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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

How to milk a camel — it's not as straightforward as you might think 

From farm to table, camel milk takes a long and complex route

Camels are mechanically milked at the Al Ain Dairy Farm. Sammy Dallal / The National
Camels are mechanically milked at the Al Ain Dairy Farm. Sammy Dallal / The National

Fans of camel milk may not realise the amount of trouble taken to get their favourite drink to the breakfast table.

While cows readily take to being milked by machine, there are complicating factors when it comes to dromedaries.

These have been explored in a recent paper in the Emirates Journal of Food and Agriculture by a German-based scientist, Prof Shehadeh Kaskous.

In camels, between 90 and 95 per cent of milk is stored in structures within the udder called the alveoli, which are tiny sacs lined with milk-producing cells.

For all milk-producing species, the milk must be released from these sacs and enter cavities in the udder called cisterns, which are above the teats. This release is called milk let-down.

The hormone oxytocin, released by a gland at the base of the brain called the pituitary, is central to this because it triggers the contraction of myoepithelial cells surrounding the alveoli, causing milk let-down.

For the pituitary to release oxytocin, the udder has to be stimulated, something that under natural conditions would involve a calf.

A camel farmer drinks fresh camel milk from a bowl after a milking competition at the Camel Festival in Madinat Zayed in 2010. Galen Clarke / The National
A camel farmer drinks fresh camel milk from a bowl after a milking competition at the Camel Festival in Madinat Zayed in 2010. Galen Clarke / The National

In his paper, titled Physiology of Lactation and Machine Milking in the Dromedary She-Camel, Prof Kaskous notes that one to two minutes of hand stimulation of the udders is normally enough.

On many farms, the whole milking process still takes place by hand, with machines limited to larger-scale farms. In cows, stimulation is done by the milking machine.

Prof Kaskous, who works for a company called Silinconform that produces silicone parts used in milking machines, writes that important factors include the strength of the vacuum that draws the milk from the teats, as well as the pulsation frequency.

The vacuum is applied in pulses that alternate with atmospheric pressure. A continuous vacuum would be unpleasant for the animal and could damage the teats.

Earlier research by the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai indicates that good performance is achieved when there is a pressure of 50 kilopascals (kPa) and 60 pulses a minute. And the ideal is for camels, like cows, to be milked twice a day.

Milking camels is more labour-intensive than milking cows, even with machines. In a milking room with 20 camels at Al Ain Dairy’s camel farm, there are six workers, compared with two or three needed for 20 cows.

“They make some noise, they do stimulation of the udder and they attach, very carefully, the teat cups,” says Dr Abdul Raziq Kakar, technical manager at the farm and founder of Camel4Life, which encourages the use of camels by poorer communities.

To produce a very good milking camel will take a lot of generations of selective breeding . Pawan Singh / The National 
To produce a very good milking camel will take a lot of generations of selective breeding . Pawan Singh / The National 

Prof Kaskous says machines that take into account the particular shape and physiology of camels are needed if milk yields are to be maximised.

Machines used with camels are cow milking machines optimised for camels during a project at the Dubai laboratory. They were fine-tuned at the Camelicious Dairy Farm in Dubai by veterinarians Drs Jutka Juhasz and Peter Nagy.

All camels are individual, so the machine settings, such as the pressure applied, that are ideal for one animal may not be for another.

“You cannot apply the same pressure for the whole population because some have very tight teats, some are easy milkers and strong milkers,” Prof Kaskous says.

“We have some amendments, like the teat cups, like the pulsation ratio, which we change manually. But you cannot say this machine is exactly designed for camels.”

Dr Kakar says improvements to milking machines would help but he believes other factors are more important.

The “utmost need” is genetic selection to improve the milk-producing camel population. This is a view shared by Dr Ulrich Wernery, the laboratory’s scientific director.

“The main subject is genetic selection to breed proper milking camels as we have done with the Holstein Friesian cattle,” Dr Wernery says.

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A veteran researcher into camel dairy production, Dr Wernery says that decades of selection have produced modern-day Holstein Friesian cattle, animals familiar in dairy farms across the world, including the UAE.

They are known for their large yields, with some animals producing more than 8,500 litres of milk a year. But selection of Holstein Friesians, a breed that originated in the Netherlands and northern Germany, has created animals that do more than produce a lot of milk.

It has also led to populations in which animals vary little in terms of their udder characteristics. The overall udder size and the teat length tends to be consistent.

Such uniformity makes it easier to use milking machines, and Dr Wernery would like to see similar consistency with dairy camels. Much of the breeding until now has focused on speed for racing or transport rather than on milking characteristics.

“If you have a good milking camel, that means you have a camel with a unique udder, unique teats, the same size and length of teat,” he says. “It’s difficult to have a unique milking machine because you do not have a proper milking camel.”

Selection in cows can take place more quickly than in camels, because a dairy cow will usually give birth to her first calf when she is two to three years old, whereas camels are about five or six when this happens. So although change can be achieved, it will not happen overnight.

“To produce a very good milking camel will take a lot of generations of selective breeding,” Dr Wernery says. “It takes time, like it took time for the cow dairy industry.”