Dairy cows on Fazenda Leite Verde in Bahia, Brazil. (Photo: Facebook)

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How a Cow Can Help the Climate

An agricultural method imported from New Zealand could be one answer to Brazil’s deforestation crisis.
May 15, 2015· 8 MIN READ
New York–based Brendan Borrell has written for Scientific American, Smithsonian, Slate, Bloomberg Businessweek, Nature, and The New York Times.

BAHIA STATE, Brazil—Grande Sertão Veredas National Park got its name from João Guimarães Rosa’s sprawling poetic novel about the bandit gangs and cattle ranchers who lived in the lawless sertão, or outback, in the early 20th century. Today the park preserves a piece of this myth-infused region, a savanna that once covered more than a quarter of Brazil’s territory and harbors 5 percent of the world’s species. The tracks of tapirs, jaguars, maned wolves, giant anteaters, and wild horses can be found in the dirt roads here.

But the park is now an island of wilderness in a sea of monocrop farms. Much of the land outside Grande Sertão Veredas has been razed for cattle pasture or converted for farming soy, coffee, and eucalyptus, which is burned for charcoal. Less than half of the dry forests, brush, and grasslands in this savanna, known as the Cerrado (pronounced “sey-HA-do”), remains intact.

Help has arrived in the unlikely form of a dairy farmer from New Zealand named Simon Wallace. Using a technique imported from his homeland, Wallace aims to reverse the process of deforestation and high-carbon cattle rearing that’s prevalent in Brazil and develop island farms amid a sea of wilderness. The technique leverages increased efficiency so that more dairy can be produced from significantly less pasture, reducing pressure to clear wilderness and allowing more native habitat to stand.

Wallace’s farm here, Fazenda Leite Verde (“green milk farm”), has been able to produce 10 times the volume of milk of a typical producer in Brazil’s main dairy farming region, known as the Minas Triangle, about 500 miles to the south. As a result, he’s been able to leave 80 percent of the farm’s 5,500 hectares in its natural state as habitat. The technique, known as intensification, could provide an alternative model for development in this region—where the rate of deforestation exceeds that of the Amazon rainforest—that’s both environmentally and economically sustainable. The milk Wallace’s company, Leitíssimo (“ the milkiest”), sells is of a higher quality than other products on the market in Brazil, so it can charge a higher price—which should make the system attractive to other dairy farmers in the tropics.

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According to the company’s rough calculations, if all 32.1 billion liters per year of Brazilian milk were produced with Wallace’s methods, the industry could reduce its land use by 24.5 million hectares—an area the size of Italy. If that land were allowed to return to its native state, it could absorb between 6 billion and 10 billion metric tons of our carbon dioxide emissions. With all of humanity emitting about 40 billion tons per year, and about 15 percent of greenhouse gases worldwide coming from the meat and dairy industry, what happens on this dairy farm could affect all of us.

So far, observers are impressed. “If more people follow this model in tropical countries, it can reduce the dairy industry’s impact on the environment,” says Victor Cabrera, a Peruvian-born dairy scientist at the University of Wisconsin who has reviewed Leitíssimo’s numbers. “This is great work; there’s no doubt about it.”

As an irrigation system cycles around the pasture, cows are moved from section to section, eating the grass and fertilizing the soil. The technique enables the farm to produce more milk on less land, boosting profits while preserving the wildlife- and carbon-rich Cerrado region.

About 20 miles from the park’s border, Wallace, a tall, pale man who favors a weather-worn cowboy hat, squints into the sun, surveying the Cerrado landscape. In the distance, his brown-and-white-splotched cattle graze on a green pasture carved out of the brush.

“The tropical system is fabulous,” he says in a thick accent. “Twenty-seven hundred hours of sunshine [a year], marvelous water, and sheer productivity.” Dairying in Bahia, Wallace brags, is like driving a “biological Ferrari.”

Fazenda Leite Verde is in the far-southwest corner of Bahia state,
500 miles from Brazil's main dairy-producing region in Minas
Gerais. (Map: Google Maps)

Wallace shares the belief of many conservationists that the most practical way to slow deforestation while feeding a growing population is by getting the most food possible out of every hectare of land devoted to agriculture.

