x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Desert milk, from farm to fridge

How do we get fresh milk every day in the middle of the desert.? The answer, as revealed in a new TV documentary, is one of the world's largest dairies.

Al Amarai started with 300 cows in 1977 – it now owns a herd of 135,000.
Al Amarai started with 300 cows in 1977 – it now owns a herd of 135,000.

Sometimes the most extraordinary aspects of life in the UAE can be the most mundane.

Across the country this morning, hundreds of thousands of families will open the refrigerator door and pull out a bottle of fresh cow's milk.

As they add the cool, nutritious liquid to their morning coffee or breakfast cereal, how many will give a second thought to their action?

Yet the idea of fresh milk is surely preposterous. This is an arid desert land where summer temperatures regularly hit the high 40s. It is hardly cattle country. Cows do not happily graze on sand, nor do they enjoy blistering heat.

But visit any supermarket or corner grocery store and there they are - bottles of fresh milk in all their frigid splendour. Enough for all of us and at a price affordable to the most modest budget.

And not just milk. All manner of related products - low fat, lactofree, laban. Flavoured with chocolate and strawberries. Yoghurt, plain and full of fruit. All with a shelf life that indicates freshness. Where does it all come from?

The answer, in part, is revealed in a documentary tomorrow evening about the world's largest vertically integrated dairy. The new series of Megafactories, on National Geographic Abu Dhabi - part of Abu Dhabi Media, which also produces The National - begins with a look inside the huge Almarai plant in Saudi Arabia.

Megafactories has previously focused on multinational companies such as BMW, Ikea and Apache helicopters. Almarai operates on a similar scale.

The label is familiar across Arabian Gulf nations, including the UAE, and with good reason. Despite being the Arabic for "pasture", Almarai produces industrial quantities of fresh milk.

Starting with 300 cows when it was founded in 1977, the dairy now owns a herd of 135,000 Holstein cows. The breed was developed in the Netherlands hundreds of years ago and now has an international reputation for high levels of product.

Almarai keeps its herd in six "superfarms", all located outside Riyadh. Milking takes place four times a day, involving up to 300 cows at a time. They receive round-the-clock attention, kept cool by a misting system.

The desert cows each yield an average of 13,000 litres of milk every day - double the average of their European sisters. They produce a river of milk of about 2.5 million litres a day - enough to fill 10 Olympic sized swimming pools.

Megafactories: Almarai follows the production process from udder to fridge. From the superfarms, the fresh milk is delivered directly to 268,000 square metres of processing plants.

The raw milk is first homogenised, or mixed together to provide a consistent liquid, through a vast network of pipes, sensors and temperature gauges. It is then pasteurised at high temperature to kill off any harmful bacteria and to give it a longer shelf life.

About two thirds of the milk is used for other dairy products such as yoghurts and cheese. The rest is sent for bottling. The company also produces all its own bottles, cutting, moulding and cleaning them on site.

Milk and containers meet in the bottling plant, then are labelled and given colour-coded caps that indicate the type of milk, such as full-fat or skimmed.

Once filled, the bottles are held in a 13,000-square-metre cold storage facility, which can hold 235,000 crates, each with nine bottles - or more than two million containers.

The numbers continue to add up. Preparing the milk for delivery takes only a few hours - getting it to the customer requires equal speed.

Almarai operates a fleet of 2,975 lorries and vans and estimates that carrying its milk products across the region covers more the 193 million kilometres a year - equal to circling the world 4,800 times.

Last month, the company announced second-quarter profit of 379.5 million riyals (Dh371.6m) - a rise of 8.7 per cent from the same period last year.

Half a century ago, fresh milk on the Arabian Peninsula came from goats or camels and was stored in earthenware jars soaked in water in lieu of a fridge.

Families would preserve it longer by placing it in a goatskin container, then swinging it vigorously back and forth to produce buttermilk and a yoghurt-like drink still known as laban.

Cow's milk came in a can, evaporated, condensed or powdered. Brands such as Rainbow and Carnation still retain a hold on the domestic market today. Dried milk from Nestle and Anchor remains one of the top-selling items at Dubai Duty Free.

But fresh milk is now king and the mega-demand means megafactories such as Almarai. The desert cows have their work cut out.

 

jlangton@thenational.ae

 

Megafactories: Almarai is on National Geographic Abu Dhabi tomorrow at 11pm.