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Marengo, an open-air laboratory

Every day at 7 am a bus from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNal) departs from campus with different groups of students to take them to what could be considered as the largest open-air classroom of the university in the Bogotá savannah.
 

The Marengo Agricultural Center (MAC) has 97 hectares (240 acres) distributed among 17 plots and mother nature is in charge of strengthening what is taught in the classroom, ranging from flowering plants, swine weaning, a shed full of quails with omega 3 enriched eggs to the first milking at 4:30 am or the smoke applied by María Alejandra López, a senior, to a beehive. These are the types of classes students have every day at this experimental farm.
 

Read more: More efficient cattle farming would provide meat to consumers from Bogotá, (in Spanish.)
 

At this large experimental laboratory, students do not have to wait for the professor, just act upon what they have learned, for instance, irrigate greenhouses, apply biocontrollers, and assist the birth of swine or milk cows following the latest health protocols.
 

This fieldwork strengthens the forming of future zootechnicians, veterinarians, and agronomist engineers, among other professionals who also have a dorm to stay and two classrooms.
 

The UNal dairy farm provides more than 1,000 liters of milk to the firm Alpina, demonstrating the high quality of the product.


Every semester close to 25,000 students arrive at the Marengo Center and some even stay there for three months to complete their experiments with new chicken diets, or cow nutrition. This makes the CAM a very popular place in the sector.
 

Although most of the students are from UNal, there are also some from several other universities such as Isabella Díaz, a zootechnician from La Salle University, or Adriana Jiménez from the Universidad Francisco de Paula Santander (Province of Norte de Santander), who is currently developing a nutritional strategy to improve the body condition of male sheep or the estral cyclicity for a more efficient pregnancy. Every day they mark sheep to know which of them have not been mounted to have control over their reproductive condition.

To classes, at day or night


At Marengo, the intensity of the classes is not counted by the hours, because at any moment, late evening or at sun break, they need to come into action. This has happened more than once to Nelson Sarmiento, a devoted zootechnician who cares for close to 500 swine and produces piglets for sale.
 

Listen: The El Burro wetland, split-up by construction projects (in Spanish)
 

“At the beginning, it was hard, the dawn wakeup is difficult, or the death of piglets or a swine, has an impact on you,” says Sarmiento while he shows his work schedule, including modernization processes and the protocols applied to maintain a competitive farm where they look for nutritional or breeding alternatives daily. This is what, Agricultural Coordinator, Johnny Fajardo calls the “day to day of a farmer,” where things are always happening, such as a stalled tractor, a disease, a blackout, or an unexpected water outage.
 

As a connoisseur of the location, Johnny is in charge of showing newcomers the research and production at Marengo; first showing visitors a scale model of the center, and then a stroll around the facilities. Johnny loves his work, from observing the water availability for the animals or visiting crops to decide if a tree produces threats to the power network or people. His dream is to see the Biocampus established and planed by the vice-rectors office since 2016, turning the farm into a renowned experimental, research y technological development center.

In this sense, the Director of the Marengo Center, Professor Augusto Ramírez Godoy, mentions some of the work in progress: enlarging the student dorms; renovating the water treatment plant, and the toilet facilities, and for the future renovating the restaurant and cafeteria. Also, he dreams of building a bioclimate laboratory, to replicate and assess different weather conditions for different types of crops, a project submitted to the Colombian Administrative Department for Science Technology and Innovation (Colciencias, for its Spanish acronym).
 

The prior has all been achieved with contributions of close to Col $2.210 million (US $7.8 million), but the idea is to have a comprehensive project that will “strengthen frontier scientific research and leverage knowledge transferal, looking to improve the growth of the agricultural sector as a substantial contribution to territorial development and peacebuilding.”
 

Jaime Cárdenas, a Cattle Coordinator, is also another fan of his mission at Marengo as a learning and tool production tool. He highlights with pride the dairy facilities which currently supplies more than 1,000 liters of milk to a local famous firm known as Alpina, showing the quality of the product.
 

Read more: Podcast for disclosing science (in Spanish.)


This section of the facilities also has a milk cooler which has a coupled energy system adaptation for better power efficiency to take advantage of the heat produced and also to produce power to a water heater which is used to wash the milking equipment.
 

One of the challenges of this dairy facility is forage production to ensure the proper growth of calves and milk production. Currently, the farm has close to 40 hectares (98 acres) of Kikuyu grass, which are not enough to supply sufficient nutrition to the cattle.

Teaching with cattle is not reduced to milk production as they also work with artificial insemination to have better specimens, a learning process for future zootechnicians.
 

Regarding sheep, the center also hopes to increase the current production which is of 296 individuals distributed in 44 grassland plots in 24 hectares (59 acres) and above all improve the flavor and tenderness quality of the meat. “It’s not the same to have an 8-year piece of lamb meat or a 9-month slice,” says Isabella, one of the students that work with these production processes.
 

At Marengo, every two months they slaughter close to 20 lambs, and the meat is packed in vacuum packs and sold at the MAC market, located at the Food Science and Technology Institute (ICTA, for its Spanish acronym) at UNal-Bogotá.


The idea for the future is to slaughter an average of 200 sheep a year, says UNal Zootechnician and Technical and Management Coordinator of the Sheep Technical Development and Extension Research Center (CIDTEO, for its Spanish acronym), Walter Gutiérrez, that has with one of the most modern computer laboratories in Colombia: The IVOS II Computer Assisted Sperm Analyzer, used by master’s and doctoral candidates in their research projects.
 

Agrarian diversity


Among the livestock production, the center also has chicken and quail breeding, which besides egg production, has ample research lines headed by Professor Liliana Lucía Betancourt, who goes to the Center once a week along with her students to work of their research projects.

At the MAC market, besides the lamb meat, they also showcase a good part of the Marengo production: chicken and quail eggs, alstroemerias and carnations, asparagus, chards, corn, onions, and sprouts ... the whole orchard, cropped by students, professor and workers of the center, including electrical and agricultural engineers that help install solar panels, irrigation systems and cutting edge greenhouses.


Read more: Marginality and crisis in rural development at La Macarena (in Spanish).
 

Currently, Marengo has agreements with other universities in the country and abroad and with entities such as Agrosavia and the Office of the Governor of Cundinamarca; likewise, they have held research projects with organizations such as Fedepapa (Potato Growers Associations), Asocolflores (Colombian Association of Flower Exporters), Asohofrucol (Horticulture and Fruit Growers Associations) and the Association of Sheep Growers.
 

For workers such as Jaime Cárdenas, the ideal scenario would be that Marengo turns into an UNal institute, with greater autonomy in fund usage and better opportunities to have direct agreements with research organizations, universities, and companies, strengthening its analysis laboratory capabilities and agricultural production.

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