April 21, 2023 at 5:48 p.m.
Farming on high ground in Ecuador
TARQUI, Ecuador – At 9,000 feet in the Andes mountains, cows graze on the slopes of the farm of José Gallegos Timbi and his family. The farm is eternally green as a combination of the altitude and living at the equator traps the farm in an everlasting spring.
Gallegos and his family milk two cows and have two calves on their almost 5-acre farm. Their cows are staked outside on pasture 24/7 and are never in a barn. Their diet of grass is supplemented occasionally by a grain mix. Their pasture is a mix of kikuyu grass and clover which, because of their close proximity to the equator, grows year-round.
Milking happens in the open air. Amid the grass, the cows stand with a rope hobble around their back legs and tail to keep the Gallegos family safe during milking.
Gallegos sells his milk to a plant that processes a variety of dairy products. Their milk is picked up every day around 7 a.m., right after morning milking. At night, they cool and preserve their milk by putting it into a container with cold water surrounding it.
Gallegos has runa cows; runa roughly translates to “of the country.” The runa cows are inexpensive and have lived in the mountains for generations so they are hardy for the climate and altitude. Most runa milk around 6 liters a day. A runa cow has a longevity of five to six lactations. The Gallegoses are currently getting about 4 liters of milk per day from each of their cows.
The family sells its milk by the liter. They said the current milk price range in Ecuador is $0.35 to $0.42 per liter. This converts to a milk price of approximately $15.41 to $18.49 per hundredweight. However, because the buying power of a dollar is approximately double in Ecuador compared to the Unites States, the milk price adjusted for U.S. inflation is approximately $30.22 to $36.25 per hundredweight.
In addition to farming, Gallegos has a job in Cuenca, where he works as a marble craftsman. Cuenca has an urban population of 400,000, plus a wider metropolitan area with an additional 700,000 according to World Population Review. Gallegos also has a shop for working with marble on his farm. Among the pieces he crafts are animal figures of bulls and horses sculpted out of marble. Gallegos said his primary income is from the marble. Between the two careers, he makes enough money to sustain his family.
Gallegos said one of the biggest challenges to farming in Ecuador is food, land and cow prices. There is a constant problem with high costs.
The family raises corn and beans – the bean variety is similar to a navy bean – and they also have sheep, pigs, ducks, chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs.
Farms like the one the Gallegos family owns are common in Ecuador where the majority of dairy farmers have a handful of cows. Dairy farming in Ecuador is split into two types, larger farms with more automation, which are less common, and a large number of small farms like theirs.
They contract with a veterinarian for vet services, and the family aims for their heifers to calve in at about 2 years old. Calves are separated from their mothers at birth and are fed their mother’s milk until they are weaned at 3 months. The Gallegoses often use a bull from a neighbor to service their animals, but A.I. is used as well to improve genetics. Each of their cows has a name.
Gallegos said he likes dairy farming because it is a family tradition that he learned when he was young. He also appreciates having animals so they can sell them when they need money.
The family rents a tractor to help plant their crops, but much of the work is done using non-automated hand tools. When it comes time to plow, the family rents a tractor, uses a yoke of oxen or can be found swinging pick axes to break up the ground depending on the field. Harvest is also done by hand.
Gallegos said they do not use a lot of chemicals or manure on their crop ground which helps with runoff concerns on their mountainous farm. Because land is scarce in their area, the best way to obtain land is to get it from family. Gallegos received his land from his parents.
The family farm sits in relation to many other farms of relatives who also live in the area. The Gallegos family has five children who help on the farm, and the family lives in an adobe house. Part of their culture includes collaborating together on the farms. The Tarqui area, where the Gallegos family lives, is populated predominantly by Quichua families who are indigenous to Ecuador.
The weather in the mountains of Ecuador is mild and cool. Cuenca, which is half an hour away from Tarqui, has an average annual rainfall of 63.5 inches per year and average temperature of 56.2 degrees for the month of November, which is their warmest month, and an average of 51.5 degrees in July, which is their coldest month, according to the Climate Data website. Cuenca, however, is approximately 1,000 feet lower in elevation than Tarqui which means Tarqui is generally 5-10 degrees cooler than Cuenca.
Gallegos said he would like to improve the quality of his pasture and the quality of his cows and the milk they produce to continue his family’s dairy farming way of life.
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