Text: Eva Breukink
Photography: Studiorootz | Berber van Beek
We do everything together.
Since they met in Colombia in 2015, they have been inseparable: Manuel and Adriana Costa. Adriana (1974), being the daughter of a Colombian cow farmer, knows exactly what a dairy cow needs to feel good and produce milk optimally. Manuel (1966) is of Portuguese descent and learned the ins and outs of vegetable and fruit cultivation from his parents.
In Curaçao, on the same site of approximately 19,000 square meters where Manuel grew up between fields with vegetable plants and fruit trees, he and Adriana now have a small, mixed farm. Unlike her father, who was a commercial dairy farmer with more than 2,000 animals, Adriana and her husband have just twenty cows and a few bulls. There are also sheep, goats, and geese on the farm. In other pens there are a few quails and a pig. Those animals are their ‘children’, that’s what it’s all about. They get up early for them, at about five or six o’clock in the morning, and for the same reason they almost never go to bed before ten o’clock.
They do everything as a couple. So Adriana ensures that the fields of elephant grass get water and mucks out the stables while Manuel brings the orders of milk around. Then Manuel builds a new shelter, while Adriana feeds and waters the cows. If there is enough milk, they’ll make yogurt together, butter or cheese. They are a team. The Costas keep the farm running like a well-oiled machine.
Love. Tremendous love for each other, for the animals and plants.That is what gives Manuel and Adriana the strength and energy needed to run the farm. Out of love they built the stables, sown the grass, and planted the fruit trees. Their responsibility is enormous. A cow cannot go a day without food and the grass cannot go a day without water.
“I was eight years old when my parents bought this property. It was like a jungle. They cleaned it for the plantation. My father went back to Madeira thirty years ago, where he was born. Before I met Adriana, I grew fruits and vegetables here. Seven years ago together with her we bought our first cow and that’s how we got started.
Two years ago my father-in-law passed away He stayed here a number of times for three month periods. In those times I learned a lot from him, even how to feel if a cow is pregnant and the size of the calf. That is not easy. Inside, your fingers have to be your eyes. We take care of the cows ourselves as much as possible, even when they are sick. An infusion to strengthen, an injection against an infection or a suture, I do it all.
When a cow gives birth, we help the calf come into the world. That bull, Junior, I injected against fleas today. He’s not even three months old and look at him! Most bulls are usually sent away for the meat. I only sell them to someone if I am sure that they are well cared for and will not go hungry. We don’t need much since we don’t have young children. I have a daughter in Curaçao and Adriana has a son in Colombia, but they are both adults already.”
“It was a big step to go to Curaçao with Manuel. As a single mother in Colombia, I was an independent woman with a good job. I worked as a safety inspector for various companies, including the Coca-Cola factory. My parents, my family, our family home, it was hard to leave all that behind. Still, I have no regrets. I miss my country, of course, but I’m glad I’m here. I love animals a lot. When an animal suffers, I feel that pain. What I know about cows, I got from my father from an early age and later on. I know what to look for. There, in that stable, now lies a cow that will soon give birth to a calf. She doesn’t feel well. You can see that by her ears, which are completely pulled flat and back. Maybe she has cramps.”
Less expenses, hardly any waste.
The cows are the backbone of the Costa couple’s mixed farm: Rancho Agropecuario Patricia. Patricia is Adriana’s middle name. ‘Agropecuario’ is Spanish for agriculture (agro) and animal husbandry (pecuario). The underlying idea is that this combination makes it possible for a farm to operate completely self-sufficiently. Manuel and Adriana get milk, butter, cheese, eggs, fruit, vegetables, and meat from their own ‘home shop’. They earn their money mainly from the sale of milk and milk products, but also from manure and bananas. These products are for sale on the farm and in most large supermarkets on the island.
The aim is to make use of everything that the farm produces. The manure, for example, goes to the field with elephant grass and in turn the fresh grass is food for the cows again. The circle is completed. This has two major advantages: savings on the purchases and less waste. This philosophy touches on the principles of permaculture, an alternative cultivation method and lifestyle in which care for the earth, people and fair sharing are front and center.
