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

by: Jill Richardson

Thu Oct 28, 2010 at 19:00:00 PM PDT


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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.

Jill Richardson :: Bolivia Diaries: Day 7, Part 2 - Cattle Ranching in the Amazon
Previous diaries in this series:

Pre-Trip Blogging:

The Trip:

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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Hmmmmmm???!! (4.00 / 2)
I am sorry you missed Uruguay.  I won't let it happen next time.

It has the greenest economy in the Americas;

http://www.photius.com/ranking...

It's beef is the best and it's range fed.

But when I said this here some time back I caught some flack.

http://www.lavidalocavore.org/...

Let's hang out soon.


LOL, well yeah :) (4.00 / 3)
Best way to eat Uruguayan beef is in Uruguay :)

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
btw, I would LOVE to visit Uruguay (4.00 / 3)
the problem is a budgetary one, as always. Although it might switch once again from being a money problem to a time problem, as it seems I've just gotten a job. But I am extremely, extremely interested in traveling more in Latin America. As much as possible, as soon as possible.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Makes me curious (3.50 / 2)
as to how the restaurant owner was able to use Uruguayan beef when that country was controling foot and mouth disease with vaccination according to OIE. It was my understanding that the US didn't allow meat into this country from a country that vaccinated to control FMD unless that meat was already cooked. For instance, you can find beef from Brazil in US stores, but it's canned, which would innactivate the virus.

Jesus, no wonder USDA is so on about a damned 48 hour tracability program.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.


[ Parent ]
There was a scare for hoof and mouth disease... (4.00 / 2)
...when Argentina had an outbreak back in 2006.  But it did not hit Uruguay.

[ Parent ]
Bolivia's got it, apparently (4.00 / 2)
so you probably won't find any Bolivian beef for sale in the US.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Here's a list (4.00 / 3)
of OIE member nations disease status for FMD

It was my understanding that the USA did not allow import of meat in countries that practiced vaccination for FMD. Only FMD free without vaccination, at least for unprocessed meat (beef, pork, etc.)

That's why the UK went to depopulation in 2001 to control the FMD out break then, and limited depopulation with testing. No animmals were allowed to be vaccinated during either outbreak, even the 2007 outbreak which was caused by the lab that was making the vaccine for the strain of virus that the animals were infected with. And even after that, it was 6 months I think after the last outbreak was contained.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.


[ Parent ]
Uruguay seems to be in a class by itself (4.00 / 2)
Both FMD free AND practicing vaccination.

Members recognised as FMD free where vaccination is practised, according to the provisions of Chapter 8.5. of the Terrestrial Code :

Uruguay



[ Parent ]
The "problem" is that once (4.00 / 1)
an animal is vaccinated you can't test it for FMD, if I understand things right.  

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
There are vaccines that are marked (4.00 / 2)
and you can tell between those animals who've been vaccinated and those who've been exposed to virus in the environment with the proper lab tests.

The big problem with animals who have been vaccinated is that vaccination may or may not stop the animal from shedding virus. And it doesn't take much virus to infect naive animals.

In the case of live animals that have been vaccinated but are still shedding virus, if those animals come into contact with unvaccinated animals, the unvaccinated animals will most likely come down with FMD. Animals that have not been vaccinated or exposed to the virus are termed immunologically naive. The morbidity rate is very high, althogh the mortality rate in healthy adult animals is relatively low.

The problem with FMD is that while there are 7 serotypes, each serotype has up to 10 subtypes. So there's no one vaccine that can protect against all types/subtypes. Although that class of vaccine is the holy grail of FMD vaccines.

FMD can persist in the environment for, I think, up to 3 months under the right conditions, although it's usually only viable for a week to ten days. I'll have to check on that, but that's what I remember.

FMD can spread readily via dust (the 2007 FMD outbreak was thought to be spread by contaminated soil blowing off dump trucks hauling the soil away from a construction project at the lab in Surrey, England that had a biosecurity breach while producing vaccine).

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.


[ Parent ]
Uruguay is FMD free with vaccination (4.00 / 1)
there are other countries that have that status, and in fact, some countries that vaccinate routinely for FMD are trying to get OIE to recognize free with vaccination as equivalent to free without vaccination.


Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

[ Parent ]
equivalence (0.00 / 0)
Do you think the two are equivalent, in view of what you wrote about shedding?

[ Parent ]
No I do not (4.00 / 1)
Animals vaccinated against the virus can be completely asymptomatic if infected, it does not mean that if exposed and infected, that the animal will not shed even very small amounts of virus. The issue with FMD is transmission. If one were to take a vaccinated animal that was infected with FMD and introduce it into a group of animals that had never been exposed and had never been vaccinated, I gaurantee you that you'd get an active outbreak.

