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Penn State students experience Costa Rican culture, dairy farms

Sarah Caldwell Published on 16 March 2011


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Summary: Sarah Caldwell (then a Penn State senior) provided this report from the Dairy Science Club's spring trip to Costa Rica. Along with information about the students' itinerary, which featured several farm visits, Caldwell provided more than 20 photos from this once-in-a-lifetime trip opportunity.

Because this article was so popular, we asked Caldwell a follow-up question:

Q: During your college career, you've traveled on two international trips. Why do you think it's important for students to learn about dairying in other countries?

A: For students who want to continue in the dairy industry after graduation, a trip abroad can be very educational. On my two trips abroad to Costa Rica and Ireland, I was able to see firsthand the challenges and advantages producers in those countries faced. As far apart as we were, it was interesting to see how similar our industries are. In addition to the souvenirs I brought back to the U.S., I also brought new ideas and a fresh perspective for dairying in this country.
—Sarah Caldwell, 2011 Penn State Graduate, Sales Trainee for Dow AgroSciences

[Click here or on the image above right to see the full list of the Top 25 articles of 2011. Click here to see the list from 2010.]




After a busy year of fundraising events and activities, 43 members of the Penn State Dairy Science Club celebrated their efforts with a spring break trip to Costa Rica March 4-10.

Club members started the trip touring the city of San Jose on their own, absorbing the different culture, trying out their Spanish and exploring the local foods.

Day three of the trip was spent at the Manuel Antonio Beach and National Park.

Throughout the rest of the trip, the group scheduled several educational and interesting tours, including banana and coffee plantations, a cheese plant and three farm visits arranged by Dr. Jorge Elizondo Salazar , who obtained his doctorate degree at Penn State and now works as a dairy researcher at the University of Costa Rica .

Story continues below photo slideshow.


The first farm the club visited was at the University of Costa Rica’s Dairy Experimental Station, or the Estación Experimental Alfredo Volio Mata de la Universidad de Costa Rica. Elizondo showed the group around the farm while describing the Costa Rican dairy industry.

The University of Costa Rica has about 50,000 students, and the dairy farm is located several kilometers from campus. The farm milks 40-45 Jerseys in a four-stall milking parlor.

Costa Rican producers are paid about $0.60/kilogram of milk, but like the United States, a cost of production of about $0.50/kilogram of milk limits their profitability.

The university farm also milks dairy goats, an industry that is growing in Costa Rica. It is one of several niche markets found in Costa Rica. In fact, 40 percent of the milk produced in Costa Rica never makes it to the cooperative.

Instead, the milk is made into cheese, usually unpasteurized, and sold by the producer. Costa Rica dairy farmers are proud of the fact that they produce enough dairy to feed their country.

The greatest challenge to dairying in Costa Rica is the weather. The year is split into two seasons: The rainy season runs from May to November, and the dry season runs from December to April.

Although the crops grow well in the rainy season, Costa Rican farmers have a difficult time harvesting the crops, and flooding is common in many areas. During the dry season, the crops simply will not grow well.

Farmers are encouraged to store as much forage at the end of the rainy season as possible to last through the dry season. However, the dry matter content of a typical harvest in the rainy season is usually not more than 30 percent, and often times closer to 15 percent.

Low forage quality leads to low digestibility for the cows, but for a cow diet high in forages, the Costa Rican farmers have to work with what they are given.

The second farm the club visited operated a dynamic grazing system. While many farms incorporate grazing into their operations, this farm intensified the grazing program by moving the fence only the width of a feed bunk every two hours.

The fence is moved in this manner so that the cows will get up and eat the grass in front of them, instead of standing in or laying down on the grass. In a standard grazing operation in Costa Rica, the grass requires a 30-day to 40-day rotation; however, in this dynamic system, the grass requires an 80-day rotation.

The third farm was one of the largest farms in Costa Rica with more than 220 animals, including 90 milking Holsteins, and 70 hectares of land. The cows averaged 27 kilograms of milk per cow per day, which translates to about 60 pounds of milk.

The farm was located in the high mountains of the country with steep hillsides and plenty of clouds. The farm owners found that rye grass grows the best in the high-altitude setting of the farm, but they also noted that fog made growing crops difficult due to the lack of direct sunlight.

The Dairy Science Club also visited the Monteverde Cheese Company , one of the largest cooperatives in Costa Rica with 230 farms. The company produces cheese out of more than 45,000 liters of milk per day, brought to the company in several forms.

In addition to the regular milk truck, producers can also bring their milk to the cheese plant in traditional milk cans hauled by vehicles, horses and even oxen. Some producers will travel six or seven hours, one way, every other day to deliver their milk to the cheese plant.

Monteverde Cheese Company produces 32 different cheeses, and most of the cheeses are mild to appeal to local tastes. The company also owns a meat factory, a pig farm (to feed the extra whey) and an agricultural department to help farmers in need.

To top off the week, club members also visited the Irazú Volcano , saw a crocodile-filled river and rode a zip line through the Cloud Forest . Needless to say, it was an unforgettable and action-packed week for the Penn State Dairy Science Club. PD

Sarah Caldwell
Sarah Caldwell is a senior in agribusiness management and agricultural communications at Penn State University.