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Water buffalo rancher models mobile milking

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By Trina Ortega
Sopris Sun Correspondent

Jose Miranda grew up raising Asian water buffalo on his family’s 3,000-acre ranch in the flatlands of central Venezuela. He helped his father care for 500 water buffalo, 100 of which were milking cows, and he made cheese every day. Due to the political and social climate in Venezuela, however, his father sold the ranch.

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After Miranda and his wife, Kami, had their second child in the United States, they moved back to Venezuela in 2008 to start another water buffalo ranch, with 40 animals on 500 acres. After getting robbed at gunpoint with no penalty for the thieves, the Mirandas walked away from it all and returned to the U.S., settling in Carbondale, where Miranda works as the ranch manager at Tybar Ranch.

In an effort to return to the work — and the animals — he’s always known and loved, Miranda is leasing land at Sunfire Ranch to raise his own herd of Asian water buffalo and has fabricated a mobile milking parlor to get back to the business of making cheese. He says it’s the only way he can afford to establish a dairy operation, and he hopes it will be a model for other small-scale farmers.

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“This is my third water buffalo ranch. My third attempt, right, Patron,” Miranda says to his dog, a small gray collie mix sitting next to him on the drive to Sunfire Ranch on Highway 133.

Sunfire is owned by Jason Sewell, and Miranda is leasing some land to start his herd, including four baby buffalo, which he has bottle fed. He acquired two males for production, and one of the cows will calve in January. As he approaches, Miranda calls to them, the animals come to Miranda, and they are gentle enough that he can straddle up onto their backs without startling them.

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“The advantage of the water buffalo is two fold,” Miranda explains. “One is it can produce and thrive on low-quality forage, where most dairy breeds need a high-protein diet in order to keep up with their energy demands. Second is that the milk from the water buffalo is denser. It’s a richer milk, so you get more pounds of cheese per gallon of milk.”  

Raising the water buffalo is a large time investment, according to Miranda. In order to have tame animals that he can manage on his own, he must raise them from when they’re young. Plus, they require more care when the weather gets cold, as the animals are not used to colder climes. He will not start milking his cows for two more years, but once that begins, Miranda will sell milk and cheese commercially in the valley.

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Sensible for small herds

Miranda came up with the idea for a mobile dairy when he saw photos of dairy farming in the Azores Islands of Portugal. The concept was simple — take the milking machine to the cows instead of herding or transporting the animals to a barn.

“This idea grows out of the need for a better place to milk a few animals,” Miranda says, standing on the broad grassy pasture land of the Tybar Ranch at the base of Mt. Sopris. He lives on the ranch and has been working on the mobile dairy in one of the tall garage bays used for agricultural equipment.

The parlor is an old cattle insemination trailer that belonged to Tybar owner Emma Danciger, but since it was not in use for years, she donated it to Miranda.

He retrofitted the inside to fit a milking machine and batteries for a solar-powered electric system to run it. He installed hooks, a USB charger and some lights and has space to add a small wood stove that will keep him and his water buffalo warm while milking. He made some cosmetic improvements, including painting the outside, and added oil to the hydraulics.

There is no floor to the trailer, and once it is driven out to the pasture, it is removed from the hitch then lowered, via the hydraulics on the wheels, directly to the ground. A gate inside separates two bays for the cows. From there, Miranda can either milk by hand or use the milking machine.

Miranda first started working on the mobile diary more than a year ago as a efficient way to milk a herd of 10-12 animals. His routine was to drive his pickup to the pasture, tie off the animals to the roll bar, toss down his stool, and milk by hand, exposed to the elements.

“I thought that if I had a trailer, I could just come out here where the cows are and at least have some shelter. This also gives me flexibility, since I don’t own the land; it allows me to lease pasture in remote locations that are cheaper and allows me to still be able to do the work I want to do.”  

Unique benefits

He worked with Isaac Ellis of Greenline Architects to design a 1-kilowatt solar electric system to power the mobile dairy and Kristen Jacobson to apply for a renewable energy grant from the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE).

Marty Treadway, CORE’s program manager who administers its grants, said Miranda’s project had many unique benefits and was awarded $4,000 for the photovoltaic system.  

“It moves the energy required to run a dairy off the grid. The current alternative to this is to use a diesel generator,” Treadway says. “It additionally addresses how a small farming business in this valley can creatively work around issues such as land availability and expense. This is an inspiring project that hopefully influences others to think creatively about their energy situation.”

Sunsense Solar pitched in on the solar system design, and Miranda’s children, Kawak and Paz, helped install the PV panels on the trailer roof.

Miranda lists the additional benefits of a mobile dairy, including eliminating overgrazing and reducing erosion around one barn; improving pasture conditions; reducing water usage; eliminating high concentrations of urine and manure in one location; reducing parasite exposure to animals; providing a cleaner environment for cows and reducing bacterial infections; improving the diet of the animals; and following the best rangeland in extraordinary climatic conditions.

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