The cows return to Laíño. Sustainability, autonomy and good living

Some ten years ago, Luis Miguel Ríos Freiría, Míchel to his friends and neighbours, suffered a serious accident in the factory where he worked. According to the medical reports, there was a good chance that he would become a quadriplegic. But that didn’t happen. “This saved me,” he says with a smile, referring to the last cows that graze in the wetlands (braña) of Laíño.

Convalescent, immersed in a long recovery and faced with the impossibility of continuing in his job or getting a similar job, Míchel decided to bet on the cows. But the seed that sprouted in him after the accident had already been planted by his grandfather many years before. “When I was eight years old, I used to go to the fair with him,” he recalls. “Buying… he would buy; I would sell. He would tell me you have to sell for so much. That’s what I was brought up on. Míchel acknowledges that his grandfather, a cattle dealer, taught him much of what he knows about the market, and also about animals. “But here I think I learn something every day”, he adds.

Michel next to the cows of his beef cattle ranch

Autonomy and sustainability

Although for the moment he is not thinking about organic certifications – he does have his cattle marked with two Protected Geographical Indications: Ternera Gallega Suprema and Vaca y Buey de Galicia -, Míchel’s management is moving in an agro-ecological direction. He produces practically everything he needs (grass, maize, fertiliser…) and is committed to short chain marketing, selling almost all the meat directly to neighbours and other individuals in the area.

He basically keeps the cows with grass from the meadows, with the maize he plants himself and with rolls of silage that he prepares for when circumstances require it, as well as supplementing the cattle’s feed with some fodder that he buys from a local store. “But I give them very little. Among other things, because if I give them too much, it’s not viable,” he says, referring to the economic sustainability of the farm. He is clear that the future of his experience does not lie in excessive growth, but in maintaining a balance in which most of the production costs can be met from the resources of the immediate area.

He is keen to reduce the farm’s external costs as much as possible and to avoid dependence on the outside world, so he does not buy fertilisers either. He would not even rule out doing away with fodder if the livestock’s food needs were covered, although for that “we would have to sow a little wheat or rye”. He lacks suitable land and people dedicated to milling these types of cereals. “I don’t know, I would have to study it”, he concludes.

The establishment of short agri-food chains, the low ecological footprint and the care of animals and the territory are some of the ideas that define a commitment supported as a Seed Project by the Barbanza Ecosocial Lab. Míchel highlights the material improvements derived from this aid; for example, the installation of electric shepherds to better organise the grazing areas or the purchase of a trailer with which to take the cows to the vet or move them safely to cross the main road.

Cows in the braña, another form of conservation

The agricultural abandonment, whose inertia had already been established since the middle of the 20th century, accelerated in the 1990s with the land consolidation process, the entry of the lands under the domain of the Demarcación de Costas and the declaration of the area as a protected space. “It was all abandoned, a mess”. This is how Míchel defines the recent state of the braña, before extending his arm to trace a perimeter around the meadows where he, the livestock and we are: “There was nothing but shrubs. Before I cleared them, they were higher than my tractor”.

After that first thorough cleaning, it is now the cows who do the maintenance. “I can touch up in some places, where shrubs are born, because the cows don’t eat shrubs, but being there, they eat and step on them and step on them and shit and…”. The farmer argues that his activity contributes to conservation and, as he tells us, the neighbours value the transformation of the space very positively, which translates into an ever-increasing use as a leisure area.

The land on which Míchel's cows graze borders the Laíño braña, on the right bank of the river Ulla, very close to its mouth in the ría of Arousa.

Míchel remembers well the reality of the braña before the arrival of the land consolidation process. In the past, as he tells us, the farms were divided by a system of irrigation ditches, the product of an extremely precise farming technology. Their design, based on centuries of knowledge, channelled both the water coming down from the mountains and the water coming up from the river, the tides or the floods. It was used when it was needed and problems were avoided when it was too abundant. “In winter there was always a plot that would get a little waterlogged, but not like now. Now I can’t send the cows down from there”, complains the farmer, who believes that recovering the system of streams would be positive for the sustainability of the braña.

When asked about other problems affecting his activity, the farmer alludes to the uncontrolled growth of trees in agricultural areas, together with the excessive proliferation of wild boars in the braña, which contribute to the disruption of the ecological balance. Dependence on the Spanish Department of Coastal Management , on the one hand, and environmental protection on the other, means a great increase in bureaucracy when it comes to dealing with any intervention, something for which he claims to be unprepared.

With respect to environmental conservation, the farmer is convinced that the logics that define it are changing and that his activity is not only compatible with conservation, but is an essential element of it. “Over time, I think they are becoming disenchanted,” he says, before giving as an example the situation of the reed bunting, whose population decline paradoxically coincided with the declaration of the area as a Natura 2000 network. “The bird wants the reeds to breed, but for food it wants meadows,” he explains, before adding that “this cannot be a forest because it was never a forest, it was always a meadow. And there were many animals before: there were ducks, there were birds, there were foxes…”.

The search for a good life, impossible without community

Míchel recognises that the support of the community is essential to keep his initiative going. In fact, most of the farms where the cows graze are not his. In order to use them, he makes mutually beneficial agreements with neighbours: they avoid having to pay to clear the land, while he is committed to animal welfare while reducing economic dependency. “We make an exchange and nobody takes anything, or they take and I also take, it depends on how you look at it,” he says. He also points out that “I have any problem, a cow escapes or whatever, and the phone rings”. But he misses the need for more colleagues with whom to weave support networks and help each other. “You do it with one person, you do it with another, you get on better…”, he says. And there is also learning, which is still a social and collaborative process: “If I see what you do, what the other one does, and the other one does… Well, you say, he did that, he does it differently from me. Well, I’m going to try it, it might work”.

In the land where those that the Miñano Dictionary defined as “the best oxen in Galicia” were bred, in the place where the first dairy cooperatives in the country were born, today there are about twenty cows left. Míchel’s cows. Asked about what he would like for the future, the farmer has no doubts: “that there would be more people dedicated to this”. In his opinion, there are many people who are unaware of a “really beautiful” profession. “I think that if you get involved in this, you can get hooked” he adds. But he knows better than anyone the difficulties to be faced.

“People go to a factory, eight hours, a fixed salary and go home”, he says, and continues: “everyone has their own way of looking at life, but I don’t want that”. However, he also recognises that his circumstances allow him to opt for a way of life that does not currently generate sufficient profit. The family economy is largely supported by his wife’s work, whose schedule prevents her, for example, from taking their children to school. That and other things are taken care of by Míchel, who particularly appreciates the freedom the cows give him. “I have to work Saturdays, Sundays, holidays… but I work at my own pace. Nobody forces me”.

Míchel talks to us from the absolute satisfaction that comes from being able to live where he likes, doing what he likes and sharing the time he wants with his family and friends. His two children also help to look after the livestock. First of all, he wants them to study, but he does not hide the illusion that he would like his life project to have continuity. “I would like one of them to continue with this, but of course, as long as it is profitable”, he says. As we talk, the cows move slowly towards the higher part of the farm. They graze quietly, oblivious to our concerns, accompanied by two white egrets. “It’s been years since they were seen here”, Míchel tells us with pleasure.

(Subtitles in English available through the video settings)