initial production forecasts topped 131 million metric tons – a substantial increase from the 125.6 million tons that came out of Brazilian fields in early 2020.

Brazil will still have a strong harvest in 2021, says John Baize, an analyst for the U.S. Soybean Export Council, but pockets of dried-out fields throughout the country mean Brazilian farmers will likely lose millions of tons in production.

The stakes are high for U.S. soybean producers who consider Brazilian exports as their biggest competition on the international market at a time when China’s appetite is strong.

China is buying U.S. soybeans now at a record-breaking pace, but that business is expected to switch to Brazilian soybeans when the country’s harvest begins in earnest in January.

China’s rising imports this year supported both Brazilian and U.S. exporters, but Chinese demand is expected to diminish next year, according to USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. China imported a total of 98.5 million metric tons of soybeans in the 2019-20 marketing year, but that’s expected to drop to 95 million for 2020-21.

Brazil exported more than 61 million tons of soybeans to China in 2019-20.

“I’ve seen pictures of soybeans that were no more than six inches high and really look terrible, but there’s also fields that look great,” Baize said. “They’re talking a 131-million-ton crop and I will tell you it will not be that big. I think it’s going to be closer to 120 million than 130 million.”

John Baize,

John Baize, USSEC

AgRural, the renowned agricultural consulting firm in southern Brazil, said Monday it isn’t yet ready to lower its forecast for 132.2 million tons, but noted much of the country is in dire need of rain.

Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state in Brazil, got much needed rains last week, but that wasn’t the case further north in the largest-producing states of Paraná and Mato Grosso.

“The concern with this drier period - something unusual at this time of year - is greater because … most crops are still in the vegetative period or at the beginning of the reproductive phase, when the impact of the unfavorable climate on the productive potential is less than in the formation of pods and filling of grains,” AgRural said Monday in its latest crop analysis.

Some of Brazil’s most fertile land has gotten good rains, producing healthy looking plants, but there are also broad swathes of fields farmers have given up on, says Kory Melby, owner of the Brazilian Ag Consulting Service.

The southern ag state of Paraná, for example, is a patchwork of healthy and drought-stricken fields, he says.

“Twenty percent of the fields in western Paraná look terrible,” Melby told Agri-Pulse. “And then some are average and some look pretty good.”

Mato Grosso – the constantly expanding powerhouse of Brazilian soybean production – is also experiencing scattered dryness and in need of rain, say analysts. Anecdotally, Melby points to a 50,000-acre farm in the Center-West state where the owners tore up 20% of the fields and are set to plant cotton in two weeks.

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“Mato Grosso is a pretty big state and a lot of areas haven’t gotten any rain yet to speak of,” Baize said. “There are big dry areas there.”

Also contributing to the problem are patches of severely rain-deficient fields in smaller producing states such as Bahia, Maranhão and Piauí, says Baize. All of the soybean fields in those states may only equal about 10% of Brazil’s acreage, but the damage there adds to the potential for production losses.

Melby says the original production forecast will likely be reduced by 3-4 million tons, but there is still a good chance weather conditions will improve rapidly for much of the country.

Beneficial rains washed over Rio Grande do Sul in the extreme south on Sunday, and forecasts show precipitation covering much of Brazil’s growing areas in the south and center of the country next week.

At a minimum, farmers in Rio Grande do Sul may be able to get back in the fields. It’s traditionally a late-planting state, but the crop is only 35% planted, down sharply from 53% this time last year, according to Brazil’s agricultural analysis department, known as CONAB. Overall, Brazil’s soybean fields are 79% planted.

Soybean futures fell Monday on news of the rain and new forecasts calling for more, but there is still a lot of uncertainty, says Melby.

“The forecast is good rains for the whole region next week, but we’ve been hearing this for the past couple of weeks,” he said.

Still, those expected rains could go a long way to improving the crops in Mato Grosso, according to an analysis released Monday by the state’s Institute Agricultural Economics, known as IMEA.   

“The problem is that the low and irregular volumes of rain in recent weeks are hampering soy development in several regions, resulting in loss of productive potential in some crops,” the state agency concluded. “In general, soy can compensate for this if the rain normalizes in the coming days.”

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