So he set out while in his 20s to improve environmental and working standards in the milk business. Now 42, Wallace comes from a family of dairy farmers back in New Zealand; his father had a business exporting dairy cattle bred for tropical environments. After earning a master’s degree in philosophy and spending a few years in London and Spain, Wallace decided in the early aughts to move into milk, and he began researching countries where he could start a business. “I thought Brazil was a place of opportunity and hope,” he says.

Brazil is the world’s fifth-largest consumer of milk, and demand for a high-quality product has grown as the population has become wealthier and moved off farms and into cities over the last few decades. Wallace drummed up support for his endeavor among a quirky group of socially minded investors in New Zealand.

Because land prices are high there, farmers have come up with a variety of ways to get the most out of relatively small plots. Brazil, Wallace realized, had the opposite problem: Land was so cheap farmers simply cleared whatever land they needed. It didn’t matter if the pasture was low-quality because there was so much of it. The industry might get more efficient eventually, but by then the carbon sink of wild Brazil would become a carbon source as its vegetation was cut—and the country’s biological heritage would be lost. It needed to make a quantum leap.

If more people follow this model in tropical countries, it can reduce the dairy industry’s impact on the environment.

Victor Cabrera, assistant professor of dairy management, University of Wisconsin

Bahia state, in Brazil’s arid east, isn’t much of a dairying region, but Wallace found that the basin around Grande Sertão Veredas National Park had an abundant supply of water, and the air temperature dropped to the 50s at night. He would be 300 miles north of any major milk producer in the country—a risk, in that maybe the others knew something that he didn’t, but also an opportunity, in that he would be able to sell in both the capital, Brasília, and northeastern cities like Salvador and Recife, where dairy demand was poorly served.

From the beginning, Wallace made it clear to his investors that his aim went beyond maximizing profitability. The first clause of the shareholder agreement states that among Leitíssimo’s goals are “to lift the living and working standards of people working in the Brazilian dairy industry” and “to set high standards relating to environmental management and animal husbandry.” Little did he realize that it would take him almost a decade to get his first bottle of Leitíssimo milk onto shelves. “Luckily, our investors were patient,” he says.

Leitíssimo's CEO, native New Zealander Simon Wallace, inside the bottling facility, which is on the property where the milk is produced. (Photo: Brendan Borrell)

Wallace wants to show off his farm’s most important product—grass—so he steps over a strand of electric fence enclosing a circular pasture and plucks a handful, pointing out its bright green hue. Without grass, there would be no milk—and the astonishing speed at which the grass grows here accounts for a large part of the dairy’s success. A beneficial climate is one factor; the other secret to the farm’s productivity is center-pivot irrigation, a method common in the U.S. for crops such as cotton, soy, and potatoes but seldom used for pasture. A metal pipe, with an array of sprinklers distributed along its length, stretches 1,600 feet from the pasture’s center to its edge. The sprinkler system is moved incrementally throughout the day by a series of motorized wheels to water the circular pasture. But the whole pasture isn’t used at once. “It’s like a pizza,” Wallace says. The cows are fenced into one “slice” until they’ve eaten all its grass. Then they move on to the next one.

Beneath the pivots and the eternal sunshine, the soil cranks out 44 tons of grass per hectare per year—an astonishing amount compared with the 15 tons that’s typical in New Zealand, where there’s considerably less sunshine, or even the 20 tons the average Brazilian farm produces. Wallace must add a lot of nitrogen fertilizer to achieve those numbers, but the amount is carefully calibrated to the growth rate of the grass, limiting the pollution of the surrounding environment. The pasture, which is measured before and after every grazing, provides the cattle with about 86 percent of their food; corn purchased from neighboring farms supplements their diet. The farm produces fewer liters of milk per cow than U.S. dairy operations, but thanks to all that grass, Leite Verde beats the Yankees on a per-hectare basis by squeezing in many more cows on a smaller plot of land.

