The Cattle Business: We Must Risk Another Model
Where is Nicaragua cattle production headed? Toward turning the forests into pasturelands? And despite that ecological disaster toward insufficient quantities of milk and meat and low-quality leather? Is the present system the only way, or could another model overcome the errors of the past and guarantee the future?
Cattle ranching came to Nicaragua four hundred years ago, with the Spanish conquerors, and quickly penetrated the Nicaraguan culture and economy. In Nicaragua, both rich and poor share some of the same dreams, one of which is to have a farm with cattle. But the dreams of both groups have their very separate logic. The poor peasant wants a few cows to have a daily supply of milk and cheese. The rancher dreams of seeing the hillsides "whiten" with brahman cattle and of selling fattened calves to slaughterhouses according to size and weight.
Of the nearly five million acres of existing farmland in Nicaragua, barely 15-18% is under continuous agricultural use. Nearly all the rest is pastureland. Some 130,000-150,000 families, predominantly with small to medium farms, participate in different types of cattle production, processing and marketing cattle products and byproducts.
12 billion inhabit the planetCattle are found all over the world. But the significance of these animals in the lives of the people varies from country to country. In many places, milk and meat from cattle are the main sources of protein and fat. Of the billions of head of cattle in the world, half live in Africa and Asia. In China, the most populous country in the world, soy substitutes for milk and over the centuries cattle have been employed mainly as work animals in agricultural production. In India, religious tradition has made cattle sacred.
In 1995, world beef production was some 53 million tons. That of milk was 465.7 million. The most industrialized nations of North America and Europe produce 30% of the beef and 50% of the milk that is produced worldwide. Most significantly, this abundant production is achieved without leveling forests for pastureland. While this ideal situation is occurring in those areas of the world, the remaining worldwide consumption—70% of the meat and 50% of the milk—is chiefly produced in less-developed tropical countries where cattle production has always been closely linked with deforestation and soil erosion. According to the United Nations, one-sixth of the world's surface—almost 2 billion hectares—has been degraded by inadequate agricultural and cattle production techniques. But even with so much land dedicated to cattle production, one-fifth of the world's inhabitants have insufficient protein in their diet.
Bogged-down productionThere are indications right now that the Nicaraguan cattle industry will not be able to return to the levels of its best production years, the 1960s and 70s. According to figures from the Food and Agricultural Association (FAO), there were just over 1.7 million head of cattle in the country last year—only 60% of the total amount in 1978. Current milk and beef production represents, respectively, 45% and 65% of the production of those years.
The war of the 1980s had an extremely negative impact on the cattle industry. Widespread cattle rustling decimated the herds; thousands of cattle were stolen and driven to Honduras and Costa Rica. The main areas of cattle production also became the main zones of military conflict. But not all was negative. The virtual blockage of all economic activity in these zones made possible the natural regeneration of forestlands.
In the 1990s, with the gradual pacification process and the opening of the market, signs began to appear that the cattle industry was recovering. Large areas of the agricultural frontier—the western edge of what remains of the country's forests—were reopened to the ranchers. Those who had lost their lands to the war or to confiscation recovered their old farms and bought others. Meanwhile, new actors appeared in the business: newly disarmed former contras, and Salvadoran cheese makers. Cattle producers also signed contracts with Mexico for cattle on the hoof, powdered milk and cheese. The cotton crisis of the dry Pacific region, which caused sorghum to replace cotton production, brought more cattle into that area. To complete the scenario, small- and medium-sized milk producers began to emerge in the major cities.
"The cattle industry is having hard times," said Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Mario de Franco, assessing the situation. "It is irresponsible to give credit to producers who are getting only three liters of milk per cow," he added in response to those demanding financing for their enterprises. The majority, in fact, does yield about that amount. According to De Franco, "The cattle problem is technological—low productivity—not lack of credit."
President Arnoldo Alemán has inaugurated a Japanese-donated "Genetics Center" in Ticuantepe. This center and EXPICA's cattle expositions, initiated during the Charmorro government, appear to be the present government's two best policy developments. Alongside the expositions and high technology coexist other initiatives: programs and projects promoted nationally by the National Rural Development Program, now called the Rural Development Institute. In Boaco, the program is supported by FINNIDA and in Río Blanco by PRODERBO.
