Saturday, 11 May 2013

A Dairy Farm In The Desert

Al Marai is 'the largest integrated dairy foods company in the world'.  They also run the largest dairy farm in the desert.  (Al Safi used to have that honor, but I think they got tipped of the title).

When I first heard there was a diary farm just outside of Riyadh, I didn't believe it.  Who, in their right mind, would raise dairy cows in such a dry, barren place?  But, this is Saudi Arabia.  Anything is possible.   So, there are not one, but two, company's raising cows, south of Riyadh.   Al Marai, which apparently means 'green pastures' in Arabic, is the one we had the chance to visit.

The establishment of Al Marai is credited to two Irishmen (of course the Irish would think cows in the desert is a great idea!) and Prince Sultan bin Mohammed bin Saud Al Kabeer back in 1976.  Who knew that a crazy idea to process fresh milk and laban, and access to money, would result in the huge company that Al Marai is today!  Not only do they run one of the most technologically advanced farms in the world with umpteeen thousand cows heading off to milking four times a day,(not to mention the other 27,000 or so calves reared to join the milking herd) they also run a bakery, a poultry farm and are entering the infant nutrition market.

Visiting Al Marai Farm has been on my list of 'things to do in Riyadh' ever since I heard about it.  I wanted to know how well the cows were cared for, after all, the Saudi desert can hardly be considered the best place for bovine types to live happily.  I had visions of cows swooning in the summer heat even though Hubster assured me they probably lived indoors.  Hmmmm....

Not to mention cows need a lot of food and they drink gallons of water.  Everyday.  It's hard enough keeping the human populace fed and watered in Saudi, much less thirsty cattle.

Rumours regarding the water usage at Al Marai are the reason I first learned of the farm.  It popped into a conversation we were having with some other blokes about the issue of a desert nations water supply (or lack thereof).

Al Marai Farms (because they have six at last count) are located on the outskirts of Al Kharj.  Beneath Al Kharj are numerous underground waterways, and that most precious resource makes its way to the surface via natural, and man-made, wells, which is why the area was renowned for its gardening and greenery.  Rumour has it that the dairy farm depleted those water reserves, though al Marai disagrees.  I gotta say, having been around a cow or two on the farm and seen how much they drink,  the idea doesn't sound totally improbable, given the size of Al Marai's herds - over 135,000 Holstein cows, apparently.

A few of the girls, chasing after us as we drive past on the bus. 
Common sense wonders why huge camel milking farms haven't been set up.  After all, it's an animal adapted to the climate, there's plenty of them, the milk is very good for you and it tastes pretty good too. ( I've tried it a few times now, heading to the camel markets for camel milk).   Though if they'd done that, then I couldn't say I've been to a dairy farm in the desert, could I!

A number of Kiwi's work for Al Marai (being the fabulous farming nation we are) and every one of them has said what a great outfit Al Marai is and how well run they are and, more importantly, how well cared for and healthy the stock is.  With those kind of raps I was looking forward to this trip.

The American Community in Riyadh organised this get-together.  Hubster was dragged along complaining that he had lots of work to do. (We're still working on his work/life balance).  At the end of the day, he had to admit he enjoyed his time.

Our first stop was the bakery.
I hadn't realised Al Marai had a bakery, but they do.
They also had loads of give aways.  We do love give-aways.

Biscuits and bread were on the conveyor belts the day we visited.  I have to say, for a bakery there wasn't a flake of flour dropped on the floor anywhere.  The place is extremely clean, which is something the head honchos at al Marai pride themselves on.

On one side of the bakery blokes were prepping dough for one product...

... while down in front of us cookie dough was being cut into shapes and then run through an oven...

...and out the other side came bikkies, baked and ready to be packed.

While over yonder in another area bread was going up the runway.

It was all very interesting, and the kids had fun.  There was a whole corridor of things to play with.  But we had come to see cows, so back on the bus we hopped with as many free croissants, pastries and biscuits stuffed into my bag as I could get in anticipation of the next stop.

At the farm gate we were disinfected... the office door we were put into white coats...

...then off to the cowshed we headed.  Of course, they call the cowshed a parlour.  The best kept cows in the country wouldn't be milked in anything else, would they?

As we rounded the corner to the cowshed I did a deep inhale.  Ahhh, the smell of a milking shed!  It's hard to describe.  It's fresh milk, electric pumps and huge milk vats mixed with cow dung on concrete floors and a hint of earth carried in from the farm.  It brings back memories of carrying the billy down the dirt race, climbing over the cowshed railings and watching Mr Reeves and the boys washing udders, slapping on milking suction cups and hearing the regular pump and hiss as cows stand patiently (usually) waiting to be released.

The blokes working in the Milking Parlours at Al Marai were surrounded by interested spectators, eager to find out how this place ticks, asking numerous questions and taking even more pictures.  I was struck by how streamlined and automated the milking process was, and how clean, almost clinical, the shed  parlour was.

One thing was for sure, being fed top quality food (they told us it was top quality because they grow a lot of it), and milked so often each day, the udders on these girls were bursting.  As with everywhere else on the farm, everything is closely monitored.  Computers can ID each cow and tell how much milk they give.  These Holsteins can average 13,000 litres a year.  Given the human population being fed totals 26 million (or there abouts) the girls have to be kept at the pump!  I presume there's a knackers nearby for those who don't make the grade.  And no mention was made of cows kept on antibiotics for their health, but then, nobody asked.

After we'd had our fill of watching cows being milked, it was back onto the bus for a drive through the, I was going to say paddocks but these girls are housed under shelters.  Our trip was in January, which is not the hottest time of the year in Saudi, but it was still a warm day.  Even under mist sprayed and fanned shelters it must get terribly hot for the girls in the height of summer.

The farm is very organised with areas set aside for milking cows, cows to be impregnated, birthing cows - we passed a labouring cow with a couple of hooves sticking out her rear end who was being closely watched, from a reasonable distance, by one of the workers (and there were lots of Oh Wow from city folks).  It's all very organised.  Young calves, taken from their mothers soon after being born, were housed in rows and rows of individual calf pens.  Females to be reared for milking in one area while males, who aren't much use on a dairy farm, are kept off to the side.  As I wasn't keeping up with the commentary I'm not sure where the boys get sent.  That knackers down the road probably.

It's easy to feel sorry for something that looks so cute and you know should be frolicking in a grassy field with her mates, but the folks at Al Marai know what they are doing.  Al Marai is a huge business and it wouldn't be as successful if it's systems weren't top notch and those systems include maintaining a healthy herd.

After looking at the farm we were transported to a processing plant where, on one side, flavoured milk is packed into cartons and, on the other side, fruit juice is made.

Then, after taking a couple of selfies out front...

... it was back on the bus and I thought we were heading home, but no.  We were treated to the most fantastic feast.  That just topped our day.  If you get a chance to go have a squiz at Al Marai do so.  It's a fascinating place, especially if you're missing the farm.  You can either hook up with one of the expat groups going or, to organise your own tour of Al Marai's desert dairy farm and processing factories, visit the Al Marai website for all the contact details.

Ka Kite,

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