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Brazil mills struggle to crush cane crop in wet weather

SAO PAULO - Brazilian sugar and ethanol mills are struggling to crush the remaining center-south cane crop as intensifying rains continue to hamper harvest in the main growing belt.

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Raimundo Pereira, 64, looks at heavy rain from the window of his house in the village of Rio Pardo next to Bom Futuro National Forest, in the district of Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

SAO PAULO - Brazilian sugar and ethanol mills are struggling to crush the remaining center-south cane crop as intensifying rains continue to hamper harvest in the main growing belt.

Rains arrived in the last days of October and key areas such as Ribeirão Preto and Piracicaba in Sao Paulo state are seeing only intermittent dry days, in which mills are trying to resume operations to avoid leaving large volumes of cane in the fields unharvested until next crop.

But that task looks increasingly difficult. According to the Thomson Reuters Agricultural Dashboard, the Ribeirão Preto region has had 60 millimeters of precipitation since Oct. 30, with rains almost everyday and should see 90 mm more by Nov. 20.

"I haven't crushed a single ton of cane so far this month," said Antonio Eduardo Tonielo Filho, general manager for Viralcool, a group with three mills and a Copersucar associate.

The wet spring across the cane belt is the latest impediment for mills, which suffered delays in previous months due to rain after El Niño weather phenomenon likely contributed to more moisture in southern Brazil.

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Expectations for the final crush volume are falling, even if harvest carries on longer than usual into next year, shortening the period between harvests, which tends to run from December through March.

Luiz Gustavo Junqueira Figueiredo, commercial director of large independent sugar and ethanol producer Grupo Alto Alegre, said he does not expect the final center-south crush to surpass 600 million tons, even with mature cane volumes close to 630 million tons in the fields.

"We had 16 million ton of cane to crush this year, but we will finish the crop processing only between 15 and 15.5 million tons," he said, adding the weather will continue to be a key factor.

Almost all mills will have cane ready to be processed in the first break in the rains early next year, but it's still unclear whether the rainy season will cooperate and permit an early start to harvest, he said.

Forecasters expect El Niño to continue pushing moisture into southern Brazil in the first half of 2016.

Many mills will try to maintain operations despite the rain.

Roberto Hollanda, who heads the Biosul cane group in Mato Grosso do Sul state, said mills will only shut for maintenance under extreme necessity in the rainy months of December-February.

"If a group has two mills, it will stop only one for maintenance while the other keeps running," he said.

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