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Fighting Asian soybean rust: Brazilian sprays for added caution

EDITOR'S NOTE: With Asian soybean rust apparently residing in the United States for the immediate future, Farm Press editors have traveled to various regions of Brazil to report on how soybean there producers have coped with the disease over the last three years. This week, we look at Willybrordus Sleutjes, who farms in Castro County in the state of Parana, Brazil.

Soybean producer Willybrordus Sleutjes looks like he could be standing in field of dryland, no-till soybeans in west Tennessee, except for the Brazilian pines, known as candelabra trees, rising from the bottom of the hill, or the unseen Asian rust spores hiding in the crop canopy, waiting for a rain.

Sleutjes farms in the state of Parana in southern Brazil, one of the more established grain- and soybean-growing regions in the country. Fields are highly productive, although hilly, and producers are innovative, having practiced no-till for 20 or more years.

His family came from Holland in 1951 to begin farming in Sau Paulo state. They moved to nearby Castro Country in the 1960s, and there in 1971, Sleutjes started farming on his own, working a 1,235-acre farm, 617 acres of which could be planted to crops.

His success paved the way for family members. He has four sons. The oldest produces 8,000 acres of corn and soybeans. His son-in-law farms 1,500 acres and another son-in-law has 2,100 acres. He has eight grandchildren.

Today, he farms 1,360 acres of soybeans and 750 acres of corn, on a 2-to-1 rotation program. In the winter, he grows 370 acres of wheat and some oats, primarily as ground cover for highly erodible hill ground.

The producer is a manager of soybean and corn production for the Batavo cooperative, one of three large cooperatives in the area. He buys his crop inputs and sells his crop through the cooperative. His agronomist is also affiliated with the cooperative.

Farm sizes within the Batavo cooperative range from 100 hectares to 3,000 hectares and includes about 200 farmers.

Sleutjes is proud of his conservation efforts — he's a no-till farmer — and notes that this area of Brazil is considered the birthplace of no-till technology in the country. Sleutjes, also aware of the negativity surrounding deforestation by farming interests in parts of Brazil, stresses that the land he farms is converted from savannahs, not rainforests.

He's also managed to avoid serious problems with Asian soybean rust so far. One reason is that the moderate climate of southern Brazil is a little less favorable to rust than northern Brazil, which has weather more like the southern United States — hot and rainy. Asian rust thrives in hot, humid conditions.

But the disease nonetheless can be devastating, according to Sleutjes, and he take extra precautions. For example, his soybeans are planted on 40-centimeter row spacing, which is a little less than 16 inches.

“Even though we want to go to smaller row spacing, we stay with that row spacing because of the high humidity here. We don't want to create an environment for Asian rust.”

Sleutjes plants corn in September and October and harvests in March and April. Soybeans are planted in October and December and harvested in March and April. In the late summer, he'll plant wheat, which makes a good cover crop for the hillsides.

The producer said that this season, it has been rare for farmers to have losses due to rust. For one, farmers have learned to treat early, before signs of the disease show up on their farms.

And this has been a dry year. In early March, Sleutjes' farm had gone 20 days without a rain. Some of his later-maturing soybeans are still susceptible to a rust outbreak. “We expect Asian soybean rust to show up if there is a rain,” he said.

There are a number of rust monitoring programs set up in the region, including the Syntinela system developed by Syngenta. The program, which monitors 1,300 soybean plots spread throughout Brazil, allows farmers to track the disease on a daily basis. A Syngenta source said the program helped Brazilian farmers avoid around $1 billion in losses in 2003-04.

Some farmers plant their own sentinel plots — a few acres of soybeans planted earlier than usual. Brazil's Agriculture Ministry has not implemented a government-run service for monitoring the movement of Asian rust.

The producer makes an average of three fungicide applications annually, but those are directed at several different diseases, he said. This year, drought has helped keep disease in check. He's made two fungicide applications, a preventive for Asian rust at flowering and another for late-season control of cercospora and septoria. He used Priori Xtra for both applications. The fungicide is a combination of azoxystrobin (Quadris) and cyproconazol, a triazole, and, pending approval, will be marketed in the United States as Quadris Xtra.

This is the first year that he's made the application for rust at flowering, according to Roberto Moretzsohn de Castro, with Syngenta, Brazil. “He's being extra cautious.”

But Sleutjes also believes that fungicide applications are going to be more common in the next few years, “even for corn crops. Researchers are realizing that if you use fungicides in farming, you will have a yield bump that pays for the fungicide and a little more.”

The producer, who raises all conventional soybeans, said one reason for his remarkably clean fields is the weed-suppressing effect of his winter cover crop. All his weed control is post-emergent. He'll use a grass herbicide first on two problem species, then turn to broadleaf control on about six primary species. The state is not allowed to use transgenic crops.

The producer harvests his soybeans at around 30 percent moisture and uses a wood-fired furnace to supply the heat for drying. He'll dry the beans to about 14 percent.

Sleutjes has on-farm storage for about 4,600 tons, enough for all his production. He said the soybean yield on a field near his shop averages about 3,200 kilograms per hectare — about 47 bushels per acre.

Transporting soybeans is a relatively smooth operation — he's not hamstrung by washed out roads or long-distance hauls. Many of the area roads were built in the 1940s and 1950s and are in fairly good shape. Most of his soybeans are used locally by feeding operations.

Sleutjes and his cooperative work together to determine a minimum price for his soybeans. They advise him on the best time to sell, but the final decision is his. There are times, however, when the cooperative advises him to accept a price that is less than his minimum price.

After he sells his crop, marketing specialists within the cooperative continue to market the beans with his minimum price in mind.

Marketing a crop can be just as unsettling for the Brazilian farmer as it is for a U.S. farmer. Two seasons ago, his wife, Marion, scolded Sleutjes because she thought he was selling too many soybeans. Now prices have gone down and “I'm scolding her. She's been very quiet lately.”


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