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In regenerative agriculture and livestock, the goose that lays the «golden eggs resides»

A marvelous bird’s-eye view of the Alta Vista lagoon.

December 7th, 2023

Regenerative agriculture and livestock are emerging as fundamental approaches for the sustainable present and future of food production in Bolivia. The adoption of regenerative practices not only restores soil fertility and enhances ecosystem health but also promotes coexistence with wildlife, such as jaguars, and paves the way for a healthy, pesticide-free life that benefits the planet.

raul-dominguez

Raúl Domínguez

Journalist

Livestock experts say that, so far, there is no better animal dewormer synthesized by humans than Ivermectin. In fact, the widely used anthelmintic in livestock was one of the main allies in the fight against COVID-19, although strong opposition to its human use has also grown, especially from doctors and scientists around the world.

The truth is that yes, Ivermectin is the best veterinary parasiticide for killing parasites of various species, according to specialists in the field. However, it is the worst enemy of organisms living in the soil when livestock manure falls on the ground. Scientifically, this fauna of living beings, mostly microscopic, is called microbiota, where bacteria, fungi, earthworms, and dung beetles, among the most important, can be found.

The latter, commonly known in the eastern region of Bolivia as «etore,» is a kind of superhero of the soil because it molds spheres from decomposing dung, doubling their size, rolling them into their burrows, where their offspring will feed on the fungus that will form from the matter.

However, if the manure contains Ivermectin, the beetle will not process it because it means the extinction of its offspring and itself. But the harm does not end there; it only begins for the ecosystem around it. The small etore will leave that field and will not contribute to the decomposition of animal waste, will not dig tunnels through which water seeps to maintain soil moisture, reducing the quality of the grass for proper cattle feeding.

It may seem like a small-scale apocalyptic movie, but it happens on most livestock properties in Bolivia and South America. This is what is called intensive livestock farming, where cattle are kept under artificially created conditions, with the aim of increasing meat production and other animal products like beef and milk in the shortest time possible.

In Santa Cruz, the Chiquitano region, located in the northeast and southeast of the department, is one of the most complex due to the lack of water and the fragility of the soil. But for the past four years, producers like Álvaro Guzmán have begun to apply the methodologies offered by regenerative livestock and agriculture, which are nothing more than the search for the recovery of soil fertility and the restoration of nutrient, energy, and water cycles.

Guzmán owns El Jaral estate, known for being Bolivia’s first demonstrative regenerative private ranch. He is also the president of the Senepol Cattle Breeders Association, the CREA Misiones group, and a member of the board of the Bolivian Sustainable Meat Forum (MBCS).

Alta Vista safeguards the lungs of Santa Cruz.

El Jaral is located eight kilometers from Concepción, the capital of the Ñuflo de Chávez province, where Álvaro Guzmán carries out the commercial and reproductive breeding of Senepol cattle. Five years ago, Guzmán began to discover the benefits of regenerative livestock, initially with the implementation of Voisin Rational Grazing (PRV), a grazing management system standardized by the Frenchman André Marcel Voisin, the creator of «The Universal Laws of Rational Grazing» and outlined in his book «Productivity of the Grass» (1956).

Regenerative agriculture emerges as a comprehensive solution that goes beyond livestock. It focuses on practices such as crop rotation, legume management, and soil conservation to enhance agricultural productivity and mitigate negative environmental impacts .

Guzmán started by diagnosing the capacity and abilities of his property, which mostly has very fragile compacted soil, or what is known as «pampa monte» with low to moderate fertility, very vulnerable to fires, which kill microbiota.

The rancher did the math and showed that the trend was decreasing in forage and livestock production. Investigations led him to delve deeper into regenerative livestock management, which motivates positive effects in soil quality, the environment, and consequently, meat production. At El Jaral, a steer destined for meat is sold for $US 500 to 600, and a breeding bull for $US 2,200 to 2,500, so profitability levels must be optimal.

Generally, the idea of environmental care in agriculture or livestock is in conflict because -erroneously thought- it would represent an increase in costs and a decrease in business productivity. «I have experienced the opposite. Taking care of the soil actually improves business profitability. In other words, taking care of the environment appreciates it and returns it to you with improved profitability,» reflects Álvaro Guzmán.

At the same time, he cites, as an example, the dung beetles and microorganisms that work for the soil for free; trees provide shade and well-being to animals. «Therefore, animals have a better quantity and quality of food, and it becomes a benevolent system, in which environmental quality on the property improves, animals improve, and profitability improves, that is, it is a virtuous circle that ends up being very satisfying for a rancher,» highlights.

