x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Milking the cornflake cows

With searing temperatures and modest rainfall, the UAE is an unlikely place for dairy farms.

Holstein cows feed on a mixture of alfalfa, wheat, cotton seed, ground corn, soy and canola meal, molasses and cornflakes at Al Ain Farms.
Holstein cows feed on a mixture of alfalfa, wheat, cotton seed, ground corn, soy and canola meal, molasses and cornflakes at Al Ain Farms.

With searing temperatures and modest rainfall, the UAE is an unlikely place for dairy farms. The grass the cattle would usually depend on does not naturally grow and the climate is much different from that in the temperate nations where the cows were bred. Yet there are more than 10,000 dairy cattle on farms scattered around the country that together produce hundreds of thousands of litres of milk each day - enough to supply about four-fifths of the country's fresh milk consumption.

The industry relies on importing everything from the alfalfa the animals eat, to the cornflakes added to their feed, to the vials of semen with which they are impregnated. One of the UAE's largest dairy companies is Al Ain Farms, which has three farms around Al Ain. The company's most modern site was built about five years ago and is home to 1,200 milk-producing Holstein or Friesian cows and a similar number of heifers. The other two farms each have about 800 cows.

The animals are housed in open sheds that allow them to wander outside if they choose to. There is compost, rather than grass, on the ground and the animals feed through the metal bars on one side of their enclosure. About 100 animals sharing one to one and a half acres of land. Most stay under cover during the day, spending much of the time lying down and chewing their cud, a process in which the cattle regurgitate food and break it down further.

"A happy, comfortable and well-fed cow will produce a lot of milk," says Pat O'Dwyer, who oversees the three farms. "We are being kind to the cow because there's a commercial reason for it ... It's in our interest to look after the cow and keep her as comfortable as possible." Just how comfortable a cow is depends upon whether it is producing. Those being milked enjoy cooling fans that release water vapour.

"In the middle of the summer we can have an ambient temperature of 26° or 27°C," says Mr O'Dwyer, adding the animals also have water that is cooled to 26° to ensure they drink enough. "This means the production of the cow in summer is at a very high level. Without cooling, it would be much lower." Adult animals that are not being milked have normal fans, while heifers are provided only with water and shade. Mr O'Dwyer says the heifers' smaller bodies dissipate heat more easily.

At the main farm, the annual milk yield per cow is around 10,000 litres, which Mr O'Dwyer says puts the farm among the top 10 to 15 per cent of producers worldwide. "In Europe some are producing as much as us, but the farmer producing milk off grass would looking at 5,000 to 6,000 litres," he says. Another factor in milk yield is the feed. The main component is alfalfa, which is brought in from Spain and California at a rate of 2,000 tonnes a month. Mixed with this is wheat, cotton seed, ground corn, soybean meal, canola meal and molasses. Cornflakes, which are a slightly cruder version of the breakfast cereal, are also included.

"There is more of this than anything else added as you need good-quality cornflakes to keep your cows happy and milking well," says Mr O'Dwyer, who grew up on a farm in Ireland and has also worked on dairy farms in Saudi Arabia. A nutritionists flies in from California four times a year to fine-tune the feed contents. Milkings are at 6am, midday, 6pm and midnight each day and take about five hours for all the animals. The cows are brought into the milking parlour in groups of 100 and remain for about 30 minutes per milking.

They walk into the parlour, which has 40 milking stations, in a similar order each time, with the dominant cow taking her place first. Tags on the animals' ears automatically identify the individual so its milk output can be monitored. After the cows line up at the milking stations, their udders are washed and dried by some of the farm's approximately 40 staff and then milked by machine for three to five minutes. A disinfectant is then applied to the udder.

"They love it," says Mr O'Dwyer of the milking. "The hormones released when they're being milked cause them to relax. It's the same effect as when a calf is sucking." The milk is chilled almost immediately and is taken by tanker to the company's factory a few hundred metres away. Milk from Al Ain Farms' two other farms and from other providers also arrive by tanker at the factory, which also deals with camel milk and produces flavoured drinks. The company owns or takes the milk from about 6,300 of the estimated 11,000 dairy cattle in the UAE.

Milk production varies with the animal's age and how recently she gave birth, with the peak at 40 to 60 days after calving. The farm average is 35 litres per animal per day, although some cows generate more than 50 litres. The cows are artificially inseminated using semen sent frozen from the Netherlands, the US and Canada - countries "where the best genetics for Holsteins are," says Mr O'Dwyer. About nine months after insemination, a cow gives birth and can continue producing milk for up to two years. For most of the time when pregnant, she still produces milk from her previous calf, but for the final two months before giving birth she is not milked and is put into a "holiday pen".

The mother only has about 15 minutes with her newborn before it is removed. This, says Mr O'Dwyer, ensures cows do not become attached to their offspring. Male calves are sold on the local market for beef while the females are kept for eventually milking. Three months after giving birth, a cow is impregnated again so that ideally she will have one calf a year. A cow produces her first calf at between 24 and 36 months old and may be kept for up to 10 more years, although usually it is less than this. Infertile animals and those whose milk production has fallen below about 15 litres per day are slaughtered for beef.

"The cost of the feeds is more than they're giving, so they're not paying for themselves," Mr O'Dwyer says. The main competition for UAE milk producers comes from Al Marai, a Saudi Arabian producer with tens of thousands of cows and which has large farms about 10 hours drive away. Other nations are too far away to supply fresh milk. "They can produce milk an awful lot cheaper [in Saudi Arabia] because diesel oil is dirt cheap there and diesel drives everything," says Mr O'Dwyer. "Also, they can grow their own alfalfa but we have to import it from around the world."

UAE dairy farms probably pay more than twice as much for their alfalfa, according to Mr O'Dwyer. Milk is priced according to an agreement between the producers and the Ministry of Economy, said Dr Hashim al Neaimi, the manager of the consumer protection department. He said no minimum price is imposed by the Government. "We set it and all companies they agree to sell it at the price," he said. "The UAE is a free market but we ... make a balance between the consumer and the private sector."

According to Mr O'Dwyer, the pricing scheme is "the only way we can survive". It prevents lower cost imports from undercutting local producers. "They want to create an indigenous milk production industry because that keeps the wealth for the people," he said. "There's no point letting it go back into Saudi. "This is an indigenous business that pumps money back into the local area and shows what can be achieved with technology in the middle of the desert."