In Nicaragua, Farmers are Working to Make Cattle Ranching Sustainable

Through the ResCA program, cattle ranchers in Nicaragua are learning techniques to improve resilience to climate threats.

It’s 5:30 a.m. on a lush green farm in Boaco, Nicaragua. The sun has started to filter through the trees on the surrounding hillsides. Jeudin Francisco Mendoza Martinez is already awake, herding a small group of cows into a concrete structure at the base of the hill to be milked. The early morning air is still, punctuated only by the occasional bark from a nearby dog.

Jeudin’s family has owned cows for over 30 years, but they have faced many obstacles along the way. His father passed away when he was only 15, leaving his mother, Cleotilde Martinez, to take care of the 60-acre farm. “It’s just me and my son now,” Cleotilde acknowledges, pausing a moment to flash him an appreciative smile. Eight months ago, Cleotilde got sick and could no longer work. Since then, Jeudin has been taking over full management of the farm.

Looking out into the sea of green that surrounds the farm today, it’s hard to believe that this land could ever look any different. Yet in this region of Nicaragua, periods of severe drought have turned the landscape brown for months at a time — causing plants to wither in the parched earth and leaving farmers without a way to feed their cows or make a living.

An active cattle ranch in Boaco, Nicaragua
Jeudin and his family have 26 cows. Through the program, they learned a rotational grazing technique to maintain healthy pastures.

Ranching plays an important role in Nicaragua’s economy and is one of the main sources of income for many people in rural areas. However, the current industry is not productive and is extremely vulnerable to shifting weather and precipitation patterns. In this part of Nicaragua, climate change is expected to bring more prolonged dry seasons over the next few years, but the effects are already being felt today.

During the dry season, farmers like Jeudin struggle to grow enough forage for their cattle because of poor soil quality, high temperatures, and minimal rainfall. Without enough high-quality forage, the cows produce very little milk, and what little they do produce is low quality. During this time, farmers are often forced to sell their cattle for low prices or supplement the cows’ diet with purchased feed — an expensive option that cuts into profits.

We want [farmers] to see for themselves how the land and the business changes once you establish a forest.
Maryuri Sánchez, TechnoServe’s training specialist for ResCA

To improve farm productivity and to address the increasing threat of climate change, TechnoServe partnered with The Nature Conservancy, the Mexican dairy company LALA, and the nonprofit CIPAV on the ResCA project — an initiative to promote the adoption of intensive silvopastoral systems in two departments in Nicaragua (Boaco and Matagalpa). The program will eventually work with 718 ranchers and six milk cooperatives.

One of the program’s key goals is to help these ranchers adopt intensive silvopastoral systems (iSPS). These systems encourage the integration of trees, bushes, and grasses into grazing land. When cattle ranchers adopt intensive silvopastoral systems, their land becomes healthier and more productive, which leads to healthier, more productive cows and more stable production.

“At LALA, we believe that if we work together with ranchers to change their approach, we can all be more resilient to climate change. This is hard work because it requires ranchers to change their mentality, which doesn’t happen overnight. It implies continuous work and that is what we want to achieve with our producers through this project,” explains Eduardo Nieto, LALA Nicaragua country director.

Jeudin explains a chart for tracking cattle fertility
Jeudin explains the chart he developed to keep track of the fertility of each of his cows.

Farmers in the program are taught important methods for improving their resilience to climate threats. Before Jeudin and his family decided to join the program, they were skeptical about the importance of keeping the trees on their land. “When I was a kid, we cleared that land so we could play baseball,” Jeudin admits with a sheepish smile. He’s pointing toward a flat piece of land at the very top of the hill that overlooks his property. Through the program, they learned about the benefits of reforestation — including decreased soil erosion, improved water quality, and increased shade cover for the cows. Today, that piece of land is completely covered with trees.

“All of the farms [in Nicaragua] have great potential. The problem is that farmers don’t understand the benefits of the trees,” explains Maryuri Sánchez, TechnoServe’s training specialist for ResCA. “We want [farmers] to see for themselves how the land and the business changes once you establish a forest.”

We feel much better about our farm now, and people who visit tell us they can see the progress as well.
— Cleotilde Martinez, dairy farmer

Since joining the program, Jeudin has already seen an improvement in the productivity of his farm. “Our cows are much healthier now and are producing eight litres of milk per day on average,” he says. “Our goal is to eventually be producing 12 to 15 litres per cow per day.” Jeudin milks the cows twice per day and sells to a local cooperative called San Felipe. He has learned techniques that will allow him to produce enough food to support his cows year-round, offsetting some of differences in milk production between the wet and dry seasons.

ResCA supports the San Felipe cooperative by helping them strengthen their business model and promote climate resilience in their plans and policies. “We are also working hand in hand with the general manager and the board of directors of the San Felipe cooperative to improve milk quality and productivity,” explains Walther Navas, TechnoServe’s business advisor for ResCA.

In addition to training on environmental best practices, farmers also learn important business skills, such as bookkeeping, recordkeeping, farm income statements, and credit management. The program is holistic and works with stakeholders across the value chain, including dairy cooperatives, companies, suppliers, and donors.

For Jeudin and his mother, the impact of the program has been significant. They have used their additional income to invest back in their farm, purchasing new cows and building a roof over their barn. “We feel much better about our farm now,” Cleotilde says with a soft smile. “And people who visit tell us they can see the progress as well.”