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In the summer of 1981 the cow named Ubre Blanca (White Udder), born on Isla de la Juventud (formerly Isla de Pinos) in the southern Cuban archipelago, became headline news for her high milk production. After achieving a national record, in the following months she was the focus of the country’s attention for her fast-track to becoming a world record holder, first in four milkings and later, in January 1982, as highest producer in three milkings, collection of milk in one lactation period, and fat content. For the leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, and scientists from the cattle industry, it was important to emphasize that it was not only a matter of this incredible cow’s personal achievement but also the fruit of many years of effort to reach a radical transformation of the country’s cattle industry, from an emphasis on beef production toward the priority for milk production and diversification of animal protein sources. These politics required major changes in bovine herds from a genetic perspective, starting with major cross-breeding of Holstein cattle, of Canadian origin, with the Cebú, formerly dominant in Cuba, along with the creation of new infrastructure and other changes toward an intensive model of cattle ranching. Therefore, the history of Ubre Blanca is tied to that of the politics aimed at increased production and consumption of dairy products, presented as an achievement of the socialist Cuban model and with aspirations to bring dairy development to tropical areas and Third World countries. Although the ambitious goals announced in the 1960s were never reached, there was an increase in milk production and a general modernization of cattle ranching that, nevertheless, began a prolonged decline starting with the deep economic crisis of the 1990s.

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Agrarian societies in Latin America and the Caribbean have accomplished some of the most important and influential innovations in agricultural knowledge and practice in world history—both ancient and modern. These enabled indigenous civilizations in Mesoamerica and the Andes to attain some of the highest population densities and levels of cultural accomplishment of the premodern world. During the colonial era, produce from the region’s haciendas, plantations, and smallholdings provided an essential ecological underpinning for the development of the world’s first truly global networks of trade. From the 18th to the early 20th century, the transnational activities of agricultural improvers helped turn the region into one of the world’s primary exporters of agricultural commodities. This was one of the most tangible outcomes of the Enlightenment and early state-building efforts in the hemisphere. During the second half of the 20th century, the region provided a prime testing ground for input-intensive farming practices associated with the Green Revolution, which developed in close relation with import-substituting industrialization and technocratic forms of governance. The ability of farmers and ranchers to intensify production from the land using new cultivars, technologies, and techniques was critical to all of these accomplishments, but often occurred at the cost of irreversible environmental transformation and violent social conflict. Manure was often central to these histories of intensification because of its importance to the cycling of nutrients. The history of the extraction and use of guano as a fertilizer profoundly shaped the globalization of input-intensive agricultural practices around the globe, and exemplifies often-overlooked connectivities reaching across regional boundaries and between terrestrial and aquatic environments.