The place where the veterinarian attends to the cattle, in El Jaral.

BET ON SUSTAINABILITY

The enthusiasm is evident when listening to Álvaro Guzmán speak. It’s as if he has found the goose that lays the golden eggs in livestock and wants to share it with the world because it’s not just about economic advantages but also benefits for the environment and, obviously, personal satisfaction. «Livestock does a great job,» he summarizes while recommending that all livestock farmers comply with Voisin’s laws.

He explains that ruminants fertilize the soil through dung and urine but should not contain chemicals, especially those from dewormers to combat helminths, ticks, or horn flies, which are the most common pests for livestock.

«All these products usually kill soil microbiota. The dung beetle, for example, does a very interesting job in incorporating surface dung to a depth of up to 50 centimeters, which helps water infiltration and improves moisture retention. Therefore, the soil also becomes more resilient to droughts, and consequently, this natural fertilization process makes both livestock and dung beetles and other microorganisms improve soil structure, resulting in better forage production,» explains Guzmán.

Regenerative livestock farming aims to reverse soil degradation. By implementing methods such as Voisin Rational Grazing (VRG), it seeks to restore soil fertility, revive natural cycles, and improve productivity sustainably .

So, the focus in regenerative livestock is not only to care for the soil and the environment in general but also to adapt animals to the management system. It involves providing well-being to animals with shade and clean water, preventing them from drinking from puddles where animals also defecate and urinate, causing the proliferation of parasites in their intestines, which would lead to the vicious circle of Ivermectin.

«In this way, soils, forage production, animal welfare, and not only animal productivity but also the health of the entire system – the environment, livestock, pastures, workers, owners – all integrated, working to improve the entire system,» says Álvaro Guzmán.

The cattle produced at El Jaral have various destinations. As a «cabin,» they sell breeding animals with high genetic value; commercial animals are sold at «weaning» for another producer to fatten them, and cull cows – those that are not the best for reproduction but have good meat – are sent to the slaughterhouses.

Guzmán details that the operation of El Jaral for one year has an approximate cost of $100,000, including administration to the sale of the final product. With regenerative livestock farming, the owner has demonstrated a 20% cost savings by avoiding the purchase of pesticides, primarily.

He highlights that undoubtedly, applying PRV (Voisin Rational Grazing) is the best thing that can happen to a field and its pastures. It involves applying its four basic laws: rest time, occupancy time, maximum yield, and regular requirement. In the first law, to allow the grass cut by the animal’s bite to achieve its maximum productivity, there must be enough time between two cuts made by the animal in the same place, allowing the grass to store the necessary reserves for regrowth and vigorous development.

In the second law, the total occupation time of a paddock by the livestock should be short enough that the grass cut at the beginning of the occupation time is not cut again by the animal’s bite before they leave the paddock.

In the third law, it is necessary to help animals with higher nutritional demands graze as much as possible and ensure the grass is of the best quality. Finally, the fourth law states that for an animal to yield regularly, it should not stay in the same paddock for more than three days.

PRV involves subdividing the grazing area into small paddocks and providing clean, fresh water to the animals. It encompasses various factors, from pasture management to animal health, environmental conservation, and the management of the entire production system. The advantage of confining livestock in small spaces is that they don’t walk much and gain weight more efficiently.

«The first problem I had after starting to reduce my expenses on healthcare and weed control was that I had too much grass left over. I needed to add more livestock; now I add 60% more animal load, which also represents an increase in income,» Álvaro Guzmán reflects.

Regenerative livestock farming not only considers the rancher but also the livestock.

ALSO FOR AGRICULTURE

The Foundation for the Conservation of the Chiquitano Dry Forest (FCBC) is an institution concerned with reconciling human activities with nature conservation. In this regard, it has the Alta Vista Tropical Dry Forest Studies Center. A few months ago, in collaboration with the Cooperation of Canada, CREA Misiones, and FCBC, it launched an illustrated publication of 81 pages titled «Concepts and Experiences of Regenerative Livestock Farming for the Chiquitania.» This publication aims to introduce improved production principles and practices to the agricultural sector in Chiquitania to mitigate the serious effects of forest conversion into productive land without clear sustainability criteria.

The author of the publication, Hermes Justiniano, the general coordinator of Alta Vista, argues that the concept of regenerative agriculture and livestock arises from a search for better ways to apply solutions to livestock breeding and the cultivation of different species useful to humans, based on natural solutions.