Eight years after the war's end and almost ten years after the beginning of structural adjustment, national cattle production remains stagnant. At the same time, it is still a main cause of high-level soil erosion and deforestation. Long-term financing to purchase quality stock for herd reproduction is scarce and even though the proportion of cows being slaughtered has decreased, the percentage remains high—about 40%. Climatic changes have made things even worse. In the last three years, small cattle producers in the dry regions, who also cultivate basic grains, have had to sell off part of their herds in order to subsist during the area's tenacious drought.
If production is in difficulty, there is also the problem of fluctuation in the market demand of industrialized nations. The number of people who—for reasons of health or cost—are reducing their red meat consumption is increasing. Also increasing is the consumption of white meat—fish, chicken, duck, rabbit. There is a demand for consistently greater variety and quality in milk products, such as flavored and low-fat milk, cheeses and yogurt.
Undernourished children reject milkThere is also a crisis of demand in Nicaragua, although for other reasons. Meat consumption has been the birthright of the middle and upper classes. During the years of the revolution, the eating of meat became more generalized. Milk and its derivatives, especially the traditional cheeses that are the usual accompaniment to the daily rice and beans, are consumed by all social classes. Milk and cheese, however, are becoming less and less accessible to the majority of Nicaraguans living in both rural and urban areas, due both to continuous price increases and scarcities. A pound of typical hard white farmers' cheese hit 20 córdobas ($2)—the same price as many cuts of meat—in the beginning months of 1998. This is double the price of five years ago.
Various international studies on poverty show that the poor spend 60-70% of their income on food. The soaring prices of basic foods are increasingly affecting their nutrition levels; they are eating less and eating worse. In Nicaragua, where about 44% live in extreme poverty, the daily diet has been reduced to a meager plate of rice and beans—when possible. Those in extreme poverty can no longer afford the customary cheeses, and the child's traditional glass of milk has been replaced by "Glu-Glu," commercial packets of sweetened, colored water. As a result, children are increasingly manifesting a reaction to milk. When parents do manage to offer their children a precious glass of milk, their small bodies reject it; they have not developed the lactose enzyme, whose development is stimulated precisely by habitual milk consumption. This enzyme, which today is lacking in many children, facilitates digestion of a product that is every day more scarce—in a country which prides itself on its cattle raising tradition.
The costly European modelEurope and the United States produce enough beef and dairy products, and without deteriorating their forestlands, to meet the food demands of their people, and they export these products at good prices. Nicaragua has been unable to meet even one of these three objectives. The first reason is, of course, its history. Empires and colonies have very different starting lines when it comes to racing toward any goal. Apart from history, another fundamental factor must be kept in mind: cattle production development models.
The European model yields high productivity without deforestation, but it is costly. At the end of World War II, a drive began in Europe and the United States—which even now has not ended—to increase productivity in the growing of grains and other foods. The cattle business was no exception. The European model always includes good nutrition for animals. For example, during the cold winters and the summers they alternate hay with grazing in natural pastures. These pastures provide grains and legumes, which contain the proteins needed for increased milk production and also contribute to the indispensable fertilization of the soil. At the same time, the cattle's genetic potential is taken advantage of to produce optimum breeds of meat and dairy cattle.
In France, they have been able to bring annual milk yields to 5,500 kg. per cow. In Germany, this figure is 6,000, and in the United States, 7,400. Cattle slaughtered for meat often weigh up to 300 kg. These developments guarantee very high levels of food self-sufficiency.
These developments were also made possible by governmental programs and policies based on aid, protectionist measures, subsidies and price guarantees. For many years, European and North American milk and cattle producers were underwritten. Today, protection measures for beef and dairy products represent 30% of the European Union's agricultural expenditures. To better appreciate the help given to producers in these countries, it is necessary to understand that production costs for a pound of beef or a liter of milk are very high. There are labor costs, extensive machinery and petroleum use, and expensive installations to shelter and maintain the animals. Feeding the livestock alone represents 50% of the total cost of cattle production.
Europe's secret: protect the forestThe quality of cattle in these countries has increased notably. There have been advances in genetic engineering and in biotechnology applied to reproduction. The development of artificial insemination based on advances in semen freezing techniques has increased annual birthrates in Europe to 100 million calves, with systematic increases in milk production. The artificial insemination industry takes in US$2 billion annually, according to FAO figures.
