The first rains of the year have already started to paint the landscape green, which had been left dry by the summer. For many ranchers, it means having pasture to feed their cows, many of which are showing their ribs. For Nicoyan dairy farmer Rolando Rodríguez it’s more than that. With the first rains, he begins the process that will provide his 40 cattle with feed next dry season.
“We perform this activity in a zone that’s not the most climatically apt for it,” he says. “That has to be solved somehow because the land can’t be left unproductive and we can’t stop creating jobs and income.”
Roughly 90% of producers in the province don’t have an irrigation system nor the technology to overcome the drought, according to the Ranching and Agriculture Ministry’s regional director Óscar Vázquez. Rodríguez is part of the other 10%.
On his 15-hectare farm in the middle of Nicoya, he dedicates five to cattle grazing and the rest for producing feed to save for dry season.
Luis Alonso Villalobos, researcher for the Animal Nutrition Research Center (CINA) at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) recommends preparing now.
A farmer that wants to save feed for the dry season has to start planning now for what he is going to plant and save.”
Rodríguez does it with a combination of rotational grazing (which divides the farm into sections in order to dedicate a large part of the crop with the cattle in a few spots) and ensilage, the technique used for preserving feed during the rainy season.
“Rational grazing for me is the start of preparations for any dry season. It allows me to leave available the greatest area possible for providing feed during the dry season,” says the 30-year-old Rodríguez.
That’s how this rancher optimizes the space so that cows only have to use what’s absolutely necessary.
The rest is used as crop for ensilage, a low-cost process that can be used with grass and other products like corn, pineapple, banana or sugarcane. Rolando does the following: he cuts the product, throws it in a pit or on the ground, stomps it down to remove the air and then seals it in black plastic.
Invest to Earn
People are used to getting by in the dry season because they think storing feed is expensive, but what’s really expensive is having your animals die,” Rodríguez says. “The problem isn’t the climate. It’s the mentality.”
The first step is investing in a good seeding process and finding good seeds and good fertilized. “I have switched from grass to improved grass in order to get better nutritional results,” he says.
During the rainy season (from May to November) Rodriguez’s farm dedicates a large portion to ensilage efforts. He cuts the grass every 30-35 days in order to produce the preserved feed. That means he does roughly seven ensilage procedures during the rainy season.
Importantly, once the piling process has begun, it must be covered with plastic within 48 hours. Ranchers can add lactobacillus bacteria in order to optimize the fermentation process, but the ensilage is effective even without it. The quality of the ensilage depends on chopping the grass finely and keeping humidity out once it has been sealed.
Seventy days after sealing it, the reserves can be used to feed the cattle or saved for when it’s needed. That’s why Rodriguez says it is important to start preparing after the first rainfall.
This rancher already has two grasshoppers and a mower to cut and chop the grass. The process to produce and preserve the feed for the dry season costs ¢10 per kilogram.
“I consume about 1,000 kilograms per day, so it costs about ¢10,000 per day, which is nothing for 40-50 cows,” he says. What he invests in feed for all his cows during the dry season is the same as one cow costs.
According to his experience, there are two factors that complicate the process but that can be controlled. The first is economic. “You come out of the dry season bad and what they tell you do to is invest money,” he says. The second is weather. “You have to do the process in a small time window,” he says.
UCR researchers Luis Villalobos, Rodolfo Wing and José Arce did a study in 2010 to estimate the productions costs for grass ensilage.
They analyzed 31 dairy farms in Guanacaste, Cartago and Alajuela, considering the harvest cycle, the forage species, the supplies used and the type of structure for storage.
That helped create an Excel spreadsheet that a producer can use to estimate the costs of implementing ensilage on his farm. The only requirement, according to Villalobos, is for the farmer to keep a registry of the production characteristics, like the type of seeding that was done, the type of fertilized used, and what method will be implemented to store the material (plastic bags or silos).
It’s a very useful technology that can be adapted to small and large farms,” Villalobos says. “It’s necessary for the conditions in Guanacaste. Farers who don’t save feed put their operation at risk.”
If you are interested in applying this technique or receiving advice from CINA, you can contact Dr. Luis Villalobos at [email protected] or by calling 2511-3573.