Hidden away in the wilds of the Jaborandi area of Bahia in the northeast corner of Brazil, lies Leitissimo, a 5500-hectare (13,600-acre) dairy farm running 6,000 cows with innovation and efficiency at its heart.
The farm is the brainchild of New Zealand farmer Simon Wallace and a close-knit group of founding New Zealand and Brazilian directors.
Set up in 2001, it is based on the New Zealand style pasture system – 85% of the cows’ diet is grass and the cows graze outside all year round – but adapted to work in very different, very challenging climate.
Mr Wallace says: “We use the term ‘nature on nitrous’. It is making the most of the tropical climate, particularly the 2700 hours of sunshine each year, low humidity and plentiful water.
“The concept was like a New Zealand dairy farm but not being bound by the geographical limitations of New Zealand.”
The farm is divided into 11 individual irrigated farms or ‘pivots’ of 56ha (138 acres) each, running 550 cows, 10 cows to a hectare.
Each triangle-shaped pivot is then subdivided into 2.26ha paddocks.
Cattle are usually managed in two herds with heifers and old cows in one and calves and younger cows in another.
Calves are artificially reared in the first few weeks with careful nutritional control, and introduced to pasture any time between four and eight weeks while still being fed on milk.
The goal is to artificially inseminate (AI) the heifers at 60% of their mature liveweight at between 15 and 17 months of age.
Each farm uses sexed semen, resulting in 85-90% females, however Mr Wallace says the ‘trade off’ is a lower conception rate.
Mr Wallace describes the tifton grass pivots – at 19% crude protein – as ‘islands of dairy farms in a sea of wilderness’.
Each pivot is irrigated using careful calculations of evapo-transpiration rates, ensuring the correct amount of water is applied, improving plant growth and, in turn, efficiency.
Fertiliser is applied when animals have grazed the paddock, using precise amounts based on data collection, so as to grow the required dry matter for the following rotation. Urea is applied in regular doses as required.
Data capture and monitoring is a key focus for the Leitissimo farmers. Daily live weight gain of young animals is periodically calculated and each paddock is soil tested for the development of a precise fertilser programme.
“We take, keep and use a lot of data,” adds Mr Wallace. “It’s all there so it makes sense to use it. Our data goes back years.
“For example, we know from historical data how much grass we could grow next month according to how much fertiliser we put on. We know if we look at October on average we need 140 kg of dry matter per ha per day. It’s a simple management principle.”
Leitissimo is translated as ‘most milky’ and the cows, a cross breed of New Zealand Jersey and Friesian genetics, produce 4-4500 litres of milk per lactation, at 4% fat and 3.8% protein.
They are milked in a herringbone parlour with 40 cows on each side, enabling 250 cows to be milked per hour. The entire farm produces 60,000 litres a day.
“These genetics are adapted to pasture. We have produced smaller, robust cows that are highly efficient at converting pasture to milk,” he adds. “We call it the biological Ferrari.”
Cattle are fed an energy-based ration consisting of maize grain and sorghum which also serves as a vehicle for added micro minerals such as sulphur, phosphorus and calcium.
Each farm is run as an autonomous unit and contains a milking parlour, office, farm worker housing, generator and machinery, fertiliser storage and calf rearing facilities.
Five employees run each farm and include a manager. Workers’ children are schooled on site. There are 125 staff in total.
The business prides itself on the co-operative spirit which exists between the farms.
About 95% of the workers had never milked a cow before joining Leitissimo, however people ‘with the right attitude’ are equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to carve out a career for themselves.
Mr Wallace adds: “The company has genuinely benefited from the talent and knowledge of local people. We have brought the golden rules over from New Zealand and then carefully adapted them using local knowledge. That has been the fundamental success of the company.”
Brazil is a net importer of milk, taking in one billion litres every year, mainly from Mercosur countries.
Prices are about the equivalent of 40ppl in the UK. “The reason for that is the tariff barrier – for milk to get in here it has to get over that barrier,” he explains.
“It is a real anomaly in Brazil because you’ve got a really good milk price and yet we are importing milk. It seems a real paradox.
“The reason is that the productivity improvement at the farm level has not kept up with the increasing cost of production in recent times,” he claims.
The state of Bahia is the same size as France, with a population of 15 million requiring an additional 800m litres of milk each year.
However, he added he was cautious about the business growing too fast. Mr Wallace says: “The model can be replicated anywhere. Eventually the plan is to have 22 pivots on this farm.
“We are looking at innovative models such as equity partnerships. We’re always looking at models that share the cake to give talented people skin in the game,” he adds.
All the milk is processed at Leitissimo’s own factory, where it is pasteurised, bottled and packaged before being distributed to 16 states across Brazil. In addition, it has recently launched a range of luxury yoghurts and ice creams.