Cows as mobile, solar-powered catalytic converters

Zoraida Calle from CIPAV. Photo by Austin Lord.

Our first panel talk this morning came from an organization I heard many, many good things about, CIPAV (Center for Research in Sustainable Systems in Agricultural Production – Fundación Centro para la Investigación en Sistemas Sostenibles de Producción Agropecuaria). This group has developed strategies that integrate shrubs for cattle fodder, fruit trees, and timber into strategies they call intensive silvopastoral systems. These systems show dramatic increases in production for the farmer without using chemical inputs. If you think I’m trying to sell you on their work, you’re right. Indulge me for a moment while I tell you about what is so exciting about their strategies to improve the environment and livelihoods together.

I spent this past summer in Cesar Colombia, doing research on oil palm plantations. However, I couldn’t ignore the land use around me, which was typically low density cattle farming. Let’s clarify low density – it means less than one cow per hectare (2.4 acres). In total, that means a little more than 1 cow per five acres, resulting in large tracts of lands with low grasses with maybe a few trees. These lands become degraded with run-off and often are overgrazed with little value for the people farming. So there are the combined challenges of poverty and environmental degradation.

CIPAV’s systems can increase the output for beef by five times and dairy by SEVEN times. At the same time, they help farmers diversify their income sources (fruit, timber, etc), increase biodiversity, and improve water quality. Their system reduces temperatures by 12 degrees, which actually makes the cows more efficient because they don’t experience as much heat stress (trust me it’s seriously hot in some of these places). Even the milk and meat out of these systems is higher quality with higher omega-3 fats, so it’s even better for the people who eat it.

Now if this system is so great, why hasn’t everyone started doing it? First, it’s a risk and it’s not what farmers know about how to raise cattle. CIPAV works with pilot farms in the region where farmers can see their neighbors implementing the system and providing technical assistance. Second, implementing these systems requires some start-up capital – $1,000-$2,000 per hectare. CIPAV provides credit to farmers, so they can overcome this hurdle.

CIPAV has decided that they want to change the paradigm of cattle as a destructive force against forests.