It isn’t the largest ranch by size, it is the largest dairy operation in Guatemala. To make it work requires unique farming methods for this third generation on the land. The family ranch is run by Manuel and Regina Marroquin. They have four children. Finca Pasajinak is located in Tecpan in Chimaltenango Province at an altitude of 2,300 meters, in a mountain valley.
“Pasajinak is a Cakchiquel Mayan language word for Valley of Grass,” Regina explained. The farm is ultra-modern and classical at the same time. “This barn is a hundred years old. We conserve it because it is pretty, and, because my grandfather built it,” Manuel said.
The long driveway to the farm is planted with trees. The white stucco between ancient wooden beams of the barn set off the structure that is still used to store milk. “My grandfather began the farm. We’ve had different kinds of production over the years. Wheat was planted. It was a chicken farm. Now it’s a dairy farm,” Manuel said.
The 80-acre ranch supports 500 Jersey cows and heifers. They produce silage, rotate pastures and use vermiculture to generate fertilizer. “We have all these cows on a small amount of land. We use a lot of byproducts to feed them. We get bakery waste, vegetables and fruits. We produce very good forage with alfalfa, corn silage and grasses. We have to buy corn for silage, we can’t grow enough on our ranch. The cows graze in fenced pastures.”
“My parents started the herd of Jersey cows. I improved the management and grew the herd. The original stock was bought in Guatemala, we didn’t import it. We use only artificial insemination. It comes from U.S. companies and we only have purebred Jerseys. When we breed our cows we look for production and functionality. They must walk well. We get about 200 calves a year.”
In the last two months, of the nine month gestation, the cow’s on Finca Pasajinak rest. When they give birth colostrum comes right away from the mother. The baby goes into a special raising area and the mother goes back to being milked. For three months the calves are fed pasteurized milk, milk replacement and some grain. After three months they begin to forage.
Because of limited land for grazing, Pasajinak rotates pastures every day, or, when circumstances warrant, even every few hours. Cows only go back to the same pasture every 30 days. The climate enables them to be on pasture all day, all year around.
“We maintain good quality milk, high in butterfat and protein. It tests about 13.8 to 14. 5% total solids, 4.5 to 5.5% fat and 3.5 protein. Somatic cell testing is used. It started in the U.S. where 400,000 is the legal limit, we test a hundred or less,” Manuel explained.
In order to maintain the pastures nitrogen and phosphorus are used, with chemical and organic fertilizer. Red worms are used in vermiculture on the ranch. The worms process manure as well as vegetables that they do not use for feed. They bought red worms originally but now the worms reproduce and are self-generating. The long piles of material are kept in former chicken houses. The wooden structures with concrete floors provide a perfect place for the worms.
Long rows inside former chicken houses are covered with black plastic sheets. As worms eat the organic matter they produce humic acid. When a row is ready for use, no new material is added to the row for a week. Then a long plastic sheet is placed on top of it with holes in the sheet. New organic matter is spread on the sheet and another long plastic sheet placed on top of that to keep it dark. The worms come up through the holes and eat the new food. The plastic is then removed with the worms in it and can be dumped into a new row of material. The completed pile is removed to the fields.
Composting is not new. Many home gardens use composting to provide fertilizer knowing that worms in the earth speed the breakdown of organic matter. The need to have inexpensive organic fertilizer to maintain the pastures and the availability of unused chicken houses made it a practical, inexpensive and sustainable solution on the farm. Plastic sheeting is used to cover the chicken-wire open upper sides of the houses used in this process since worms do not like light.
Calves are separated into pens. They remain in their fenced areas for nine weeks where their ration of grain and milk is noted on a chart. The notes can include observations especially if diarrhea is seen. After the nine weeks in their separate pens the calves are put into groups.
Near the calf pens is a threshing operation where bundles of hay are beaten to produce seeds. Small bundles of hay are tied at the base and the bunch beaten on rocks in a concrete area. The method proves that nothing much has changed since Biblical times.
Cows are milked twice each day at 4 AM and 4 PM. “The routine is the same. Herds are brought into the milking shed. They know what to do. They wait their turn and come in in two groups, twelve on each side. We only milk one side at a time. The milkers clean the udders, squeeze them to stimulate them, examine the first milk to insure it is healthy then attach the milking machine. The milk goes into a chilled pipe. When the milking is done the udders are sealed with wax to prevent contamination and the cows released back into the field,” Regina explained.
The farm uses students from veterinary school, and universities with agricultural programs as an extension of their training. One intern came from a farming family that raised cows. He was completing his university agronomy degree.
Finca Pasajinak produces cheese from the milk. Their factory pasteurizes the milk then directs it to different vats. Some cream is removed for Mozzarella cheese making. Rennet, or coagulant, and salt are added. The product is placed in flat containers that are inverted to remove excess whey. Temperature is kept at 3-7 degrees C. The factory uses shrinkable plastic wrap to package the cheese for sale. It is labeled and marketed to hotels, pizza factories, schools and retail outlets including their own factory stores. Wall-Mart is also one of their customers.
A variety of cheeses are produced including Oaxaca, Manchego, Monterrey, Pepper Jack with two types of chili, jalapno and pepper. Cheddar Jack is white and orange. “We like everything to be natural. It is good for you and good for your body. It is our responsibility to share it with others. Some make their cheeses cheaper, by adding not natural ingredients. We use the mozzarella whey to elaborate Ricotta cheese that is high in proteins, minerals, calcium and 0% fat. The body assimilates it faster and it is good for healthy bones and muscle,” Regina asserted. She is health conscious for herself and her family and insists all dairy products produced by the farm meet and exceed health and nutritional standards without artificial additives.
The ranch has agreements with fruit and vegetable producers to take what they cannot sell. Melons, fruits, vegetables, like cauliflower and broccoli, as well as corn are brought to the farm and processed. The mix is then fed in troughs to the cows.
Finca Pasajinak uses only pure bred Jersey cows. They are a smaller breed, originating on the Island of Jersey, renown for high quality milk that yields better cheese.
Corn is planted on the ranch but much of their supply is bought from farmers. The corn is crushed by tractors and placed in large concrete silage pits and covered. The ranch has one 750 metric ton silage pit and several 250 ton pits. Anaerobic fermentation occurs in the silage. It can remain in storage over several seasons but must be used once the silage is opened.
“Sometimes we have too many vegetables. We use them to make silage as well. If there is no rain, there is no pasture for grassing, then we have to feed silage,” Manuel explained. “We are the biggest dairy operation in Guatemala. There are about a hundred smaller operations and many more with three or four cows.”
With each cow giving 20 to 24 liters of milk per milking, the dairy produces about 1,500 gallons of milk a day. The ranch employs 60 people including vaqueros for the remuda of horses. Manuel and Regina ride every time they can. Wrangler Bernardino uses the horses around the ranch for work and inspections.
The Jersey cows have their own routine and need no encouragement only the opening of gates as they walk to the milking station. The horses provide atmosphere to a modern dairy ranch that also yields flowers, forest trees and berries in a tranquil mountain valley of Guatemala’s agricultural belt.