Seeing thousands of cows grazing in the desert is an unusual sight, but the herd at Al Ain Dairy is thriving. Demand for local milk is growing and there are plans to double in size. But keeping cows in this harsh, hot environment poses many challenges, Mitya Underwood reports
In the middle of the stark Al Ain desert, surrounded by golden dunes, stand thousands of black and white Holstein-Friesian cows waiting to be led into the farm's cool milking halls.
Occasionally, one will meander under electronic sensors, triggering a blast of misty water that squirts on to the cow. Others munch contentedly on alfalfa, while the rest are happy doing little more than sleeping in the sunshine.
It's an odd sight to say the least, with animals looking as out of place as a camel in a lush, green English field. But as a dairy farm in the desert, it seems to be working.
The 6,000-strong herd, owned by Al Ain Dairy, which was set up in 1981, produces more than 200,000 litres of milk every year, with demand growing.
Legend has it that the late Shekh Zayed, the founding President, was sitting in Al Ain when he spotted milk delivery lorries travelling through the city from Saudi Arabia.
"He asked why the milk was coming from Saudi and said, 'if the Saudis can keep cows, why can't Al Ain?' And so the dairy farm was established," says the chief operating officer, Shashi Kumar Menon.
After some careful planning and negotiations, 200 adult Friesians arrived from Germany. Over the years, more cows were brought in to keep up with the demand for fresh cows' milk. When Al Ain Dairy farm merged with Al Ain Poultry farm in 1996 to form Al Ain Farms, nearly 54 per cent of the shares in the new company were given to more than 7,500 low-income Emiratis.
Now, 32 years after its conception, the dairy has become the country's largest in terms of its product portfolio. It has about 6,000 Friesian cows, 800 milking camels, and there are plans to double in size in the not-so-distant future. But, rearing and keeping dairy cows in the desert is not without its struggles.
"There are plenty of challenges," says Mr Menon. "Cows are not made to be reared in the desert in the first instance, so that in itself is a huge, huge challenge.
"Trying to bring an animal to where it's not supposed to be, and trying to get the quantities of milk up to European or Australian standards, is not easy.
"This is an intimidating and hostile environment. The primary challenge is getting the cows to adapt and live in this harsh desert environment. To do that you have to have a good understanding of the animal and provide them with the conditions that help."
Fortunately, the dairy has a secret weapon in the form of Irishman Patrick O'Dwyer, who started dairy farming in the Middle East in 1991, at the end of the Gulf War, when he was just 23.
From a long line of dairy farmers, Mr O'Dwyer was recruited to Saudi Arabia to work for a dairy farm set up by a Saudi national and two fellow Irishmen. He moved to Al Ain Dairy four years ago.
"I was born on a dairy farm, I've lived with cows all my life and I don't know anything else," he says. "It is difficult but there are other places to learn from, the farming we do here is the same system as in Arizona and South California. All the dairies in the Middle East copy the methods - the cooling systems here come from outside Phoenix.
"But there's a lot of know-how. You couldn't just land an Irish farmer or an English farmer here and tell them to go do it. It wouldn't work."
The sandy area where the cows are kept has a large metal roof, with fabric awnings that can be pulled out to provide more shade when needed.
A cooling system keeps the temperature between 24°C and 26°C, even when the actual temperature hits 50°C.
"The cost of creating buildings to keep the cows indoors is very high, and there are also problems with the excrement - the ammonia can build up to dangerous levels. All in all it's better to have them outside, as strange as that seems."
Mr O'Dwyer, 46, who was born in Carlow, in south-east Ireland, says it's not only the heat that makes dairy farming difficult, there's also the rising prices of feed to consider.
The cows consume about 40,000 tonnes of food each year, half of which is dried alfalfa, and the prices rise annually, while the price for milk is set by the Government at Dh5 a litre. The dairy's current herd is the eighth generation of those first imported in 1981, and have become better at handling the scorching desert temperatures.
There are no bulls on the farm so the staff use artificial insemination.
Any male calves are sold to local farms but Mr O'Dwyer hopes to use the farm's own animals to help with the planned expansion.
"We can grow indigenously by 5 per cent a year," he says. "So this will account for some of the expansion. The others will be imported."
The cows, he adds, will come either by ship, which is his preferred method, or by plane.
"You can fit 182 heifers on a normal jumbo jet but by ship is easier on the animals because they are fed and watered all the way, and there has to be an approved vet from the supply country to make sure they are looked after," he says.
"Yes it takes three or four week from the US, or 17 days from Australia, but the animals aren't stressed when they arrive."
The cows eligible for milking -which doesn't include the pregnant heifers, or those younger than 2 - are milked four times a day in the state-of-the-art milking hall. They produce between 33 and 34 litres a day on average.
For most of the staff, including Mr O'Dwyer, working on the dairy farm is an intense job. Many of them live on-site and are on call 24 hours a day if there are any problems.
"They say there are only two professions that enjoy getting up in the morning and going to work - fisherman and farmers. If I didn't love my job I wouldn't do it, and this is all I know now. And we do it well here, we won the BBC Good Food Middle East Award for best milk twice in a row. That's important to us."
Ironically, the dairy's biggest competitor is Mr O'Dwyer's former employer, Almarai, which sits over the border in Saudi Arabia.
Because a lot of the food and drink consumed in the UAE contains little obvious information about its origin, it's hard for consumers to know where their milk is coming from.
For Mr Menon, the chief operating officer, it's important to get the message out that consumers should be buying local, if, for no other reason than their cow-to-consumer time is shorter than its Saudi Arabian neighbours can offer.
The factory on the farm pasteurises and bottles all the milk. It doesn't have any contact with humans until the bottles are picked off the conveyor belt and put into plastic crates ready to be transported to the supermarkets and grocery stores. By this point the milk is already sealed.
It is transferred straight from the milking hall in underground pipes to the factory, where it undergoes all the necessary safety tests and checks, before being bottled.
The bottling machines work at an impressive rate of filling and sealing 180 half-litre bottles a minute.
"We make the milk here, and we ship it out the same day," Mr Menon says. "It isn't possible to do this with the milk from Saudi. If for no other reason, this is why people should choose local milk."
It is not only cows' milk that is sent out the dairy every day, there is also a growing market in camel milk.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates the market could be worth up to US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn) if its promoted and developed properly.
These figures are not lost on Al Ain Dairy, which is expanding its camel milk operation as quickly and safely as it can. There are about 800 female animals and one automated milking hall, with each camel pumping out an average of 8 litres.
A year ago the camels were milked by hand and even today the new arrivals, which are usually bought from local farms, are hand-milked until they get comfortable with the machinery.
"We need to double the amount of camels but in the market these numbers aren't available, so we have to buy 10 or 20 at a time," explains Dr Abdul Aziz Sanad, who has been at the diary for 19 years.
"When they arrive it takes some time for them to get used to the machinery, we cannot do it straight away.
"People from Europe and America, I think they misunderstand the camels a lot. They think they aren't friendly with the humans. If you look at the history and who is saving the people in the desert? It's the camel. They should be respected."
The camels produce milk for a year after giving birth, at which point they are put out to get pregnant again, naturally, unlike the cows.
According to the FAO, camel milk is three times as rich in vitamin C than cows' milk.
"Camel milk is very, very good for you and Arabs drink it a lot. I am looking forward to expanding, it's a challenge for us but we can do it."