At Rancho Agropecuario Patricia, all cows and bulls have their own file in the computer. It contains the name, date of birth and all the details, such as the medicine used to deworm the animal, if it has had an infection or other illness or if it has been treated for an abrasion.
The amount of milk that a cow produces depends, among other things, on the moment at which she gave birth to her calf. Milk production is at its peak one to two months after delivery, then the number of liters per day slowly but surely decreases. After eight to ten months production is almost at a standstill. Manuel mentions, as an example of one of his toppers, a cow who gave at least twenty liters of milk a day up until six months after the first calf was born.
Manuel and Adriana give their cows sixty days to recover from childbirth. Only after those two months can one of the bulls cover the cow again. At least 45 days before delivery, a cow is ‘dry’. Throughout the year, therefore, no more than two or three cows are pregnant at the same time, to prevent a shortage of milk. In that dry period, the mother-to-be makes ‘colostrum’, also known as beesting. This first thick milk that the calf drinks after birth is packed with proteins and nutrients. Very important for growth and to build immunity. In the first weeks a newborn calf drinks eight to sometimes twelve liters of milk per day from the mother.
We don’t waste anything,
On the farm there is a special stable where early in the morning the cows are milked. This is a good-natured process. The door of the stable is open and Manuel and Adriana call ‘their offspring’ by name: Luna! Promes! The cow trudges inside, is secured to the legs with a string just to be sure, and milked with a machine, while she eats from the trough in front of her.
Each week, sometimes twice a week, Rancho Agropecuario Patricia delivers pasteurized milk to the larger supermarkets on the island. For this purpose, the milk is heated in bottles to 74 degrees Celsius in a centrifuge and cooled quickly in fifteen seconds. This ‘thermal shock’ ensures that the micro-organisms are killed. This is the kind of job that Manuel and Adriana prefer to do together. With the same dedication they have for their animals, they fill the bottles and glue their company label on them.
Only when the milk production of the cows is well up to standard, there is enough milk left to make other products. Yogurt, for example, and butter or cheese. This is done in small quantities which are only sold on the farm itself. Manuel and Adriana make cheese spread and the typical ‘Paisa’ of Medellin, named after the region of the same name in Colombia.
For optimal milk production it is important that the cows get good food and sufficient hydration. On the back of their land, Manuel and Adriana grow elephant grass and sugar cane. This means that they have most of the food production for their animals under own management. A few years ago Manuel bought a pickup truck full of elephant grass from a company at Seru Loraweg. The grass can grow to 3.5 to four meters high, hence the name. With plentiful water it grows like weeds and after about three months ìt contains everything a cow needs: the raw fibers in the hard stem at the bottom, protein in the middle and moisture in the tips.
The cows are fed freshly cut grass every day. If the stems of the grass or sugar cane are a bit too hard, they are chopped into small pieces with a machine and distributed among all the animals in the feeding troughs. How much grass Manuel and Adriana cut in a day depends on what they can feed the cows in supplement to their daily diet. A cow usually eats ten to twelve percent of her body weight in grass. That can go up to 50, 60 kilos a day. Every now and then the farm gets spent grain waste from a brewery and a good amount of molasses from Colombia is stored in the yard. The spent grains and molasses are mixed with the finely chopped grass stems and given to the animals as a supplementary feed.
Manure for the grass, fresh grass for the cow.
The grass is not only as tall as an elephant, but also as thirsty. In the yard a well, pumps and two cisterns ensure that sufficient water is available all year round. The water is pumped through pipes from the cisterns to the fields and from there into the hoses that lie between the crops. The terrain on which the elephant grass and sugar cane grows is divided into more than twenty sections. It is a matter of opening and closing a tap every twenty or thirty minutes. In this way, the crops are watered every day, batch after batch.
It doesn’t have to grow much bigger and become more commercial. Although Manuel and Adriana do have plans to improve and expand what is there. Over the field where the cows roam free, Manuel makes a large canopy, so there will be more shade. “Then they are less bothered by the heat, which is better for their health and for milk production.” He will also plant creeping grass from Colombia on part of the site. It grows in the meadows there. “It contains more protein than elephant grass and needs less water,” Manuel says.
The farm is almost completely self-sufficient.