May 8, 2018 / 3:59 PM / 16 days ago

Brazil mills speed up cane harvest, worry about late crop yields

BEBEDOURO, Brazil, May 8 (Reuters) - Brazilian mills in the heart of the center-south cane belt are reporting a quick processing rate in the 2018/19 crop as they seal the first month of harvesting helped by dryer-than-normal weather, which speeds up field work.

Some mills in the Ribeirão Preto region in São Paulo state have collected up to 10 percent more cane than expected for April, hardly missing any 24-hour harvesting turns to rains.

But the excessive dryness is raising worries about agricultural yields later in the crop, as cane still developing is not getting the moisture it needs to grow.

Brazil’s center-south is the world’s largest sugar producing region, accounting for around a third of the global trade of the sweetener. The region is expected to produce a smaller cane crop this year, seen by the government at 580 million tonnes, due to ageing cane fields and less-than-ideal crop care.

Reuters visited cane fields in the past week in the Ribeirão Preto area, and spoke with harvest supervisors and mill directors to get a sense of field work development.

“I don’t think we stopped harvesting for any period of time at all so far,” said Paulo de Andrade Barbosa, a harvesting supervisor at Tietê Agroindustrial, a company owned by U.S.-based investor Proterra Investment Partners LP.

He was leading two harvesting fronts in the Bebedouro municipality with three teams of men and machines working in eight-hour shifts each. Mills usually harvest around-the-clock, day and night, only stopping when it rains.

He said work was ahead of a target set by the company of reaching an average 12,000 tonnes of cane per 24 hours in April, noting that “we are currently at 12,300 tonnes.”

According to Thomson Reuters Agriculture Weather Dashboard, the Ribeirão Preto region has not seen widespread rains since April 4. Cumulative precipitation for the region from early March to the end of April was 164 millimeters, below the average of 219 millimeters for the period.

Odair Marambello, who heads harvest work for the Viralcool mill in Pitangueiras, said the company suspended its cane planting works until the area sees some moisture.

“If it does not rain soon, the final part of the crop will get smaller,” he said, referring to cane to be harvested around September.

Viralcool is associated with Copersucar, the Brazilian cooperative which partners Cargill in the sugar trading venture Alvean.

Gerson Ferreira, a director at Usina Itajobi, in Marapoama, confirmed that view for the last third of the crop, saying the mill is already projecting a fall of 10 percent in total volumes.

Field work in Brazil’s center-south normally runs from April to late November, but under the current rhythm Ferreira says it could finish sooner.

The executive stressed that rains are needed to boost cane sprouting after harvesting. Cane plants usually last for five or six years. They sprout after the cut and grow to be ready for another harvest the following year. (Reporting by Marcelo Teixeira; Editing by David Gregorio)

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