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Brazil soy sowings to set record after all - but doubts over yield

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The forthcoming Brazilian soybean sowings season will defy earlier caution by seeing a ninth successive season of increase - although yield potential "could be compromised".

The International Grains Council said forecast a rise of 3% in Brazil's soybean area, on a harvested basis, for 2015-16, taking it to a fresh record high of 33m hectares.

The expectation of a healthy rise area - to a level only 800,000 hectares short of that expected, on US Department of Agriculture forecasts, in the US, top soy producer – contrasts with earlier expectations that Brazilian farmers would decrease sowings of the oilseed for the first time since 2006-07.

USDA staff in Brasilia, for instance, initially forecast a fall to 31.1m hectares in Brazil's soybean area, citing "the relatively low global soybean prices, the economic challenges expected in Brazil, and higher interest rates".

Planting window near open

However, expectations for Brazilian soybean sowings have improved as the sowing season has come nearer.

Some key growing states, including top producer Mato Grosso, impose a period, ending in mid-September, when farms must by without live soybean plants, in an effort to reduce the spread of disease.

Imea, the Mato Grosso agricultural economics institute, has forecast a rise of 2.0% in the state's soybean area, to 9.2m hectares (22.7m acres).

Coamo, Brazil's biggest agricultural co-operative, earlier this week revealed it expected a 3% rise in soybean plantings, to 2.44m hectares.

At Chicago broker Futures International, Terry Reilly said that "many analysts now believe Brazil soybean plantings will expand 2.5-3.0%.

"Several months ago people were looking for a 1-3% contraction in the area."

Currency boost

The change of heart among Brazil's farmers has been spurred in part by weakness in the real, down some 30% against the dollar this year, which has boosted the value for Brazilian farmers of a crop denominated in dollars.

"Currency fluctuations have been the primary driver for the reversal in planting intentions," Mr Reilly said.

The IGC said that "in addition to enhancing export competitiveness in recent months, the weaker currency has inflated domestic market values and likely encouraged the country's cost-conscious growers to boost soybean plantings".

Furthermore, the lure of corn, the major alternative to soybeans, has been limited by an unexpectedly strong harvest, which in lifting Brazilian supplies has reduced price prospects for the grain.

"Alternative crop options for farmers somewhat limited," the council said.

'Yield potential could be compromised'

Corn's appeal has also been undermined by its high fertilizer needs, making it relatively expensive to grow at a time when the weakness of the real has expanded the cost to Brazil's farms of imported inputs.

"Brazil is heavily reliant on the world market to meet fertiliser requirements, despite efforts to reduce dependence – with local sources suggesting that imports account for as much as 70% of total uptake," the IGC said.

Indeed, even for soybeans, the softness in the real presents a setback to yield prospects.

"With anecdotal reports suggesting that purchases of fertilisers have been scaled back during 2015 as growers look to reduce expenditure, yield potential could be compromised."

The IGC forecast an easing in Brazilian soybean yields, limiting to 1.9% the rise in Brazil's 2015-16 soybean crop, of which harvesting will begin around the turn of the calendar year.

Costs of delay

Imea data show that as of the end of July, Mato Grosso farmers had bought 82% of their inputs needed for 2015-16.

A year ago, they had purchased all but 7% of their needs for 2014-15.

Imea believes the stand-off, blamed in part on the delay in the release of the government's annual so-called "harvest plan" farm support programme, will cost Mato Grosso farmers alone some R$1bn thanks to the real's continued depreciation.

"Seventy percent of the fertilizers used in Brazil are imported and a weaker currency makes those imports more expensive, so the delay has made fertilizers more expensive for farmers," said Michael Cordonnier, the influential corn and soybean analyst.

While Brazil will come well below 3% of matching the US in soybean area, in terms of production, it will remain nearly 8% behind.

By Mike Verdin

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