Brazil drought dries up milk production

Dairy farmers struggle as the country's northeast continues to suffer from its worst drought in a half century.


    Afranio, Brazil - Like they do every day just after the sun begins to rise, dairy farmers on horses or motorbikes arrive at the biggest dairy cooperative here to drop off the milk from their cows.

    But right now times are tough, to say the least, as northeastern Brazil continues to suffer from its worst drought in a half century.

    Nobody is being hit harder than the small-scale dairy farmers here in Afranio, as thousands of heads of cattle in the region are dying of starvation with sun-baked pasture lands drying out. It's forced dozens of local dairy farmers to abandon their operations, and threatened the entire local industry here.

    Edivaldo Souza, a local rancher with about 50 cows, is still in business but he says his cattle only produce on average 25 litres of milk a day, compared to 80 litres before the drought when they had more to eat and were healthier.

    "My cows are skinny and they are not producing as much milk," Souza told Al Jazeera after dropping off some milk. "It's very difficult for us."

    Dairy livelihood

    The cooperative produces about a half dozen types of cheeses as well as butter and yogurt, which are packaged and sold at markets in nearby towns. Afranio, population 17,783, lives off of the dairy industry and is the biggest producer in the western part of Pernambuco state.

    "This dairy industry is the second-biggest production of revenue for the city after the mayor's office, creating jobs and an income for milk producers," Carlos Rommel, the administrator of COOAFRA cooperative told Al Jazeera.

    Raimundo Lima uses his entire retirement check each month to pay for cattle feed [Gabriel Elizondo/Al Jazeera]

    COOAFRA, which was created 15 years ago, has 180 local dairy farmers as members; they're all small-scale ranchers. But in recent months, due to the drought, it's estimated as many as 50 have given up on the cattle business. This is pushing the cooperative to the brink of collapse.

    "During a normal year with good rain we worked with 9,000 litres of milk per day," Rommel said. "Today we work with about 4,000 litres per day. And anything below that amount, and our business is not viable anymore and we can't keep the cooperative working."

    Normally the cooperative pays 67 cents per litre of milk, but with the milk shortages the price has risen to about 80 cents.

    But the costs associated with keeping cattle alive and producing milk for the cooperatives' dairy farmers in a time of drought has skyrocketed way beyond the modest increase in price per litre that the ranchers are paid.

    Raimundo Lima, 62, a father of nine adult children and grandfather to 10, has been a cattle rancher his whole life. It has only rained once in the past 12 months here, so his open pasture where his 10 free-range cows once grazed has dried up completely into dust, rocks and twigs.

    His cattle used to produce 100 litres a day of milk, but the number has dropped to 40 litres on a good day. He is now forced to buy feed and water at a cost of about $1,500 a month just to keep the cattle alive. It's a significant sum for a man of humble means.

    His entire monthly retirement check now goes to pay for the cattle feed, but out of pride he is determined to not give up.  

    "To close my cattle farm will be the last option because it's my way of life, how I make my living - I survive off of these animals," Lima said. "If I close it, what will I do for a living? How would I maintain my family? What kind of job can I find? I don't want to have to move to a big city."

    Quitting the business

    Many of Lima's friends who are dairy farmers have recently sold off their herds and quit the business altogether. But cattle buyers are only offering half of the roughly $150 value of what Lima says each of his cows are worth. He won't sell, he said.

    President Dilma Rousseff previously announced $1bn in aid to all of those affected by the drought in northeast Brazil. A state agriculture official said about $175m has been distributed to about 40,000 cattle ranchers in Pernambuco.

    Northeast Brazil's weather

    Al Jazeera's Steff Gaulter reports on the region's weather:

    While the coast of Brazil sees plenty of rain, the rest of the northeast does not. The rainfall is so low that farmers are highly susceptible to even small changes in its intensity.

    The wettest season runs from February to May, when a band of thunderstorms moves south across the region. The storms are triggered by the warm waters of the Southern Atlantic, and the timing and intensity of the rain is profoundly affected by the temperature of the ocean.

    This ensures that the rainfall is highly unreliable from year to year, and the region regularly suffers from prolonged droughts. Last year the weather was extremely dry, a second consecutive year of drought would be disastrous.

    But when asked about it in Afranio, most here shrugged. Many said they have not seen the money and they weren't looking for handouts, but also didn't want to be forgotten.

    The rainy season in this part of Brazil ends in late March or early April, but with only one week of rain in the past year, local dairy farmers still in business in Afranio are bracing for the worst.

    Lima says even if there is significant rain next month - and forecasts are not predicting that - it will take 3-4 years for the local dairy industry to fully recover.

    At the cooperative, every day is a struggle to stay afloat. Four bed-sized drying areas for cheese to ferment are in the production facility, but only one is usually used now.

    "Normally, they would all be full," Rommel, the administrator, said. "But these aren't normal times."

    Out back, a brand-new milk processing machine purchased last year is still wrapped in plastic and sits in the crate it was shipped in. There's no need for it now because there is not enough milk.

    A tanker truck, with a capacity to hold 4,000 litres, was sent out to collect milk from rural dairy farmers in the area. When it came back it was half full. Under normal times, it used to make two trips a day and come back full each time.

    Lima, the dairy farmer, has given up on any sudden rain solving the problems. At this point, he's just trying to survive and produce as much milk as he can. He wants to do his part, he says, to prevent the local dairy industry from becoming another victim of the never-ending drought.

    - With reporting from Tatiana Polastri and Maria Elena Romero

    Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter: @elizondogabriel

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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