These techniques have resulted in colossal milk surpluses, which have been made into powdered milk for export and for aid donations to countries of the South. The unequalled advances in biotechnology permit us to foresee new advances in cattle production. Also anticipated are new debates about the unknown side effects that genetic manipulation and the employment of chemicals and hormones to accelerate growth and stimulate milk production may have on the human population.
The European cattle business has reached such heights that these governments have had to establish regional agreements to regulate overproduction. In the mid-1980s, they set quotas based on each country's historical production. Italy, for example, which has the potential to produce its own national demand for beef and dairy products, is allowed to produce 90% of its national consumption and must import the remainder from countries that, at the moment of regulation, were net exporters.
In no stage of any of these cases has the development of cattle production in the North translated into the destruction of forestlands, as it has in the South. Increase has not meant expanding the areas dedicated to cattle production; on the contrary, they have continually shrunk since the 1950s for various reasons. One reason is that the notable increase in productivity allowed for more demand for feed to be supplied on less land. Another reason is that the development of industry and services has given value to cattle products and byproducts. Also, a large part of the labor force has been replaced by farm machinery such as ploughs, harvesters and hay bailers, has moved to other sectors of the economy in search of work. Another reason is that the more developed societies see economic as well as leisure potential in these forested areas. Urban dwellers, increasingly disturbed by urban noise and the stress of work, love the trees; they need them and recognize their material and spiritual value.
Nicaragua's destructive modelNicaragua's cattle industry has expanded greatly since the 1950s, and along with it extensive forestlands have been turned into cattle pasture. The 1960s and 70s saw the largest increase in cattle ranching. Beef slaughtering increased 250% during those years, from over 133,500 head in 1960 to 465,500 in 1979. During those same years, beef exports climbed from US$3 million to $94 million and national milk production rose from 228 million liters to 480 million. International organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank provided financing for the expansion and the government promoted programs to encourage the growth of the "national herd," the expansion of the pasturelands and the agroindustrial development of cattle products.
This expansion had an immense cost. The state development bank gave credit to cattle producers who could show "improvements" on their ranches. Improvement meant cutting down trees and burning forestlands for pasture. Under this development model, the big ranchers found it extremely profitable to produce beef cattle at a minimum cost by employing huge extensions of pastureland. Thus, the ranchers extended cattle grazing to the edge of the agricultural frontier—eroding soil and destroying forests without mercy. The relative social stability of those years allowed the ranchers to come into the tropical areas of the eastern Nicaragua with hordes of hired hands and overseers to run ranches of between 600 and 1,200 acres, establishing pasturelands and growing basic grains with their traditional slash-and-burn technique. They made deep incursions into the dense tropical forests. There were some ranchers—and are again now—who alone deforested up to 120 acres a year.
The vast majority of small and medium ranchers was not linked to the beef and milk agroindustry and had little access to credit or technological assistance. But they participated in the same dynamic of land and cattle accumulation, demonstrating the same disregard for the environment. These farmers came mainly from the driest regions of western Nicaragua and began to penetrate the most isolated and mountainous regions of central and eastern Nicaragua.
The poor clear the forest; then the rich buy them outThis tendency, initiated on a massive scale in the 1950s, had a brief interlude during the war years of the 1980s, but even today it has not ended. The following example is common and contemporary. In 1980 Tomás Aguinaga, a peasant cattle farmer born in Boaco, went to Kepí, a 5-6 hour walk from the outskirts of Mulukukú. There he acquired about 120 acres. Aguinanga says he had come there from Salto de la Olla, a remote area of Matiguás, where he had had some 17 acres of land that was "worn out." Tired and over-used as pasture, it no longer produced good crops and was becoming too small for his growing herd, which needed more grazing land. One morning, after he had milked the cows, his wife returned from Mulukukú, where she went once a week to sell the rennet cheese (cuajada) that she made. Smiling, she told him, "Out that way there's lots of wooded land to make a good farm." The land "out that way" isn't very fertile but it is abundant and cheap—the equivalent of about $12 an acre. The land was covered with virgin forest and seemed to have no owner. "Out that way" went Tomás.
