Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bolivia Diaries: Day 7, Part 2 - Cattle Ranching in the Amazon

In October 2010, I spent 2 weeks in Bolivia learning about their food and agriculture. I ended up getting a lot more than I bargained for out of the trip, including learning why the rainforest is being destroyed, how eco-tourism might save it, how Bolivia fits into the drug trade (and what the US does to try to stop cocaine production), and how global warming has already impacted Bolivia.

After spending a day with an indigenous community that runs an eco-tourism operation on the sixth day of the trip, Day Seven was a reality check. We visited Daniel Robison's farm and learned about what he is doing to try to "save the rainforest" and what his neighbors are doing, which - in some cases - is not so good. This second diary covers Daniel's cattle ranch.

My trip was organized by Global Exchange and Food First. You can find out about future Food Sovereignty tours at the link.

Daniel Robison and his wife Sheila operate a small cattle ranch in the Amazon, in conjunction with the agroforestry system that makes up the other half of their farm. They are trying to do what they call "high carbon cattle," i.e. keeping as much carbon in the ecosystem as possible.

We all walked into a grassy pasture that was dotted with shade trees, and pretty soon, the cattle appeared on the other side of the pasture. Daniel had the foresight to bring a bucket of bran and spoiled bananas, and some of the bolder cows began approaching us to see if they could get a snack.

The cows

"Hello, we're here for the bananas"

"So, um, about those bananas...?"

"Do we have to beg?"

Mmm... bananas

When introducing us to his cattle, Daniel began by giving us some history about cattle in the Amazon. Cows are not native to the Americas. They were first brought here by the Spanish, many centuries ago. Over time, a variety of feral "criollo" cattle developed, living in the savannas of Bolivia's lowlands. These cattle are well-adapted to the environment, but not necessarily very productive for meat or milk.

Daniel's criollo cow

The more recently introduced "Green Revolution" type cattle is an Indian breed called Brahman cattle, which were developed as draft animals. They are well-adapted to the tropics and very meaty. Daniel and Sheila are attempting to mix some criollo genes and Brahman genes together with a red European variety of cattle that produces a lot of milk. As you can see, they have a Brahman bull, and they breed him with a European mother, who produces a lot of milk for the calf. All of the milk goes to the calves, who grow faster than calves on neighboring farms.

The Brahman bull

One of the more European cows... looks like it might be a Jersey

The cows eat a diet of almost entirely pasture grass, but they also get any fruit from the farm that spoils and a little bit of bran "to keep 'em friendly" (and oh boy were they friendly... they were practically begging like dogs). Daniel's mom, who was visiting, said her favorite was watching them eat mangoes, which they throw up in the air and drop to make them juicy. When mangoes are in season, Daniel says he feeds them to the cows "by the bucketful."

Finishing the last of the grain that Daniel dumped on the ground

Each of the cows have names. As he was feeding them, Daniel rattled of the names of each cow... Barbara, Marta, Henry and Harvey (born on the same day), FedEx... one named after a Bolivian classical guitar player... one (the bull) named after a tennis star... There was a baby bull, two days old, and Daniel asked if we wanted to name him. One member of our group shouted out "Chad!" (her boyfriend's name), so now there's a baby Bolivian bull named Chad.

Awww... babies!

Daniel practices rotational grazing with old fashioned wooden fences (not electrical fences, as you would often see in the U.S.). The cows have been snacking on this pasture for nearly long enough, and now they will move on to a fresh paddock. This pasture will be allowed to recover for several weeks before the cows return. If he notices that the pasture looks bad, he'll cull a cow or two, so that the pasture is never overgrazed.

As you can see, the pastures are dotted with shade trees, some of which produce fruit. Daniel pointed out a large fig tree, saying that during fig season, the cows spend an awful lot of time under that tree. The tree, he said, acts as a nutrient pump, bringing up nutrients from far below the surface of the soil with its deep roots, and then the cows return those nutrients to the upper layers of the soil when they eat the figs and poop.

Pasture with lots of trees

The fig tree

In addition to capturing carbon - Daniel estimates that with his deep-rooted pasture grasses and his trees, his pasture contains five to ten times as much carbon as the tree-free pasture of his neighbor - the trees also serve to give the cows shade. Even the breeds that are well-adapted to the tropics love the shade, and Daniel pointed out that shade is wonderful for milk production. Milk production is a heat-generation activity, and a cow who does not have shade will produce less milk. Even though Daniel is not in the dairy business, it's the high milk production of his mama cows that allow his calves to grow quickly, so he can receive good prices for them at a young age.

All in all, Daniel's got 25 head of cattle, together with 7 cows he manages for his neighbor (all of the cows stay together, even though they belong to different owners). He also manages a pasture for his next door neighbor, along with his own pasture. This property, as mentioned before, is a total of 25 hectares (just under 62 acres), but it is split between forest and pasture, and I do not know how many hectares there are of each.

While we were in the pasture, Daniel pointed to the vegetation at the pasture's edge, telling us that it was evidence that the area had flooded. They chose this location for pasture because the flooding made it a bad location for forest species (which would die in a flood). And they got lucky. This area was rich in water and it stayed green throughout the entire dry season.

The vegetation here is what grows back after a flood

With such success on this pasture, Daniel and Sheila decided to see if they could replicate their good fortune on another part of the property. Daniel showed us a different area of pasture and said that the cows would only stay here for one, maybe two days, and then they'd "go on strike." The water made a BIG difference in the first pasture area we saw, and other pastures with poor soil and less water did not do as well.

As we walked through the pasture, we came to a motacu palm, a variety of palm tree we had encountered on our day with San Miguel del Bala. The tree has a number of different uses, one of which is an edible fruit. Daniel told us his cattle and horses like to eat these fruit, and so does he. "A bad one will taste like cardboard," he said, "But a good one will taste like a ripe avocado." I thought it tasted okay, but its orange color makes it a bit of a tease. It looks much more similar to mango than it tastes. I'll write more about the motacu in the next diary too.

The flower and flower cover of the motacu. The people of San Miguel del Bala burn these covers and use them for coca chewing, in a way that I will explain in a future diary.

Peeling the motacu fruit

A peeled motacu fruit

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