«It starts from the premise and understanding that the soil is the beginning of everything, of all productivity. Plants arise from the soil, plants are eaten by animals, humans eat plants and animals, and in the end, everything that is done in one way or another begins or ends in the soil,» Justiniano reflects.

Caring for the environment through regenerative livestock farming enhances the business’s profitability. The diversity of plants, natural soil fertilization, and harmony with nature result in a virtuous circle that benefits animals, the environment, and the rancher’s profitability .

He says that the concept is not something new, and several practices, when combined, have an impressive effect. «This effect is a regeneration of organic matter in the soil, microorganisms, and the availability of nutrients and minerals for crops,» he emphasizes.

He gives the example of a farmer who clears the soil, burns plant material to make way for plowing. «With this practice, a large part of the organic matter on the soil is burned, leaving it unprotected. And when it is tilled or harrowed, the soil structure is destroyed, and when it rains, water infiltration is cut off, preventing it from being stored in the subsoil,» he explains.

A second aspect, he adds, is to maintain ground cover to protect it from the effects of the sun, rain, or wind. Regenerative agriculture recommends leaving crop residues from previous crops or using cover crops or green manure.

The third aspect is to abandon monoculture practices, which seriously contribute to soil deterioration due to nutrient depletion, often compensated with agrochemicals that, as widely demonstrated, harm soil microfauna. «Now there is knowledge about planting, for example, legumes in between rows of corn and other crops. These leguminous plants help enrich the soil with nitrogen,» Hermes Justiniano points out.

The recent publication by FCBC emphasizes that legumes, including beans and soybeans, have unparalleled advantages for reducing the use of herbicides. Legumes are especially important because they serve a dual purpose: capturing carbon and nitrogen from the air, sharing it with the microorganisms in their surroundings and with the roots of neighboring plants, promoting growth vigor, and especially providing protein components that are later consumed by livestock.

Most legumes have deep, subsoiling roots that loosen the soil, allowing grasses to penetrate more easily into the deeper layers of the soil. Grasses are usually preferred by livestock as they are more palatable than legumes, especially during the rainy season. During the dry season, when grasses become lignified, legumes remain green and become more attractive and a better nutritional option for animals. However, when the legume/grass ratio is high, it is necessary to gradually acclimate the livestock to its consumption due to the risk of bloat, as the rumen flora is not accustomed to such protein richness.

«Corn is like dessert for worms and grasshoppers, and they do a lot of damage. But if there are several plants in between and they can be sown a little later than corn, insects get distracted with these other plants,» says Justiniano, highlighting that these shrubs also serve as biological controllers by attracting predators, pollinators, and a range of other insects that create a balance against potential pest attacks.

He adds that as this experience is repeated systematically year after year, organic matter reserves in the soil increase, much like what happens in a natural forest or grassland, where there is a balance of species and microorganisms.

Regenerative agriculture in livestock is essentially the same, but applied to pastures. When only one type of grass is planted, it harms the soil. Therefore, to keep microorganisms alive and maintain soil fertility, several grass species should be sown alongside legumes and other plant families.

Hermes Justiniano believes that these legumes should be planted before sowing grass or a corn crop. «Some of these plants need to be controlled, in some cases, plowed or rolled to allow direct sowing. So, this issue, as simple as it may seem, is also delicate in the sense that if you do one of these things but not the others, it doesn’t work,» he explains.

In this way, the subsoil accumulates organic matter, carbon, and captures carbon dioxide, which is harmful to the ozone layer. «So, it’s a mitigation, a way to counteract global warming. Obviously, if only a few of us do it, it has no effect, but if it becomes widespread, then it has a planetary impact,» emphasizes Hermes Justiniano.

COEXISTENCE WITH THE JAGUAR

One of the principles of regenerative agriculture and livestock farming, at least as advocated by the FCBC, is coexisting with wildlife and… with jaguars (Panthera Onca). Many cattle ranchers consider the large feline of the Americas one of their main enemies because as grazing areas expand, the hunting of calves increases. And, generally, the solution is to go out and hunt the jaguar.

For Hermes Justiniano, there is a way to manage cattle so that jaguars don’t take away calves or, at least, not in increasing numbers. One of the strategies is to keep the young cattle near human habitation and, finally, install electric fences in the corral when the «tiger» exhibits cunning behavior.

«All of this is additional work, but it is known that when there are no jaguars in the area, other types of problems begin to arise in the wilderness, such as overpopulation of rodents and animals that harm the forest. So, if, from time to time, a jaguar appears on a property and eats a young bull or heifer, they should not be killed; in fact, it should be welcomed.»