The major problems peasant farmers have in making it "out that way" are the hardship presented by the land itself and the lack of social infrastructure. The climate is hot and humid; there are poisonous snakes and tropical diseases; there are no schools or health clinics. The work facing them is precisely to "get rid of the forest," to strip the land. They do this gradually, according to its purpose—depending on whether it is intended for corn, beans or rice. They normally plant three years consecutively, rotating the crops. After that, they plant pasture in the same cleared area. At the end of the process, beautiful and dense forests have been transformed into pastureland for cattle. Each year, with the help of his sons, Tomás cleared 8-12 acres of forest. The poorest, those with least capacity to "get rid of the forest," only deforested about half that per year. But because the poor are many, the destruction is not unnoticeable.
With these kinds of "improvements," the poor can now sell their farms—in many instances under pressure—to big ranchers who want to expand their holdings. To do this, the ranchers must do three things: 1) justify their project to the bank and obtain financing; 2) increase their pasturelands; 3) establish other farms in more tropical areas that will allow them to move their herds to greener pastures during the dry months. By selling their "improved" farms, the peasants can buy cattle and look for other lands—penetrating even further into the virgin forestlands.
We don't know if Tomás' entire family is still in Kepí. One of his sons may well have gone further into the rainforest in the buffer zones near the Bosawás reserve, toward Siuna or Rosita, looking for his own land—just as his father had done. Once he has acquired some land and some cattle, his hope will be that some powerful lumber company will arrive on the scene. The lumber industry opens roads in the forest, facilitating a bit his arduous task of transporting the cut wood from his farm to what the peasants call the "mountain port"—the nearest commercial dropping-off point—where he will sell it.
Carving out a farm is long and laborious process. Those not up to the task have other options that are equally difficult. One is to go to the cities and find whatever work they can—even if it's selling cold water at the traffic lights—or to go and find no employment and join the swelling numbers of unemployed, indigents and delinquents. Another is to join one of the armed bands in the rural areas who make their living through kidnapping and extortion. Yet another is to emigrate to Costa Rica to work like a peon on the banana and sugar plantations. In present-day Nicaragua, no institutional space exists to address these basic subsistence problems for this large, disenfranchised group of people. The majority of state development programs—and those of the NGOs—work only with the "profitable." They are following the new wave of the 1990s: support only those who are economically viable.
"The cows are now bathing in the Atlantic"The development model of Nicaragua's cattle industry has been gradually but seriously eroding the economic and ecological potential of large areas of the country. Four decades ago, nearly half of the nation's land area was covered with virgin tropical forest. Now only half of that precious forest is left standing, some 40,000 square kilometers. The forestry potential—primarily in hard woods—and the biodiversity of the other half of Nicaragua's rainforests was destroyed with practically no benefits. The economic gains from the lumber industry went to big foreign companies that extracted lumber and exported it by the log, with virtually no benefit to the domestic economy.
Extensive cattle raising has come at a high cost, and it continues to be costly. If there is any sign of change, it is only that the situation has grown worse. "The cattle are now bathing in the Atlantic," warned worried environmental specialist Jaime Incer Barquero, former minister of natural resources. Unchecked cattle production in tropical rainforest areas has continued to diminish the land's productive capacity, including its potential as pasture. In Nicaragua, natural grazing lands are just grasslands, in which only about 15-20% of the area is usable. Unlike in Europe, no legumes are sown to nourish the cattle at the same time that they fertilize the soil. The way the land is cleared for pasture is also inappropriate; burning is the traditional method, which depletes the land instead of fertilizing it. In such fragile soil, it is difficult to maintain fertility. The tropical eastern area of the country has an annual rainfall of over 2,000 mm., much of it in the form of heavy downpours. In the deforested areas this rain falls directly on the soil, eroding the good land in the hilly regions and carrying its topsoil to the lower areas or straight on to the rivers. Grain production has been affected, as have beef and milk production. A Nicaraguan cow yields only 10% of the milk produced by its counterpart in the US or Europe. The cattle slaughtered here weigh only 45% as much as those slaughtered in those countries.
