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Why do we continue to see pastures full of lean cows? (hint, the drought wasn’t the only culprit)

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Among the small yellow grass clusters of the Doanson Torres and Marta Carrillo farm a black, cracked and dry land opens up. It’s the last week of April and this is one of the hardest summers they say they remember because not a drop of water fell in December and those brief rains always let the grass grow a little more.

“I’ve been feeding the livestock for almost two months,” Doanson said. Since there is no grass to eat, they give them bales in the morning, vitamins, concentrate, and honey. But it’s not enough.

On the other side of the fence, Cuaresma looks at us with distrust. Her ribs are showing, like the majority of her 33 pasture partners and the majority of cows in the province. Marta cuts some green cocobolo branches and throws them to the cows to eat. “They are happy when you give them something green,” she says.   

Doanson lets the calves enter the corral, but separates them from the cows so they do not suck them, because they make them even thinner.

The situation for this ranching couple is similar to 90 percent of the province that, according to the Agriculture and Ranching Ministry’s regional director, don’t have irrigation systems to aid grass during droughts or other types of technology that would help them overcome crises like this one.

Public entities haven’t declared a drought or an emergency because they usually wait until the rainy season begins and notice a rain deficit. But they are evaluating the possibility of broadening the 2014-16 emergency decree ahead of a possible drought because the risk is latent this year.

Producers should work under a drought scenario even though no one has declared it yet,” said Oscar Rojas, a natural resource and agro-climate risk official from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).  

It might rain enough this year, or it might not. But since 2009, the dry corridor in Central America that Guanacaste belongs to has been suffering constant drought that, according to projections, will grow worse and make things harder on producers because costs increase and revenue falls.

An example of this is, during the dry season, livestock often loses value, but costs for feeding increase. “There are even some products you can’t find anymore,” Doanson says, as he ties up a fistful of calves in the coral to keep them away from the cows “so they don’t suckle, because they will get weaker.” This year, for example, a kilogram of beef went from ¢1,200 ($2) to ¢600 ($1) or even 500 ($0.80) at auction, farmers said.

“People are selling the cows before they die,” he said. He hasn’t lost a cow to death yet but says that they are spending more than they make. “We get by because our kids are professionals, so they help.”

They are hoping for rain, but the National Meteorological Institute (IMN) projects that this year in Guanacaste it will rain 20-30 percent less than it usually does. They also project higher than average temperatures, roughly 2° centigrade higher, putting at risk Doanson’s faith in water.

El Niño Risks

Óscar Rojas is Costa Rica and he monitors the weather in Central America for FAO. Satellite systems, he says, show that vegetation is behaving abnormally compared to a normal rainy season.

The problem, he says, is that El Niño-Southern Oscillation’s peak impact (ENOS) hit Guanacaste in February and March, in the middle of the dry season, intensifying the summer and making agriculture and pastures suffer more than normal. Doanson and Marta saw it with their own eyes.  

In Guanacaste, 26% of the wells are registered for agriculture and livestock, but it is not a water that is used efficiently.Photo: César Arroyo

The second risk with ENOS is a more intense Indian summer, which creates conditions similar to the dry season between July and August. That means that many farmers will need additional water or plant more resistant species that need less water.

It’s not about being alarmist. He agrees with government institutes that we still don’t know if we are going to have a serious drought, but he insists that farmers shouldn’t wait for a decree to deal with the problem.

Some institutions are afraid of losing credibility and they don’t want to declare anything. They want to be 100 percent sure, but they are going to be late when they are 100 percent sure.”

The good news is that, with the outlook clear, farmers can take measures and make decisions and, according to the majority of sources consulted for this report, have several tools at their disposal to do so. The bad news is that the culture of  “earn without investing” is hurting them, and that’s something they need to change.

Farming isn’t a matter exclusive to producers and ranchers. Besides its cultural links, agriculture, ranching and fishing are the second largest source of employment in rural Costa Rica, creating a third of jobs in the country, according to the last employment survey.

Nothing New

Intense dry seasons are nothing new for the province. “We’ve known El Niño since colonial days,” Rojas says. Luis Pineda, a University of Costa Rica researcher, agrees.

My university thesis was about fodder (dry grains for livestock feed) and I found a thesis from 1950 that talked about how to deal with the dry season in Guanacaste.”