The USA is disease free without vaccination for FMD. Vaccination will not be allowed.

Australia had an outbreak of equine influenza a couple years back, I think it was in 2008. The infected horse was a stallion brought in either from the USA, Japan or England. In those countries, vaccination for equine influenza is allowed and common. In Australia it's illegal because they want the disease free without vaccination status.

The infected stallion came down with a cough and I think a fever that was attributed to shipping stress, the horses arrived via air. Biosecurity measures were lax to say the least (I think the staff at the quaranteen facility broke every rule there was and then thought up some new ones to break). EI is about as infectious to horses as FMD is to ruminants, and before ya know it, the virus was out and circulating in the horse show circuit. Took 'em 6 months or so to get the outbreak under control, and one of the strategies they resorted to was vaccination, it was the only way they could control the outbreak, depopulation not being an option. Once the outbreak was over, vaccination was made illegal again.

A few years ago, an animal that was being shipped in the USA, I think it was a pig (the worse for FMD as they are virus amplifiers) became sick. The symptoms were similar enough to FMD that the Department of Homeland Security was alerted, and I think the President (GW Bush). Was the animal and it's cohorts stopped, tested and only allowed to go on when the tests came back negative? NO.

That's probably what'll happen in this country if there's an FMD outbeak. Someone will mistake the symptoms for something like vesicular stomatitis, which isn't uncomon in this country, and we'll all be screwed. That's what happened in the UK and other countries in Europe in 2000/2001 at the start of that outbreak. An infected pig was at an auction yard. It was thought the pig had VS or something similar. Unfortunately, it wasn't VS. No movement stop orders were issued untill the UK and some of it's trading partners were infected. What a CF.....

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.


[ Parent ]
Uruguay beef (4.00 / 3)
At least one Baltimore restaurant used to feature Uruguay beef. I just checked their website, and they seem to have gone to local farms for all meat except fish and seafood. Neither farm is organic.

Why do you describe Roseda Beef as "natural" instead of "organic?"

Our definition of "natural" comes from the U.S. Food Safety Inspection Service. It means our meat contains no growth hormones, artificial color or flavoring; no chemical preservatives, other synthetic ingredients. In fact, we're proud that, in many ways, we far exceed the government's definition of "natural."

To qualify as "organic" by federal standards, we would have to feed our cattle ingredients that have never been treated with pesticides or herbicides. Using strictly organic feed is extremely expensive, and would require us to raise prices about 50%. We believe our natural methods are more than sufficient to provide high quality beef at a price our customers can afford.

What Is Certified Organic?

To use the Certified Organic label, farmers must follow the USDA National Organic Program rules. Many small farmers choose not to participate due to burdensome regulations, fees, and oversight.



[ Parent ]
slaughterhouses (4.00 / 1)
Neither of those farms slaughters or processes its own meat. I just checked - Maryland has quite a few USDA slaughterhouses/processors located around the state, including several close to Baltimore.

I checked Oregon also. Marks Meats tops that list.


[ Parent ]
Marks is wonderful (4.00 / 1)
it's where I buy all of my beef and pork. If they don't have it at Marks I don't eat it that day.

Kris, the owner, raises sheep, and her sister raises the beef she slaughters and sells. I think they're angus, at least that's what they look like when I've seen them out in the pasture around the slaughter house.

Kris is who I got the ram lamb from. He was the last bummer of the season, and when I asked her how much she wanted for him she said to just take him home and don't worry about it. She's where I'm probably going to get most of my lambs from next lambing season, although she said if she doesn't have enough, she might know of another sheep breeder who'd have some bummer lambs to sell me. I'm buying all the bummers either from Kris or from other sheep ranchers next year.

The thing I like best about Marks though, asided from the tremendous beef (and I ain't the only one who says that) is the fact that they roll the carcasses out on the rail right in front of you and cut and wrap them while you watch. It's fascinating. And the crew works on one, and when it's done, they bring the next one out. You never know what they'll be working on, beef, lamb. I haven't seen them do a pig (just haven't been there at the right time) or a goat, (she said she'd sell goat but she can't find anyone who's raising enough to sell to her), but if I was there when they were working on those animals, I could stand there and watch.

Marks is the greatest!

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.


[ Parent ]
Machete (4.00 / 2)
The machete is a real multi-purpose tool, isn't it?

oh yeah (4.00 / 2)
the people I've met in Mexico and in the tropical regions of Bolivia all walked around with machetes all the time. I didn't really see it in the Andean highlands though... there's not much up there to cut down.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
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