Crisis on all frontsThe national agroindustry has helped reinforce this seriously flawed cattle development model. The nation's seven slaughterhouses, originally installed to process beef for export to the growing US fast food market, are vertically linked to the big ranchers through credit, technical assistance and shares in their activities. Fattening steers for export became very important so the big cattle dealers, also closely linked with the slaughterhouses, have taken over this process by buying just-weaned calves from small and medium farmers who only have enough land to feed a few cows. In addition to paying these peasant farmers low prices for their calves, the big operators also benefit from the sale of the leather after the steers are killed in their slaughterhouse.
The general crisis is seen on all fronts. The majority of these big agroindustrial slaughterhouses are currently idle because the reproductive capacity of the national herd is limited and because the prices exporters pay for cattle on the hoof are more attractive than the export prices for beef. Another problem is that half of the skins coming from the slaughterhouses are unusable due to a recent epidemic of skin-burrowing worms that mark the hide and to injuries from barbed wire and branding. There is no incentive to protect the hides and no custom of improving its quality. The remaining bits of leather that are of any use end up in low-quality tanneries, producing products of little value. Ironically in this country that has lost so much of its forest to cattle, Nicaragua's small shoe industry uses primarily imported leather.
As for the nation's milk business, it has traditionally been linked into a few large and specialized dairy farms from the west of Nicaragua that use irrigation. This did not change during the 1980s when two or three state enterprises, together with imported powder, furnished almost all the milk for the country's dairies. According to figures from the Central Bank, an oligopoly made up of only two plants—PROLACSA, property of the multinational Nestlés, and Nicaragua's own La Perfecta—processed 25-30% of the nation's total 1996 milk production. A third plant, El Eskimo, used only imported materials for its products, which are mainly ice cream and other frozen desserts. The rest of the milk produced in the interior of the country is bought by a large number of small-scale minimally mechanized dairies, or by individual "cottage" operations where the milk is made into cheeses and cream by hand. The vast majority of these businesses produce small quantities of low-quality products because they have little or no capital, obsolete technology and a poor market.
Many lost opportunitiesNot everything has been negative over the 40 years of cattle expansion. There have been instances in which respect has been shown for natural resources. In more accessible zones, some groups of small and medium peasant producers have managed to stabilize their production system, thanks to better linkage with the markets. The creation of PROLACSA, with support from INFONAC (the institute for cattle industry development created by Somoza), gave some aid to small producers in certain areas of the country. That help included access roads and an in-kind credit system in the form of wire, milk containers and veterinary medicines, which the farmers could pay for directly with the milk they produced. PROLACSA was not ideal because of the low prices it offered producers in the "milk bowl" of Muy Muy-Matiguás-Ro Blanco in the 1970s. But it was a good example of how an increase in milk demand can stimulate cattle raisers to opt for different models than those of very extensive ranchers oriented toward producing beef for export.
Linking peasant producers up to specific markets is fundamental for the sale of their products and for creating positive expectations for the future. When these motivating forces are present, the cattle producing areas have much more potential for stability; and the possibility of permanent family settlements on farms makes for authentic progress. And when there is hope, the option of going out to "get rid of" forests begins to be discarded.
Some found opportunitiesWithin the last four years, one of the dairy industry's newest realities has been the diversification of the milk market. The new businesses that are participating are primarily linked with the Salvadoran market but some are also filling new niches in the domestic market. Salvadoran cheese makers have installed small-scale plants in Nicaragua's "milk bowl" to produce "moralique," a cheese prized in El Salvador. The per-pound price of this cheese is higher in tiny El Salvador, where land is at a premium, than in Nicaragua, and the Salvadorans are plugged in to their attractive home market. With greater financial ability to buy and store the milk and market their cheese, they are competing with Nicaraguan milk buyers, paying producers 5-10 córdobas more per liter than even La Perfecta or PROLACSA.
Along with this new twist, a small, domestic sector of semi-industrial cheese makers, both cooperative and private, is also emerging. Some receive support from international development projects such as Finland's FINNIDA and the UN World Food Program, among others. Others have appeared on their own initiative. The competition between national plants and all these cheese makers has boosted the price paid to milk producers. And all these changes in the milk market is stimulating one sector of cattle raisers to make changes in their farms. They are increasing the number of milk cows, selecting the best cows for milk yields, improving feeding during the dry season, etc.
