Cattle & Dairy Farming in the Tropics focuses on adaptation practices for tropical dairy producers. Drought and heat have been hitting Caribbean producers hard and have had particularly detrimental effects on the livestock and dairy industries.
As grasses died over the course of the summer due to lack of rain, producers in the U.S. Virgin Islands were forced to take measures ranging from collecting tree limbs and branches for fodder, to relying on imported feed and even culling herds. Pastures were so over taxed, that many will have to be re-sown completely at great cost to farmers.
In Puerto Rico, producers saw their costs rise as they relied ever more heavily on imported feed. Many also saw their production go down as heat stress and lack of nutrients took their tolls on local herds. Unfortunately, climate models are predicting more of these boom- bust rainfall cycles, in which prolonged periods of drought are episodically interrupted by intense rainfall events, with more extreme droughts expected. However, there are measures that farmers can take to reduce the impacts of drought and increased temperatures!
Watch as Dr. Guillermo Ortiz of the University of Puerto Rico and rancher Neftali Lluch of the Lajas Valley in Puerto Rico discuss various practical steps to combat rising temperatures and prolonged drought.
Engr. Neftalí Lluch
Tai South Farms is located at the Lajas Valley, in the southwest region of Puerto Rico. Cattle farmer and owner of Tai South Farms Our farm has 235 acres and, at the moment, we own more o less 500 animals, among cows and calves. We are milking 235 cows and the rest are dry cows and heifers. Our herd is comprised of 35% Jersey cows and 65% Holstein cows. This region of the Lajas Valley is very dry but not dry in humidity, dry in rain. Climate change has been unbelievable, and holds us in the suspense of not knowing what the future will bring. When we first started planning the farm, we used the services of the College of Agricultural Sciences of the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez. They helped us design the planting areas, choose the crops for each area and explained the importance of this task. If we compare our farm with a farm in the northern region, we find that there are dairy farms that keep 300 animals in 50 acres of land. This means that they have to by all the forage and food for their cows. If the dry season and a climate change as the one that we are experiencing continues, the grass producers will not be able to supply the forage and the dairy farmer will have to resort to concentrates, which is a huge increase in cost of milk production.
Guillermo Ortiz, PhD, PAS
Cows arrived in Puerto Rico in 1511 with the Spanish conquest and, for the past 500 years, the Puerto Rican farmer has selected the animals that have best adapted to the island’s climate. Do you remember that phrase? “The first showers of May” Last year, it started to rain in July, or in mid July. This year, we are in August or mid August, and it hasn’t started to rain. Look at the grass. This is a disaster. It is truly disconcerting. Well Lluch, this is basically what scientists have been saying for more than a decade now. That if we don’t change our behavior patterns the global warming that we are causing by producing such a great quantity of greenhouse gases is warming the atmosphere of the earth and creating changes, in the weather patterns of the planet. We are going to have longer periods of drought and, when it rains, it will be in copious amounts and, between periods of drought. The optimal conditions for producing milk in the tropics would be to develop the best quality of forage. Food is the biggest expense of the dairy farm. And we are in the situation that much of the food that is traditionally part of the cow’s diet in temperate climates, is not produced in the island. What we do have is 12 months a year when we can yield forage in Puerto Rico. And most importantly, within our situation we need to produce the best forage that we can.
What does this mean? First, we need forage species that have been approved by the experimental stations of the University of Puerto Rico and other universities. Second, we need to cut them at an adequate growing period of 35-45 days, and if we maintain control of these practices, we have half the battle won. Once we optimize the forage quality, then we can consider the strategic use of grains such as corn or soy flour to further improve milk production. The real core of the milk production is forage quality.
It is the most important thing. At the moment, we produce 3,800 quarts of milk approximately every 14 days. That’s how the milk production is measured in Puerto Rico, 45,000 to 50,000 quarts. Our average production rate per cow combining the milk of both, the Holstein cows and the Jersey cows, is 17 to 18 quarts per cow in this season. When I mention this season I mean the dry season, when the heat is very strong and milk production decreases.
The daily average for a single dairy cow in Puerto Rico is nearly 18 liters. However, there is a great variability in this. There are dairy farms that produce a daily average of 25 liters per cow, and others that produce a daily average of 7 liters per cow. In other words, it’s quite variable. However, the most important characteristic between the two extremes is that dairy farms that produce 25 liters of milk per cow have excellent forage management practices. When you visit the dairy farms that have a daily average of 7 liters of milk per cow, you can see that there is poor management in all areas, and more importantly, they don’t produce their own forage. This causes the need to produce more forage for these times of drought, where there is no production of pastures and the cows eat more.