Regenerative livestock farming advocates for coexistence with wildlife, including jaguars. Proper livestock management and strategies, such as electric fences, are proposed to reduce conflicts .

Protecting part of the forest is also part of this holistic vision of food production in harmony with respect for nature. A sudden change in temperature or a «cold front» that causes hypothermia in the cattle is detrimental to livestock production. To address this, it is recommended to leave a piece of forest on the property, which is used as a windbreak and shelter for the herd.

In Alta Vista, it has been demonstrated that, in winter, in a wooded area, the temperature is higher than in an open area. Three years ago, the FCBC, with Canadian financing, installed regenerative demonstration plots on this property, complete with all the elements for nature conservation.

Experiments were conducted with legumes and grass mixtures, cattle rotation, and electric fences, which were replicated on seven other ranches. Good results have prompted other funders to show interest in «novel» soil and soybean cultivation practices. «We are launching a two-year project that can be extended for another three years, involving large-scale farmers, around 40 properties for experimental plots covering a total of 1,000 hectares per year,» says Hermes Justiniano.

Agriculture constructs channels to bring water from reservoirs to its crops.

THE DEPARTMENTAL GOVERNMENT CAN ALSO CONTRIBUTE

The Departmental Autonomous Government of Santa Cruz, through the Departmental Agricultural Service (Sedag), intends to revive a program called Good Livestock Practices, in which it aims to include regenerative livestock farming.

Felipe Mendieta, director of Sedag, announced that he will bring together all interested entities and individuals to work together. «It is necessary to start considering regenerative practices and also to work towards more demanding markets that require meat or products from sustainable practices rather than deforestation,» he notes.

At the moment, the Santa Cruz government – Mendieta explains – does not have sufficient resources to finance extensive programs, but the initial plan is to bring together institutions such as the FCBC, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), or the German Cooperation (GIZ). «But the final word lies with the cattle rancher; we need to involve people who are convinced, so that the data we have are the most adapted to our environment,» he proposes.

Furthermore, the importance of conserving wooded areas on properties as windbreaks and livestock shelters is emphasized, contributing to a holistic approach to sustainable production .

At the same time, he emphasizes that the concept of regenerative practices needs to be expanded, even beyond the economic perspective, because in these times, sustainability of a system must be sought. «This practice, of course, can be adapted throughout the department because soil degradation exists in each of the 56 municipalities of Santa Cruz,» he admits.

Further along this path is the CREA Misiones group, a member of the Bolivian Association of Regional Agricultural Experimentation Consortia (CREA Bolivia), with groups throughout the country. Álvaro Guzmán is the president of the group that brings together 13 agricultural producers from San Javier, Concepción, and a couple of institutions working in the southern part of the city of Santa Cruz.

The focus, according to Guzmán, is to learn from each other, sharing experiences that lead to improvements in regenerative livestock practices. «We have a common methodology, which involves getting to know the property and its needs, understanding the owner’s problems by touring the ranch and discussing the issues they face to help find solutions,» he reveals.

The Bolivian Sustainable Meat Board (MBCS) also contributes to the promotion of sustainable livestock practices. It includes the Federation of Cattlemen of Santa Cruz (Fegasacruz), its counterpart in Beni (FEGABENI), the Association of Cebu Cattle Breeders (Asocebú), as well as meat processing companies such as Frigor, Fridosa, and commercial entities like Unión Agronegocios, Fexpocruz, Sedag, and WWF. «We all sit at the same table to promote policies for the expansion of sustainable livestock and meat production,» explains Guzmán.

Cattle ranchers and farmers who have adopted regenerative practices believe that one day it will be possible to consume pesticide-free foods. They are confident that companies that sell such foods will provide traceability to purchase products from ranches that use regenerative and environmentally friendly systems.

The trend is growing worldwide, but in Bolivia, it has advanced very little, although there are some positive signs. They are calling on consumers to recognize the effort, and authorities to grant certification to achieve the goal of producing food in harmony with nature.

***

Shade has disappeared from various places in Santa Cruz.

The present research has been conducted by Revista Nómadas, with the support of WWF Bolivia.

STAFF:

DIRECTION: Roberto Navia. JOURNALIST: Raúl Domínguez. VIDEO EDITING AND SOUND PRODUCER: Andrés Navia. PHOTOGRAPHS: Karina Segovia. SOCIAL MEDIA EDITOR: Lisa Corti. WEB DEVELOPER: Richard Osinaga.

©2023

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