It’s also not new seeing skinny cows across the immense pastures of the lowland. Between 2014 and 2016, we suffered the worst drought of the last eight decades in Guanacaste, and despite government investment in emergency attention (more than $5.8 million budgeted for in the decree) “we still haven’t recovered,” said executive president of the National Emergency Commission Alexander Solis during one of the meetings he held at the beginning of April with Guanacaste farmers.

MAG le dedicated 41 percent of it’s almost  ¢6.9 billion ($11.5m) to the drought and the purchase and distribution of food, what specialists call a social aid model that will have to repeat every year if we don’t invest in technology and innovation in order to quit creating dependence.

Regional Director Óscar Vásquez says that they also invested in irrigation systems, rain collection systems, grass cutters, improved seeds and a long list of actions to help farmers prepare for a drier future.

“So, why do we keep seeing pastures full of skinny cows?” I asked him. He agrees with the president of the Chamber of National Milk Producers Alvaro Coto. It’s difficult to get everyone on board. Not all farmers want to invest and those who want to sometimes can’t afford to.

Coto is very critical of the industry.

They see a little bit of grass and people forget about how tough things were. We don’t react and climate change is here to stay.”

In fact, Oscar Vásquez figures that between five and 10 percent of farmers in the province use irrigation systems or grass cutting technology to feed their livestock during “skinny cow” season, while 70 percent have planted better grass in their fields.

Pineda adds that some producers don’t know how to use the aid provided by the government. Others even sell it. “MAG doesn’t have good oversight over the use of resources,” he says. Though he says that the majority of producers don’t do their part either. “The openness of producers to change is still decades behind.”  

“There are funds,” Coto said. He says that the state development bank has ¢5 billion ($8.3m) to invest in producers who show that they are going to use at least part of the money to innovate for climate change.

Ranchers and winners

Like Cuaresma all the cows on Marta and Doanson’s farm have their own name: Carlos, Patricia, Sánchez. There is a connection with the land and the animals beyond being a means of profit for this business. It’s all that’s left because profits keep falling.

Thirty years ago you’d add 10 cows to your field and have 10 or 15 more,” says Luis Pineda, UCR researcher. “You didn’t have to invest anything and you’d make 10,000 percent. Now, to make 10 percent, you have to invest a lot and sometimes you lose.”

Pineda is a feed specialist and leads a project with a rancher from Dulce Nombre, Nicoya, Mauricio Pineda, who got tired of demonizing of livestock and wants to show that the problem isn’t’ the activity, but the management of it.

Mauricio plants improved grass with a drip irrigation system that costs ¢5 million ($8,300) in the upfront investment and that keeps his 75-80 heads of cattle fat all year. With their experimentation on this farm, the UCR, the farmer and the CNPL (which finances the project) hope to learn lessons and fix mistakes that other ranchers make in Costa Rica.

The Torres Carrillo family takes advantage of the fruits of the guácimo trees to complement the cattle feed, but for now the main source of food is purchased.

Finally, if the rancher has a part of his farm dedicated to growing grass, sugarcane or corn and another part for cattle, it will serve as a “food insurance” that allows him to have fat cows all year round. But you have to invest.

The National University (UNA) also has projects to help farmers adapt to climate change and weather phenomena. In Pozo de Agua, Nicoya, researcher Pável Baptista is working with farmers – Marta and Doanson among them – who want to start a company and improve margins with milk (which doesn’t have a high enough price to cover their expenses) and turn it into cheese and sour cream.

In Puerto Humo, UNA has another project with experimental silvopasture fields, which integrate trees and grains into the cattle fields so that they have enough feed for the whole year. While Doanson didn’t join the project in Pozo de Agua, he said that he is going to segment his field and plant vegetation on at least a portion of it.

“If we make more with milk we can buy mills and plant some sugarcane to feed the cattle during coming dry seasons,” he said. “It’s more money and you can invest more. With the price of milk as it is now, sometimes you just break even.”  

They are small, isolated efforts, according to all those interviewed, including MAG, but at the end of the day, they show that there are ways to maintain the activity that has kept them rooted in Guanacaste for decades.

“Now we just have to wait for the rain,” Doanson says, as he leaves the pasture amid the red sunset that shines on his 34 skinny cows, all of which have a name.