Another model for the great majorityThe end of the war meant providing a lot of land in the zones of the agricultural frontier to demobilized Resistance fighters and Sandinista soldiers. Most of the poorest of these ex-fighters have since dedicated themselves to "getting rid" of the forest in order to plant basic grains. As there has been no favorable medium- to long-term financing available for building their farms, they have been unable to establish any linkage with more or less stable markets. During the Chamorro government, financing for cattle raising was the domain of the now-extinct National Development Bank (BANADES). Such bank financing concentrated on large cattle ranchers designated by the government.
The debt scandal of Roberto Rondón provided the clearest evidence of the kinds of economic resource distributions that are being made in Nicaragua. Rondón, one of those borrowers whose huge unpaid debt with BANADES helped sink it, was first minister of agriculture and livestock, and later director of the National Rural Development Program, all under the Chamorro administration. He also owns one of the most extensive tracts of cattle land in the department of Chontales. The private commercial banks that sprang up in the 1990s with the privatization of the state bank have not wanted to know anything about cattle producers, or at best they cater only to medium-to-large ranchers like Rondón.
Servicing the large numbers of cattle raisers in need of small loans would mean higher operation and collection costs. The Rural Credit Fund, created by the present government, was first formed to cover the financial demands of the poorest producers. Even though it was touted as replacing BANADES, it no longer serves as a development instrument because of the high interest rates it wants to impose, and because of the political favoritism—easily predicted—that characterizes its banking procedures. Its professional capability has also decreased because its most technically experienced personnel have been replaced by less qualified people whose politics lean toward the Liberal Party.
The vast majority of Nicaraguan cattle raisers are small-to-medium producers. With their poorly fed cattle, full of enough parasites to stunt their growth, they have little institutional linkage with capital markets. They lack technology, and are in no position to contribute to a sustainable production system. Will they go on having to penetrate further and further into the agricultural frontier, home of Bosawás and Indio-Maíz, the two remaining Nicaraguan virgin rain forests?
Cows, credit and regional fairsNicaragua does not have the human, technological, economic and climatic conditions that made possible Europe's colossal production levels during the last four decades. But that does not mean that the country can continue following the present model. Is it possible to have a homegrown development model, one of more moderate production, which could contribute to changing the present tendencies and respond to the interests of the great mass of national cattle raisers?
An alternative model should be based on two principles. First, the level of production per land area must increase. This means more labor-intensive production systems are needed, as are more diversified farms (animals, trees, grains and/or produce). Second, there must be more effective linkage to available markets. Efficient and dependable linkage to the processing and marketing of cattle products and byproducts must be established. In Nicaragua large areas of pastureland are idle due to the scarcity of cattle. One alternative might be to import 10,000 breed cows from Honduras or another Central American country—even though they may have no more than passable genetic quality. This could help remedy the diminished state of our "national herd." If the cost of each cow is US$400, the total cost of the proposed purchase would only be some $4 million. The introduction of these animals into the various regions could be accompanied by the organization of regional cattle fairs in two or three important cattle-producing areas. This would permit an increase in the supply of cows—a capital good as fundamental as it is in short supply—and would promote trading at favorable prices. It could also be a forum for interchanging technical experience between the more advanced "rustic" ranchers and those who are even further behind technologically.
These fairs could be linked to simple and flexible credit packages, with more favorable payment terms and interests rates than those offered by commercial banks. Small-to-medium Honduran cattle raisers could also be invited. For the organization of these fairs, it would be necessary, of course, to enlist the support of an institution or development project.
The big national cattle fair held each year in Managua, should only be a complement to the local fairs in the cattle-raising departments. In the regional EXPICA fair, the cattle exhibited have high-quality genetic characteristics, but are very expensive. A breed cow can cost US$1,000-1,500, and a breed bull much more. EXPICA is an option only for the country's elite ranchers.
Simple practices, low-cost technologyNicaragua, with its small and weak economy, does not have the luxury of isolating itself from technological advances, but the technologies employed should correspond to its reality. Artificial insemination has been the key to increasing breed quality in countries that have more or less single-breed herds raised under very similar conditions. These countries also have veterinary services and little problem treating their cattle because they are maintained in enclosed areas. In Nicaragua, the breed herd is very heterogeneous, the cattle-breeding areas are spread over a large territory, and the cattle themselves are spread out over the pastureland. The gap between artificial insemination technology as developed in the industrial nations and its effective application in a country like our own is very wide.
