Animals as Machines: how sustainable is this waste management system?

Inside the Monteverde cheese factory (photo taken through a steamy window).

In Monteverde, Costa Rica, there is a cheese factory that was started by a group of Quaker settlers in the early 1950’s. Today they purchase milk from nearly 200 small dairy farmers in the region. While most of the milk arrives in modern stainless steel cylindrical tanker trucks, some milk is still delivered in the old-fashioned milk jugs. A sample is taken from every batch of milk received and they are tested randomly to ensure the milk is pure (free from hormones or antibiotics), and to test the quality — higher quality milk earns a bonus. From there, the milk is mixed together and pasteurized and made into a variety of types of cheeses. But perhaps the dirty little secret of the cheese industry is that only about 10% of the milk can be used to make cheese; that’s the quantity of “solids.” The rest is whey, and not useful in the cheese business. Most whey – in commercial cheese making – is dehydrated and used in protein powder drinks. But Monteverde is relatively small, and the energy required to make the whey powder did not make financial sense for them (and the nearby markets for whey powder is small). So they decided to feed the whey to pigs, since the whey is relatively high in protein, it makes a good feed supplement. So off on a side road, near the cheese factory – but not too close; this isn’t on their normal tour route – is the pig farm.

Rows of sows used for breeding.

In two long warehouses, in proper CAFO style, pigs are packed into cages too small to turn around. One warehouse is for the piglets, for when they are being fed by their mother, and then weaned, and the second warehouse is for the breeding pigs (several foaming-at-the-mouth boars and hundreds of sows packed side-by-side). We were informed that the three reasons the pigs were kept in such confined spaces is because studies have shown pigs don’t need more than one square meter of space to live; two, because allowing exercise would lead to certain leg fractures because the pigs are too fat to be supported by their bones; and three, because exercise toughens the meat. (It was difficult not to ask for her supporting evidence.) See a different take on pigs’ needs here. These pigs are fed the waste whey, but also a corn feed to add substance and roughage to their diet. The pigs are fattened for about 6 months, until they reach 100 kilograms, and slaughtered (supposedly on site, but that was definitely not part of our already extended tour!)

piglets, with mamma pig in extremely tight cage

But wait, you might be thinking, that might solve the waste whey problem, but even though I don’t know much about pigs, I know they, like all animals, produce waste of their own, so now we just have another waste problem, right? Why, yes, indeed we do. A decidedly smellier waste problem. Enter the beef cattle. (“Remember, this is a waste management machine for the cheese factory,” our guide, the factory manager, reminds us.) The cows are fed – I kid you not – the pig waste. (“It’s almost all undigested corn,” the manager insists.) Putting aside for a moment the fact that cows are not even meant to eat corn, these poor beef cattle are kept in a feedlot — a square cement slab with a roof — and are standing in feces and being fed feces, with some additional hay as a supplement, for roughage. These cows have to pick out the undigested corn from the pigs’ waste, and then stand in their own waste until eventually brought to slaughter. Their feces are occasionally washed off the cement slab and into a manure lagoon. Two lagoons, actually, the first one is anaerobic and the second one is aerobic and the holding time in each is supposedly 45 days. The effluent enters a nearby river “nearly” pure, and after some cascades, the water quality is apparently no different than above the effluent site. But the efficacy of the lagoons is declining and within five years, a larger lagoon – or another system – will be needed.

The feedlot cattle.

And so, to deal with an excess of whey, animals are used as machines to convert whey into meat, adding profit to their waste stream. Is this sustainable? How else could the cheese factory deal with their waste? I might put out there that the idea is good, but the carry-out is poor. Well, “poor” is an understatement. The reality is horrendous. Just because you feed pigs leftover whey, does not mean you have to keep them packed into cages, prohibiting them from being the animals they are, nor does it mean you need to feed cows grain mixed with pig feces. So it seems like profit in this case won out over humanity. Choose your cheese wisely.

The two manure lagoons.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Crystal says:

    Hi, I came by your blog searching for opinions on coconut faming sustainability, and found this post. I spend a few months living in Monteverde in 2003 and got the same tour. While I have been told that a more concentrated operation leaves more rainforest standing, this seems like a pretty bad scenario. Do you have any ideas or resources for how else the waste products like these are successfully and sustainably managed? I am curious to learn more.

    1. Feeding it to animals is a good idea in theory, they just integrated a CAFO into the mix!! If they viewed the farm as not just a “waste management system” and instead a farm that should produce healthy, healthful animals, then they would change their practices. The whey could also be used for energy, in a biodigester, which is what I believe Kraft cheese does. I haven’t investigated it further though, and don’t know of resources off hand either sorry! If you find anything, let me know!

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