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Almarai: Milking the desert

Here in the desert north of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, the sun is blasting 117-degree heat with a force that is almost mechanical, like a…

Here in the desert north of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, the sun is blasting 117-degree heat with a force that is almost mechanical, like a hair dryer. Along the road from Riyadh, only camels stand undaunted in the noon sun. Their herdsmen are out of sight, taking refuge in tents nearby.
Clearly, a tough place for a dairy. But just down the road from the camels, this flat stretch of desert and date palms hosts the cattle farms and processing plants of the Middle East’s largest dairy by value.
Under the shade of metal-topped open-sided sheds, 67,000 black-and-white splotched Holstein-Friesians owned by Saudi Arabia-based Almarai Co. mill about, poking their noses in search of stray feed or lying down, staring out at the sand.
Making a dairy successful in one of the hottest spots on earth—where, at natural temperatures, milk production would plummet, dairy products would spoil and dangerous bacteria would breed—requires pushing technology to the limit, Almarai managers and U.S. dairy experts say.
Holstein-Friesians are high-yield dairy cattle by nature. But keeping them producing when summer temperatures top 120 degrees entails keeping them cool, comfortable and clean. Only by automating each moment can Almarai run one of the world’s largest dairies—135,000 head of cattle in all, including those too young to milk—in a desert that’s all palm trees and no pasture.
In the sheds, misting sprays, fans and the shade cooled the cows to a target range between 70 and 75 degrees. And four times daily, before each milking, workers put the cattle over stationary metal water jets to spray off manure and anything else that could contaminate the milk.
But of all the technology for desert dairies, the misting sprays are key. Just hosing the cows off would create moist environments where disease could flourish, says Leslie Butler, a dairy-marketing expert at the University of California, Davis.
To control both the heat and the moisture, high-end, high-tech desert dairies deploy systems like the widely used coolers of Korral Kool Inc., of Mesa, Ariz. Scientists from Arizona to Taiwan worked for decades developing the misters. Now mounted overhead in the sheds, the coolers send out twisting cyclones of water droplets and air, continuously wetting the cows’ hides to cool them and drying them off so that puddles won’t build. Computers in the coolers monitor the temperatures and humidity in the cow sheds, maximizing the convective cooling.
Almarai’s milk cattle are held to a quota of at least 40 liters, or 10.6 gallons, a day, a normal rate for Holsteins, which typically produce twice the milk of the Jersey cattle favored by European dairies.
At one of the Almarai milking parlors, cattle and dairy employees work smoothly in a routine that gets a line of 50 cattle in, milked, and out within 15 minutes. Unbidden, the cattle back in to the automatic milkers, lining up flank to flank like Rockettes. The dairy workers then flick on digital meters to record each cow’s milk production, and robotic arms raise the mechanical milkers, which the dairy workers attach. Afterwards, the milk will go to chilling units, which cool it to about 40 degrees within five minutes.
Strolling through the milking parlor, Mr. Chan notices one cow, identified by its tag as No. 609, whose yield is down to less than a liter per milking. Putting a hand to one side of his mouth, he stage-whispers “Ham-burger!”—a hint about what happens to cows that don’t meet their quota.
A short while later, he again spots No. 609. Dairy workers have already pulled her out of the herd, and she’s standing alone on a siding, tossing her head and looking about.
After the cows are milked, thousands of refrigerated vans and dozens of refrigerated tanker trucks deliver both fresh and boxed milk, yogurt, creams favored in the Arab world and Gulf like zabadi and lebneh, and other goods to 55,000 stores in six Gulf nations.
Almarai claims to be the largest vertically integrated dairy in the world. That means the dairy oversees each step of its business, down to dealing with a village store owner prone to turning off his dairy coolers at night to save money, says Alan Bennett, an Almarai plant manager. Last year, the company generated $304 million in net income and $2.1 billion in sales.
Critics warn that the high yield of Almarai and other Saudi agricultural ventures carries a hidden cost. Government energy subsidies made possible by Saudi Arabia’s oil profits provide cheap electricity for the kingdom’s industry and agriculture but contribute to soaring domestic energy consumption. Saudi agriculture also draws on the kingdom’s natural aquifers, which are fast running dry. Acknowledging the drain on its resources, the Saudi government has moved to pull back on some agriculture. Meanwhile, Mr. Bennett notes, Almarai recycles the water from the cow washes and other dairy facilities.
Almarai’s emphasis on “happy cows” is apparently not some front-office dogma but part of an increasingly valued production precept for dairies around the world, says Mr. Butler, the dairy-marketing expert. He adds that California dairy producers have also recognized “that cow comfort is the thing that produces.”
Almarai Co, the largest dairy company in Saudi Arabia by market value, operates dairy farms and processes food, in addition to marketing dairy products and fruit juices. The name Almarai means ‘green pastures’ in Arabic. 
The firm began 2009 in bold fashion as it looks to consolidate its presence in the Kingdom and expand overseas. It announced later that it was entering into a joint venture with drinks giant PepsiCo to invest in dairy and juice processors in the Middle East, South East Asia and Africa. Known as International Dairy and Juice, the venture will be 52 percent owned by PepsiCo and 48 percent by Almarai. 
A month later, Almarai announced it would invest $173m to build a baby-formula food plant. The company would start selling baby-food products within 18 months of the investment, it said in a statement.
Notes about Almarai’s dairy company
• Largest integrated dairy company in the world with a total herd size of 45,000 Holstein Friesian cows (pure bred) on their 3 farms (other sources put their population at 67,000). Operates the largest dairy processing facility (1.5 million liters daily)
• Largest dairy and foods company in the Middle East, with a 40% share of the fresh dairy market concentrating on the production and sale of high quality fresh dairy food fresh laban, fresh milk and fresh yoghurt as well as a wide range of processed cheese, butter, juices and desserts.
• Employs more than 4,000 staff drawn from more than 30 different countries.
• Almarai is the first dairy farm in the world to gain ISO 9002 accreditation. Voted “World’s Food Plant of the Year 1998” by the US-based “Food International” Magazine.
• The Almarai dairy system concentrates on animal well being through top-class husbandry techniques, feed patterns and content, health and fertility schedules, coupled with environmental control and world-class stockmanship skills at farm level.
• The pedigree herd of Holstein Friesian Cows is fed top quality forage, which is grown on the division’s own arable farms, and a range of concentrates on a zero grazing basis. Forage is grown in 8,000 hectares of desert under modern irrigation systems.

Culled from Wall Street Journal and arabianBUSINESS.COM

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