“The animals eat faster than the grass grows,” Carlos Montalvo Jr. says as we jostle around in his big red truck through his nearly 200-acre ranch in late April.
While he only bought the farm in 2021, he already has 80 heads of cattle and big plans to expand his operation into selling the cows for meat. The Rancho Rio Bravo is dotted with alternating spots of bright green and dry brown because it rained recently.
Before a recent spate of rains, the entire ranch was the same sunburned brown colour. Before Puerto Rico changed from an agricultural society to an industrialised one, raising cattle was one of the biggest businesses around. Plaza Las Americas, the largest shopping mall in the Caribbean, was built on an old dairy farm.
From 2012 to 2018, there was a nearly 38 percent reduction in the number of farms and an over 16 percent decrease in the amount of land used for farming.
Farming is in a tough spot in Puerto Rico, but Montalvo is undeterred, even though he’s faced his own set of struggles since opening his ranch. A worsening forest fire season led to a fire tearing through his farm the first year he bought it. His second and third years have been marked by bad droughts. In early April, nearly three-quarters of Puerto Rico was experiencing drought.
“We get the extremes,” Carlos Montalvo Sr. says while keeping an eye on a herd of cows. He explains that in the over 40 years he’s been in and around the business of raising cattle, it went from raining two or three times a week to barely any precipitation in a month.
While more destructive hurricanes are the most noticeable effect of climate change in Puerto Rico, the drought has had the most effect on the ranch because the cows don’t have any grass to feed on. Montalvo Jr. is considering buying expensive feed to get him through times when the farm is dry but that’s another cost to add on top of an already expensive operation.
Climate change has had adverse effects on both livestock and the farms that house them. Droughts and high heat could potentially lead to premature deaths, decreased water availability, and overgrazing. Dealing with potentially worse droughts in the future has been a prominent concern for Montalvo Jr, which is why he wants to put in an irrigation system to mitigate drought. He is also planning to work in new technologies, like solar panels and genetic testing, to strengthen the ability of his farm and his cattle to live through the worsening effects of climate change. Montalvo’s also invested exclusively in Senepol cows, a special breed of cows bred in St. Croix’s meant to resist the tropics.
Adapting to climate change is essential for ranches as the planet gets hotter, and adapting through a diversity of tactics is the most likely way to survive worsening droughts and hurricane seasons, although it comes at a cost to small and medium farms.
This story was originally published by Wadadli Unplugged, with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.