Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Nicaragua- The Eternal Spring

Typical dairy cow and calf in Matagalpa
Written by Volunteer Daniel Flaherty

I had the opportunity in December of 2015 to volunteer on an assignment in Matagalpa, Nicaragua with Partners of The Americas. This was my first time to Latin America and the weather couldn’t have been better. The area, Matagalpa where I was assigned, was located in the mountains approximately a two hour drive north of the capital Managua. It was the beginning of the dry season with gorgeous sunny weather in the 70’s during the day and pleasant sleeping weather at night with no need for air conditioning.

The agriculture in the Matagalpa region is predominantly coffee plantations and small and medium size dairy and beef farms producing grass-fed beef, milk and cheese. Most of the farms I visited grazed hillside pastures for their cattle during the rainy season and grew forages, maize and sorghum on steep terrain to be made into silage and fed during the dry season when the pasture ran short. 

Farmer, CONAGAN technician and
myself in typical pasture
The purpose of my assignment was to evaluate the Progressa Program and provide technical assistance to the staff of The National Cattle Rancher Commission of Nicaragua (CONAGAN) to recognize best agricultural practices on cattle farms that are participating in the Program. The Progressa Program receives its funding from USDA which partners with Catholic Relief Services to implement the program. The Program cost shares best agricultural practices such as, forage choppers, corrals, covered milking centers, silos, latrines, wash basins, biogas and seeds for pasture improvement. The CONAGAN staff provides education and training to farmers to successfully implement and manage these best agricultural practices.

Every day was filled with several farm visits with a CONAGAN staff technician and my translator Pablo. The farms were small ranging from 10-50 Mezannos in size, raising between 6-40 cows, and milking between 1-6 cows. The cows were milked by hand once per day with the calf getting the milk the remainder of the day. The milk was either sold as fluid milk or made into cheese. The milk is taken by horseback to a collection point and taken to the creamery. Income from these farms is predominantly from milk and cheese sales and some crops.

Farmers, CONAGAN technician, my
translator and myself 
I visited farms that had practices implemented and farms where no implementation was started as a comparison. Every farmer with implementation that was interviewed was very pleased with the infrastructure constructed on their farm. The agricultural practices benefitted the farms in some of the following ways: 1. Forage choppers and silos allowed the farmers to harvest higher quality forage during the rainy season to be fed during the dry season when forage is in short supply. 2. Before covered milking centers were constructed, farmers struggled to milk in hygienic conditions especially during the rainy season where mud and manure could contaminate the milk. Several farmers stated that after the covered milking area was implemented that milk quality increased and one farmer mentioned that now he can sell to a co-operative that has high milk quality standards. All the farmers stated that they could milk more cows in these improved hygienic conditions. 3. Another practice that is implemented is biogas which not only has economic benefits but human health benefits. One farmer that was interviewed stated that before the biogas project was constructed his children were sick with pneumonia from the open fire for cooking. The manure from his few cows is now collected from the concrete pad under the covered milking center and placed in an underground bio-digester which produces methane gas and is piped to the house for the cooking range. The manure coming out of the digester is then used as fertilizer on the crop and pasture fields. The impact on this farm has been his children are healthier, his wife no longer has to gather firewood many kilometers away and it is sustainable.

Farmer displaying cheese product 
with CONAGAN technician
The farmers I interviewed were very forthcoming and I appreciated them opening up their farms for evaluation. I appreciate their patience with my lack of Spanish and giving thei time for the farm tours and interviews. I also want to recognize the CONAGAN technicians that organized the farm visits. They do an excellent job advising farmers and have a great working relationship with them. In addition, the Partners of the Americas staff and my translator were always there when you needed them. 

Finally, the Nicaraguan people were warm and very hospitable. They made my stay very pleasant. It is the people you meet on these assignments which makes it so rewarding.

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