(Adds additional figures on the crush, details)
SAO PAULO Nov 8 For the first time this April-to-March season, Brazil's main center-south cane belt surpassed last year's cumulative sugar output, after dry weather in the past months helped mills recover ground lost to a slow, wet start to harvest.
Total sugar output for the season reached 29.34 million tonnes, edging out last year's production of 29.31 million tonnes by the end of October, the sugar cane industry association Unica said on Thursday in its biweekly report.
Unica's numbers showed a big gap between late October output this year and last: Sugar output was up 73 percent at 2.55 million tonnes in the second half of the month against a year ago, ethanol output was up 54 percent and cane crushing was up 56 percent.
The early end to last year's drought-plagued crushing season is largely behind the gap. Many more mills had already begun closing down operations for the season with all of their available cane crushed by this time in 2011.
Unica said the biweekly data supports its September crop revision of 518.5 million tonnes, up from 493 million the year before.
The so-called mix, or the percentage of cane going to sugar production versus ethanol, remains weighted toward sugar. Mills are nearly exhausting their sugar production capacity, while backing off ethanol production, which has offered less attractive returns so far this season.
This has been the case despite weak sugar futures prices. March raw sugar futures are trading at their lowest levels in more than two years.
Sugar production accounts for 51.2 percent of Brazil's cane crushed, with ethanol consuming the rest. Last year at this time mills were devoting only 48.4 percent of their cane to sugar, Unica reported.
But this level of sugar production is not expected to hold for long. As weather turns wetter, mills shift their production more toward ethanol and less sugar.
Local forecasters Somar see widespread rain starting today and lingering through the weekend over the cane belt, after largely dry weather in the past months.
"The mix in late October was only possible due to the delay in the (spring) rains, as the rainfall levels in the main cane growing areas were relatively low for this period," Unica's technical director, Antonio de Padua Rodrigues, said. (Reporting by Reese Ewing and Fabiola Gomes; editing by Andrew Hay)