In the short- and medium-term, increasing cattle-raising efficiency does not require huge capital investments or costly technology. As in other tropical countries, some cattle raisers can be found in Nicaragua who have already made significant progress using very simple practices. With changes in herds and pastures, they have increased milk and beef yields per land area. What have they done? They have given mineral salts to livestock in semitropical zones to keep them better fed. They have disinfected the umbilical area of newborn calves to reduce the calf death rate. They have dug wells in dry areas or constructed cheap forms of irrigation, guaranteeing water for the animals throughout the year. They have organized their grazing systems better, rotating pasturelands. They have looked for forage alternatives: cut hay in the dry months, legumes, etc. They have built simple installations to improve milking conditions and milk quality and to house calves during cold or rain. They have used new types of corral material, not the traditional barbed wire. They have controlled worm infestations so the cattle's hides are not ruined.
Farms with trees—true improvementsThe majority of land in Nicaragua used for pasture is not appropriate for agriculture; it is forestland. A cattle development model that increases the productivity per unit of foraging area would be very advantageous. It could free up pasturelands for multiple uses: orchards, vegetable cultivation, grain and wood production.
Pasture areas with low productivity rates—the higher areas with steeper slopes—could be used more efficiently. Those managed by raisers with enough cattle could be turned into systems that combine pasture, trees, crop cultivation and live fences. This system is associated with the pasturing of steers for beef production, with a low density of animals per acre.
Cattle need shade and the food provided by trees that grow wild or have been planted by the ranchers. Trees increase soil fertility and protect against erosion. More fertile soil means more and better pasture, which would permit more animals per acre and would increase their weight.
With adequate management, wood needed for the national industry could be produced on cattle land. Interest in foresting their farms will depend on producers being the ones who actually end up getting the income from the sale of the wood. Those who already combine cattle production with coffee and cacao would also be interested, since these crops require shade and a specific microclimate.
It is also necessary to improve processing techniques for cattle products. Increasing their value through new techniques would increase profits across the board and improve coordination between cattle producers and processors. Unused whey, for example, which could be returned by cheese producers to the cattle raisers, could be used to feed pigs. And if slaughterhouses and tanneries recognized the value of hides, cattle producers would handle their stock with more care.
A larger and more diverse supply of cattle products would have positive effects on other sectors of the economy as well. Increasing milk production would put more milk and cheese on the tables of rural and urban poor, guaranteeing better nutrition. By increasing supply and demand, the quality of these products would also increase. Today, most cheese producers do not pasteurize because the high cost of doing so is not compensated in the market of a country with such low salaries. Nicaragua currently exports 500 tons of cheese and 5,000 tons of powdered milk to Mexico, but even this does not cover for the weak technological capability of small milk processors. There is a lot to do and a lot to undo.
Cattle are CattleIn a country with such a long cattle-producing history and so much territory converted into pastureland, the revitalization of the industry is vital to our national economy. Erasmo González is a cattle rancher who has lived for 20 years in San Ignacio, Matiguás, in central Nicaragua. "Before, now, and always," he says, taking off his hat with serene conviction, "cattle are cattle." In Nicaragua, owning cattle is synonymous with having an income, something to defend against life's economic trials. Erasmo has just over 40 acres of land and milks 20-25 cows, which give about 40 liters of milk daily. This he sells to cheese makers for an average of about $20. Annually, he sells 10 to 15 calves and fattens 4 pigs with the whey he gets back from the cheese processors. Calculated in general terms, Erasmo's gross income is the córdoba equivalent of roughly $7,500 a year. This figure is 18 times greater than the average per-capita income of the majority of Nicaraguans, which is about $400 per year. Of course, this farmer is just one example of the thousands of small cattle raisers who are struggling to hang on to their herds and not be forced to sell off cattle to meet the needs of farm life and family. But it is a story that could be more generalized with the application of adequate policies.
Although the history of the cattle trade in Nicaragua is a very long one, it has experienced extremely little technological or economic change. It is necessary—downright urgent—to introduce change if we want to save what is left of our rainforests and if we wish to multiply the "Erasmos" of Nicaragua.