PATÍA, Colombia – A few years ago, Elena Patricia Ulloa and Jesús Velasco took a hard look at their small dairy farm and decided things needed to improve. Even during the best of times – which meant a year with lot of rain and a mild dry season – a dozen cows on six hectares of land didn’t produce enough for their family. A year of low rainfall, which is likely a growing risk due to climate change, could weaken or kill their livestock and make their economic situation more precarious.
So they got involved with their local farmers association, took on some debt to invest in their farm, and undertook a slow transformation of their tiny operation. “There were mistakes at the beginning,” Ulloa said. But the lessons learned and hard work made them ideal candidates for a pilot project run by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and University of Cauca (Unicauca) for sustainable livestock intensification.
Two years later, milk output has more than doubled and they’re already planning their next phase of improvements.
“Before, things were very difficult,” said Velasco during a mid-morning break while a large, muscular cow mooed loudly for attention and interrupted the conversation. “It’s not like we went hungry before but today things are more comfortable.”
Velasco attributes the increase in milk production to forage grasses selected by the Unicauca-CIAT (NUTRIFACA) team, through farmer-participatory and agronomic evaluations. The selected forages grow quickly and, compared to local naturalized grasses, provide greater nutrition and withstand intense dry periods. Rotating the small herd through sections of pasture separated by electric fencing and other management techniques are essential to maintain healthy grasses. Large shade trees provide respite from the withering sun for both the herd and the forages.
When investigators from CIAT and Unicauca first began working with smallholders in Colombia’s Cauca Department ten years ago, status quo cattle farming was the norm: cattle fed almost exclusively on native or naturalized grasses, and the animals roamed unmanaged and mostly treeless tracts of land that were at the mercy of the elements.
“The advances in terms of adoption and knowledge of this technology have been positive although we need to continue working,” said Jhon Freddy Gutiérrez, a CIAT investigator who leads the Center’s participation in the project. “Without a doubt, we’ve had an impact on a good number of producers with these types of projects.”
The project drew on one of CIAT’s strengths: its genebank, which holds in trust a collection of more than 23,000 accessions of tropical forages. Gutiérrez and colleagues scoured the repository for grasses that were ideal for Cauca farmers. Scientists selected the best varieties based on the traits required for specific areas. As well as increasing the health of the cattle, the deployed forages can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase water efficiency, and improve soil quality to help restore degraded lands, while helping increase animal productivity per unit area.
“Today we know what the best materials for these conditions are and we continue looking for new ones that improve even more the benefits,” said Gutiérrez.
Gutiérrez said some 300 producers in Cauca benefited from programs and partnerships involving CIAT’s improved forages. He hopes the project’s next phase will reach nearly 1,000 producers in different climates in the Cauca area.
Meanwhile, producers like Ulloa and Velasco are planning their next investments, with or without continued external support. They plan to improve their water harvesting systems for the dry season and breed better animals to increase their herd’s production further.
Most importantly, they say they no longer need their eldest daughter’s help on the farm and that she can go to university and pursue a career as an odontologist.
“She’s almost ready to leave home, and now we have hope that we didn’t see before,” said Ulloa. “We’ve chosen a vision and now we know what direction we’re headed.”
This work was developed within the framework of the “Development and use of forage resources in sustainable systems of bovine production for the Department of Cauca” project, financed by the National System of Royalties, executed by the Governor’s Office of Cauca and led by University of Cauca with support from CIAT’s Tropical Forages Program and farmer associations ASOGAMER and COAGROUSUARIOS. More than 200 farmers, including Ulloa and Velasco, have received training, materials, and support for implementation, and participated in workshops on improved farming techniques. Two women’s cooperatives in Cauca have received support to implement improved farming practices on collective land. The project concludes this year.
The program is fertile ground for strengthening capacity of researchers and young scientists. CIAT investigators have launched numerous research projects based on the initiative. Fifty University of Cauca undergraduate and postgraduate students directly participated in projects. Up to 200 more visited the site as part of their course work, planting forages and learning more about how these plants are utilized in dry tropical ecosystems.
Rocío Ruiz, a lead program technician and University of Cauca graduate, said the program gave students skills and knowledge to implement improved forages systems according to climatic and soil conditions. “Additionally, the initiatives that some students had upon joining the investigative processes – including implementing strategies in their own farms – have helped them learn skills and be better prepared to face the labor market,” said Ruiz.
“To have something like this doesn’t come for free; it’s necessary to go into debt. If one does not invest, one is never going to have anything. If one does not take a risk, there’s nothing. If we want to improve (our farm), it’s necessary to take risks.”Elena Patricia Ulloa