It’s around noon, and we’re standing on a dairy farm at the Tropical Agriculture Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Costa Rica. In addition to classrooms and laboratories, CATIE has a 1,480-acre (600-hectare) farm producing coffee, sugarcane, beef and milk, and a forestry operation.
In the distance, we see a nearly perfect row of cows ambling toward the feeding area. The weather is crisp and cool—uncommon in this coastal Caribbean town—which may be the reason the cows are in no hurry to make it to their lunch date.
CATIE has 135 dairy cattle that live on an exceptional 180-acre (73-hectare) farm. The Rainforest Alliance Certified TM ranch is managed according to a sustainable standard that ensures the conservation of natural resources and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions while promoting the humane treatment of livestock and protecting the rights and well-being of workers and surrounding communities.
We visited the CATIE's dairy farm to learn what makes it different from a conventional cattle farm. Worldwide, livestock generate between 14.5 and 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions—mainly methane and nitrous oxide, which are more harmful to the climate than even CO2. Cattle ranching is also the leading cause of deforestation in tropical countries and an industry notorious for its animal abuse.
On our visit, we met with Alejandro Molina, the farm’s administrator, who explained that CATIE only raises livestock breeds adapted to the tropical weather conditions; as a result, they enjoy longer, healthier, and more productive lives. These breeds also graze more, favoring a natural and easily digestible diet, which is less expensive than traditional feed.
CATIE’s dairy cows spend most of the day in the pastures and consume an average of 88 lbs of fresh grass per day. While working toward Rainforest Alliance certification, CATIE planted more grazing pastures of more digestible grasses, began using organic fertilizers and implemented a rotational grazing pasture system to reduce land degradation. The remainder of the cows’ daily diet consists of 11 lbs of concentrate mixed with dry grass, honey, and various minerals. Molina says this is a "delicacy" for the cattle.
As we walked the fields, we learned that CATIE has made important moves to reforest its grasslands. Today there are an average of 40 trees per 1,300 feet of land on the farm including palms, timber, and fruit trees. These trees play several key roles. They provide shade for the herd, reducing heat stress and increasing milk yield. The trees also capture a significant amount of carbon dioxide, helping the farm to reduce its carbon footprint. Finally, they provide food, habitat, and connectivity for many the species of birds and mammals that cross the farm, which is part of a biological corridor that connects the country’s central volcanic mountain range, Cordillera Volcánica Central with the Cordillera de Talamanca.
" Certification has allowed us to lead by example and to demonstrate that we are sustainable and profitable—that it is possible to align productivity with conservation.”José Joaquín Campos, CATIE
Our next stop was the feeding and milking parlor, where the cows were heading when we first arrived. This new facility was built with more space and full shade to ensure that the animals are comfortable while eating or waiting to be milked. It’s also an entirely green building. Wastewater is treated and the farm uses the 1.2 tons of manure it generates to produce organic compost and bio-fertilizer. CATIE also installed a biodigestor, which converts the energy stored in the manure into electricity for mechanical milking. The building also features solar panels to heat water and a set of tanks to collect rainwater—during the rainy season, these tanks harvest up to 2,000 gallons of water per day.
All of these practices have reduced the farm’s electricity use by 50 percent and generated significant savings on fertilizer and water. The farm plans to add another biodigestor and hopes to soon reduce its electricity consumption by 90 percent.
"This is a commercial farm, so all the improvements that we make have to be profitable and generate excesses for the university," says CATIE Director José Joaquín Campos. "Certification has allowed us to lead by example and to demonstrate that we are sustainable and profitable—that it is possible to align productivity with conservation."
In 2013, CATIE produced 185,000 gallons of milk—this year, they expect to produce 211,000 gallons. All of this milk is sold to Dos Pinos, Costa Rica’s largest dairy business. In the past, Dos Pinos has recognized CATIE for the quality of its milk.
CATIE is also committed to protecting the rights and well-being of its workers and ensures that they wear protective equipment and are provided with adequate housing. The farm also makes a special effort to be a good neighbor to the surrounding community. The families of workers and local residents are invited to join the farm’s reforestation and environmental initiatives, and CATIE offers internship opportunities for local students and provides training sessions to support local milk producers.
Our visit ended with the second milking of the day. One by one, the cows stood passively as workers gently cleaned their udders and connected them to the milking machines. The job is done in just five minutes. Then, the next lady in line takes her turn.