[This post was first published in the Fairfax NZ Sunday Star Times on 8 June 2014]
This week I am writing from Bogota in Colombia, where I am leading a team of five Kiwis on an MFAT-funded dairy design project. This is part of New Zealand’s ‘Agricultural Diplomacy’ program, which fits within New Zealand’s broader official development program. It is also linked to developing links between New Zealand and Colombia, and the proposed development of a free trade agreement. New Zealand already sells electric fencing, seeds and other farm inputs here in Colombia. The project we are designing will run for an initial four to five years.
Bogota is a city of 8 million people set in a high altitude valley at 2500 metres, with Andean mountains on either side. It is the Colombian capital, and has great contrasts of wealth and poverty.
Many New Zealanders will associate Colombia with cocaine and violence rather than dairying, but Colombia has 400,000 small scale dairy farmers who produce about 6 billion litres of milk. Most of these farms are at altitudes between 2400 metres and 3600 metres above sea level, and all lie within a few degrees of the equator. Daily temperatures are typically 17 – 22 degrees C and at night time there can be frosts. Out in the sun, the radiation at these altitudes is intense. Although the locals talk of summer and winter, the seasonal differences are small compared to what we know in New Zealand.
Most of the farms are very small – typically just a few hectares, and the average herd size is only 12 cows. Nearly all milking is undertaken by hand out in the paddock. The cows are very tame and come quietly to the milked, with the reward being half to one kg of concentrate feed.
The Colombian Government has looked at the New Zealand system of pastoral farming and believes that there are valuable lessons to be applied in Colombia. They talk of the ‘New Zealand model’. However, it is not a situation of simply transferring New Zealand technologies. Everything will have to be adapted for Colombia. There have been too many cases of failure when New Zealanders have taken their technologies internationally, without fully understanding the complexities of other environments.
From the Colombian Government perspective, the ‘New Zealand model’ is not just about technology. It is the way that the technologies come together to form profitable farming systems, and the way that both milk and information flows within the supply chain linking farmers to markets. It includes education and extension, and the way farmers learn from other farmers. In essence, it is about some of the things that make our dairy system different to what occurs in many other countries, but which we tend to take for granted. It is very much about the ‘whole farm model’ and an efficient supply chain.
Many of the soils here in Colombia are strongly acid and this leads to aluminium toxicity. Kikuyu grass – originally from Kenya – grows particularly well but with kikuyu it is very difficult to maintain feed quality. Yorkshire fog is a European grass that grows well, but also has limited feed quality. Getting clovers to grow can be a challenge in many of the soils. Much of the underlying geology is sedimentary, pushed up by tectonic plates to form the spine of the Andes. But there are also lots of volcanoes, and each eruption can produce a unique mineral balance in the soil.
Our group covers soils, pastures, animal husbandry, milk quality, farming systems and economics. Two of the team speak Spanish fluently. The rest of us can read Spanish and have survival speaking skills. All of us have previous South American experience, but Colombia is something different again.
As an aid project, our focus is on the poorest farmers. The small scale presents particular challenges, particularly in relation to milk quality. We will work mainly with farmer associations, comprising groups of 20 to more than 100 farmers who transport their milk by donkey, motor bike and sometimes truck to a central chilling station that they own collectively. These associations are a form of small scale co-operative.
Our aim will be to increase both milk production and quality. Given the small scale of the farms, the hand milking system can actually be very efficient and cows certainly like it. So we won’t be in any hurry to suggest machines. With milking in the paddock, there are also no effluent issues to deal with. Over time, the farms will probably get bigger through leasing and land sales, but that is not a pre-requisite for progress.
For me, visiting Colombia is an amazing experience. Many previous prejudices have been shattered. The challenges are immense but so is the potential. It is possible to perceive an industry in the future that will produce two to three times the present production levels and be similar in size to the New Zealand industry, but it will be a long journey to get there.