Global warming not only affects the grasslands, but we can also expect a significant rise in temperature. Enough for the animals to suffer from more thermal stress. Right now, when you look at the cows up close they are panting. Instead of ruminating they are constantly out of breath and I notice it more in the Holstein than in the Jerseys, that are the “bald” cows. The “bald” cow is definitely more resistant. While the Jersey “bald” cows are eating under the sun, the Holstein keeps cool under the shade.
We see that within the weather conditions of Puerto Rico the “bald” cow presents suitable features for our high temperature and humidity. Supposedly, this type of cow is a descendant of the creole cows that the Spaniards brought in 1511. They eventually mated with the Holstein cow that is originally from Holland. Fifty years later, we have animals that present characteristics of complete tropical adaptability such as: lower body temperature, higher fertility (gets pregnant more easily) and at the same time, produces more milk than its contemporary. This is very important because usually, a cows productivity and reproduction go in the opposite directions. We have some cows that if they produce a lot of milk, usually they are infertile. In this case, the “bald” cow produces more than the others and at the same time gets pregnant more easily. In other words, this presents the possibility of a cow that is more resistant to tropical weather. To improve milk production in Puerto Rico, we need to apply the management techniques that we have known for decades. We need to: use improved forages, employ a good grass rotation system, give cows the adequate nutrition according to the recommendations of a nutritionist and, maintain a proper milking routine and handling of the mastitis. There is also the alternative of using shade trees in the cows pastures. And even though this is an option, it often causes troubles. Especially if we have conditions of over-grazing and a high animal load. In that case what can happen is that the areas around the tree get muddy or become very humid, creating a source of infection for the cows. The trees are a good option but they have to be handled correctly, and also, we have to use water more efficiently. For example, establishing irrigation systems and watering in the coolest times of day. Another thing to take into consideration is how to maximize the cows productivity. Cows contribute to global warming through methane and C02 emanations, so it is really convenient for the planet that we have less cows producing milk. With these long periods of drought, one of the things that you need to do is to find the areas where you can obtain the necessary forage. You could buy more land, or even rent, but we need to have in mind the fact that in the future we are going to experience longer periods of drought.
What makes Tai South Farms different from other farms in Puerto Rico? First of all, the fact that they have worked to be self sufficient in forage. They have committed themselves to the mission of providing their cows with all the forage that they consume without the need of buying it from someone else. Another quality is that they have diversified the type of forage they produce. They produce Sorghum, Mara Alfalfa, and Brachiaria, and that is another important tool for addressing global warming: diversification. In other words, to have many species of animals or plants in the same farm. Because when it comes to dealing with global warming, different types of species have different adaptability capabilities to grapple with what the future brings.
For example, this farm has 235 acres and we have more or less 530 animals when the rule of thumb is one animal per acre. Here, we have two and a half animals animals per acre. And if you have seen the cows, and I know you have seen them, they are very healthy. Here at Tai South Farms we aim for self sufficiency. We have already reach the goal in forage production and are in the process of reaching it in concentrated food. We started buying materials and ingredients and doing the mixtures here, to make them more efficient. And also, trying to produce soy here in the farm. Also in energy we have become self sufficient. We installed a system of solar panels. The same solar energy that causes thermal stress on the cows, allows us to generate the energy to cool the milk and use all the electric tools in the farm. We let the cows free graze at night and, during the day, we use the TMR or Total Mix Ratio system that is nothing other than mixing pasture and concentrated in a huge food processor. It mixes everything and then we add the vitamins and minerals that the cows need.
We are aware that when we use forage, we remove the nutrients from the soil and they don’t necessarily come back to it, because the cows are not exposed to it. So, it is of vital importance to fertilize and substitute those nutrients that we remove from the soil harvesting the forage. Another thing to have is mind is not to over fertilize. We should apply the manure in accordance to the content of phosphorus and not nitrogen and then, supplement the nitrogen with other sources as the urea.
My recommendation to livestock farmers is to choose the right type of forage as the main food source of their dairy herd and even more to leave behind the dependency on concentrated foods. We have been here for 5 years now, started from scratch and here we stand with a farm that makes us real proud. And as we always say: “we have the north looking to the south” for milk in Puerto Rico.
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