Jose Miranda is raising Asian Water Buffalo for dairy in the Roaring Fork Valley of western Colorado using gentle handling and rotational grazing. He has 36 animals right now – 10 milking cows, and 12 calves from last year.
Jose is creating partnerships with landowners throughout the area, providing meat and milk to local families and restaurants, and using the herd to help restore infertile pasture land. He uses a mobile milking trailer to allow for the rotational grazing with minimal stress on the cows being milked because the dairy follows the herd.
He grew up on a water buffalo ranch in Venezuela where his uncles were the first to introduce the animal to the country. He came to the U.S. with a scholarship to Montana State University where he studied animal and range science.
Jose is a 2020 Emerging Leader in Food & Ag Award recipient. Recently, he took the time to update us on how the pandemic has impacted his work over the last year.
Emerging Leaders in Food & Ag (EL): Tell us a little about what you’ve been up to in the last 6-12 months? How (if at all) did 2020 and all its unexpected craziness influence your work?
Jose Miranda (JM): Thanks to our diversity, (Jose markets his product at farmers’ markets, groceries, and several restaurants) we didn’t take that big of a hit in the pandemic. The restaurants, that is something that we had really been working hard on, faded away partially, but we were able to kind of save it with a series of farm to table dinners. My partner has an organic vegetable farm so we partnered together, and now we do this series in the summer, of farm to table dinners. We have done this in the past at the restaurant locations, but with everything that happened with restrictions, we brought the dinners out to the farm, in the outdoors, and we were able to successfully handle these dinners and receive the support from the community.
EL: So that’s probably some of it. I can imagine you’ve been doing more than that. Although, I bet that took up a lot of your time.
JM: At the stage where we are in the operation, we’re still expanding our relationship with landowners. And so that’s been taking a lot of our focus: where to grow the herd and where to subdivide the herd for breeding purposes, right, or let’s say subdivide for weaning. Having multiple properties of different sizes also helps out. Finding the ideal partners is something that is going to require a little time but we signed a new lease last month at a really nice old ranch that has been kind of under-used. They needed help haying, so we’re going to do the haying this year and if the relationship works out, that will open up the door for some grazing and use of the barn and that kind of thing. The relationship will start kind of slow just to get to know each other and because we have something different in the water buffalo that people don’t know.
EL: What lessons have you learned that you are taking into 2021?
JM: I suppose, diversifying is a big one because that’s helped us out, you know, diversifying what your source of income and your markets are.
In reality, the lifestyle we have wasn’t really that affected by the dynamics of the social distance, and everything that happened. It didn’t have a direct effect in the way we conducted the day to day. It did make us extra aware of introducing new health practices with a CSA, you know, having customers that are selling directly to families. How do we diminish the vectors of transmission of COVID, that kind of thing? Just little details that you never thought about before.
Because of everything that happened with the packing plants, I’ve been working on trying to find the right butcher for this small scale we do and I’ve been working with three different small scale slaughterhouses. When the pandemic started, they all got booked, I mean, the open bookings became just months away. So the impact on the small scale that we were doing was really big. It was a big disruption.
I’m hoping for more mentality change, I did sell the first animal directly to consumers, like, you know, people buying half a beef. Two families bought one animal and we butchered it. In a way, that works out better for me as far as saving the time going to the butcher and all that. And this will be a healthier product, cleaner. They get it straight from me, and they are going to have it processed the way they want it. So I’m kind of looking forward to doing more of that. I cannot do restaurants that way – I’ve got to go through the USDA for the restaurants. But for things that are CSA, directly to the consumer, we can do that alternative.
EL: What’s next for you?
JM: Something that I’ve been working on every year is to help a new water buffalo producer get started. So last year was somebody in Louisiana, and this year is going to be somebody in New Mexico. I help them with well-trained animals that I sell them and then I provide all the consulting, you know, anything they need throughout.
The big dream with this is to set up a network of producers that are actually doing this work of gentle handling, training of the animals, keeping records of their family lines so that eventually, we can help each other feed each other with new bloodlines, new sires, for our different herds. If we all keep good records of what we have, we can help each other improve. That’s the goal. Very few producers, new producers like myself, are starting to do it for milk production. There’s somebody in New Jersey, somebody in California, I think in North Carolina as well as in Wisconsin. So we have a new wave of producers but I think this also is sparking interest in people that want to get into agriculture. These are people that want to find a niche market. This is the right path for those individuals. The thing is that finding the animals to get started is very difficult and so is finding the expertise to rely on. I can provide those two things on a very small scale so I’m doing that with one producer every year, hopefully in a different state, and maybe in 50 years we’ll get somewhere!
EL: What gives you hope for the next year? Or, alternatively, what is your greatest hope for the next year?
JM: I spend quite a bit of time thinking about how to decentralize industrial agriculture. That was brought more into light with the pandemic, right? The slaughterhouses, the big feed lots, the industrial dairy, you know. Obviously, the model that I’m trying to come up with is an alternative to the industrial dairy. We could multiply this all over the US where we have small-scale producers doing the beef and the dairy. A lot of people just say straight up, “You know that you cannot feed the whole world, the whole country like that.” But we CAN create a lot of jobs, and we CAN do it better, and we CAN feed the whole country. It’s a really good moment to kind of decentralize the whole of agricultural production.
My big goal got put on hold with the pandemic because grant assistance got distributed in different directions. I was hoping to get a grant to build a serious mobile dairy that can be a model that can be reproduced. I want to build a milking parlor on a flatbed trailer that will be solar powered, with a backup generator, that will have enough water to maintain itself for about a week, and then a week later you go clean up, empty the gray water, fill up the new water tank, and take it back out in the field. It’s a way to break the model where the cows go into the barn — the barn goes to the cows! There are already some people in New Zealand and other countries working on some of these models. Because of the weather in Colorado, the conditions we have here, we’re trying to create a model of a mobile that works not just on one ranch, but across the whole valley, so the challenges are different. We’re working on a design; we’re just looking for grants. And we’ve been in communication with the Colorado Department of Agriculture and Sustainability for getting all the permits to make Grade A certified milk coming out of it. All these producers that we’re starting, they can also adopt the same concept of the mobile dairy. It reduces the costs. It’s going to be cheaper to have this, than actually building a milking barn that will just leave you attached to the building and the same issues with parasite overload, over-grazing around the building, and so on.
We’re still small, still growing, still paying off some of the loans that I got to get started. But we feel really good about where we are and what we’re doing.