February 27, 2023 at 3:19 p.m.
Gallego created his dairy farm near San Pedro de los Milagros, an hour and a half from the city of Medellin, in 2002. Today, he has a herd of 60 head, typically milking about 40 cows twice a day. The herd produces an average of 41 pounds of milk per cow per day. Gallego’s herd is primarily grass fed, using rotational grazing, and calves year-round.
Colombia is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world, Gallego said.
“We have different climates and topographies, and we are privileged for having great weather that allows us to grow grass the whole year in most of the country,” Gallego said.
Gallego, who holds a degree in animal husbandry, manages his farm with the help a full-time employee whom he charges with the day-to-day operations. Gallego oversees the farm and makes the management decisions while working off the farm as a consultant.
“The salaries here are lower than in the U.S., so for me, it is more profitable to pay an employee and provide technical assistance to other farmers than it is to run the farm by myself,” Gallego said. “Labor is about 12% of my total cost of production.”
Growing the farm has been a hurdle for Gallego but one he appreciates.
“When we established the farm, it was in bad shape; some of the paddocks were degraded because it had been mined, looking for gold,” Gallego said. “We had to fix them by adding organic matter and planting stolons of kikuyu that we took from the paddocks in the best shape. It all had to be done by hand. Very few farms in the area have a tractor. The topography is quite steep, and having a tractor here is quite expensive. It is better to rent one from a potato grower when it is needed.”
The 28.8-acre farm is divided into 30 paddocks of varying size dependent on the topography. Gallego’s grazing management includes moving his cows three times per day to give each paddock a resting period of 32 to 40 days.
All of the paddocks are planted with kikuyu, which grows well in the Colombian climate, Gallego said.
“We are located in the tropics and have only two seasons: winter and summer,” Gallego said. “The only difference is the rain we get. The winter months are the wet months, and we don’t get frost. During the summer, we get very little rain. Kikuyu is the predominant grass in the area.”
Gallego said kikuyu produces large volumes of grass, but the quality is poor, requiring him to supplement with a grain mix that consists of corn, soybean and minerals.
“Supplemental feeding is especially important during peak lactation, where they can produce over 90 pounds of milk,” Gallego said. “During this time, I offer extruded corn to fresh cows at the paddock. Each cow has a name, so I make a small paddock with electric net fence and set some feeders in it. Each cow is called by name; they come eat the corn and then go back to graze.”
When the first cows came to the farm, Gallego said the cows were fed their supplemental feed and milked in the fields by hand. A horse was used to haul milk cans back to the farm, where it was picked up by the buyer. Gallego said for a few months, the milk was picked up without being refrigerated before a holding tank was installed so the milk could be chilled.
After two years of milking by hand, Gallego purchased mechanical milking equipment.
“We still had to move from paddock to paddock to milk, but it had two units and it ran by a fuel engine, which helped reduce milking time and improved the quality of the product,” Gallego said.
The farm has continued to advance its technology. Eight years ago, a milking shed was built. The new facility included four milking units with a pump to send milk directly to the tank.
“This shed greatly improved the quality of life for the worker and the quality of the milk we sell,” Gallego said.
Gallego said one of the greatest benefits of grazing is the longevity of the cows.
“Being on pasture all the time, our cows can last up to 10 years,” Gallego said. “The third or fourth lactation is typically the best for our cows. I only keep 20% of the heifer calves for replacements.”
Those heifers are raised on raw milk with supplemented grain and bred with conventional semen at 17 or 18 months of age.
The emphasis on grazing dictates the breeding decisions Gallego makes.
“I want a cow suitable for grazing: smaller frame, better hoof and legs, more gut capacity,” Gallego said.
The herd has been influenced by U.S. genetics, which Gallego said has boosted production but has decreased grazing efficiency.
“Most U.S. dairy cows are confined and fed (a total mixed ration),” Gallego said. “They are tall cows that demand a lot of energy only to keep the metabolism going. In the U.S., there is better feed quality to meet the nutritional needs of this type of cow. Here, we need to supplement that type of cow heavily, and it is not easy to make a profit as we do not have any type of subsidy from the government.”
Those factors led Gallego to begin crossbreeding his Holsteins with Jerseys to reduce size and energy demands while improving milk solids. Gallego said that while he is paid for his milk based on volume, there are bonuses for butterfat and protein. In the past two years, he has started using New Zealand genetics to continue working toward the most efficient grazing animal he can create.
“We reduced a bit of production but get a better price, and we can meet the cows’ nutritional requirements with less supplementation,” Gallego said.
Gallego said marketing milk in Colombia is informal, with over half of the country’s 3 billion pounds of production being sold as raw product with few sanitary controls. There is great demand throughout the country for artisanal cheese, Gallego said.
Like his peers around the globe, Gallego has witnessed sky-rocketing input costs, and protecting his margins has become a focus; Gallego has found his answer in regenerative agriculture.
“Since 2018, I have been studying and implementing regenerative strategies in my production system,” Gallego said. “I want to combine genetics with improved grazing management, reducing the need for external inputs, so that I can produce better quality, more profitable milk. I hope to someday direct market my products to well-informed consumers.”
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