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Irrigating cattle pasture is standard practice in New Zealand but relatively uncommon in the rest of the world, where dairy cattle are fed corn and other grains when the grass isn’t growing. However, the New Zealand model has been adopted successfully at Hawai’i Dairy Farms on Kaua’i and at Greenstone Grazing in northeast Georgia. Other temperate zone dairy farms have experimented with center-pivot irrigation when grain prices have risen, but it is all but unknown among dairy farmers in the tropics, partly because of the capital investment required to set it up. Wallace, like a good Ferrari mechanic, has fine-tuned his system for this region, taking advantage of the abundant water and sunshine, which allows grass to grow as green July as in January. Leitíssimo has 6,000 cows—all reared without antibiotics or hormones—on eight pivots, which are clustered to create wildlife corridors through the property.

The farm’s management structure is also unusual. Each pasture operates as an autonomous entity, with a manager and workers living in company-built houses around the perimeter and in walking distance of the milking parlor. Wallace wants employees to get to know their cows and have a stake in the success of their unit. Like his workers, Wallace lives in a breezy concrete-block home with a view of the pasture on one side and the vast Cerrado on the other. The company built and finances the operation of a bilingual school for the children of employees on the property. In the school cafeteria, a photo-collage shows a younger, shirtless Wallace arm wrestling with workers.

Although Brazil is home to large-scale farming of soy and other export crops, about half the country’s milk still comes from small farms, where productivity is low and the pay is pitiful. Leitíssimo says it pays employees about 3.6 times what the average dairy worker in Brazil receives, which it’s able to do partly by efficiency—Wallace says the farm produces two to three times more milk per worker than the large dairy farms of Minas Gerais—and partly by vertical integration, bottling and distributing the product itself. Each day, 45,000 liters of ultra-pasteurized shelf-stable milk roll in recyclable bottles out of a factory right on the property. (Rather than clearing savanna for the bottling plant, Wallace situated it on marginal land that was once a pine plantation.) With a higher butterfat content than competing shelf-stable milks available in Brazil —another result of high-quality pasture—Leitíssimo is able to price its product at a premium and has recently launched the high-end Delicari brand of gelato and Greek yogurt. The hip Brazilian food blog Gastrolândia has declared Leitíssimo “the best in the country” and “the closest we have in Brazil to the excellent milk of Europe.”

Wallace knows that even sustainable dairying has a substantial impact on the climate, and he dreams of making Leitíssimo the first carbon-neutral dairy in the world. It’s a tall order, but the company is making progress. The bottling plant’s electricity comes from hydropower, and the farm produces 200 liters of milk for every liter of diesel it uses. According to company director Craig Bell, Leite Verde’s methane and CO2 emissions amount to just 0.9 kg of carbon dioxide per liter of milk per year, which is less than one-third of that of other producers in Central and South America. Countering those meager emissions, Bell has recorded increases in organic matter and dead plant roots in the soil and estimates that the farm could be absorbing as much as 100 metric tons of carbon dioxide per hectare per year. The soil in the pasture is darker than that outside the circle, and it will continue to get more loamy until it reaches an equilibrium where organic matter decays at the same rate as the dead grass, decaying roots, and cow poop are added to the soil.

Independent of its climate impact, Wallace’s system has clear benefits for wildlife. Leitíssimo plans to set aside half its land as a permanent reserve for conservation. “It’s not only a carbon-sequestration project,” says Reuber Brandao, a University of Brasília ecologist who helped establish the neighboring national park and is planning the permanent preserve for the company. “It’s a biodiversity-protection project. You have armadillos—and you have native Cerrado.” Many of the species found in the park are comfortable spending time on Leite Verde. A maned wolf visits Wallace’s home some evenings. “He calls in every now and then to say hello,” he says.

After a quick survey of the pasture, Wallace struts into the milking parlor at Pivot 5. He waits as 50 or so cattle amble in from the field, on schedule, and line up single file in the covered parlor. The cows hang their heads over the railing and wait their turn to be hooked up to the milking contraption. After a few seconds, fresh, sustainable milk from the sertão splashes into a glass tank at the end of the line. It’s now ready to be pasteurized, bottled, and trucked into grocery stores, where Brazilians will have the chance to support this new model for dairy and help their country’s—and the world’s—ecology in the process.

Travel for this article was funded by Mongabay.org's Special Reporting Initiatives program.