Modern farms now produce most of the dairy products consumed in Saudi Arabia today.

In a land renowned for its vast stretches of desert, few people would imagine that Saudi Arabia has a thriving dairy industry. However, Saudi farmers have reconciled environment with necessity, and today there are 60,000 cows, whose milk has made the nation nearly self-sufficient in its dairy needs.

The story of the Saudi dairy industry's growth from small, scattered farms to massive concerns equipped with state-of-the-art machinery and large stocks of cattle is all the more riveting when considering the obstacles it has had to overcome and the skepticism it has faced. The two greatest challenges have come from the harsh climate and lack of adequate grazing land - factors not easily changed. However, relying on ingenuity and perseverance, and supported by extensive government programs, Saudi dairy farmers increased their annual production from 156,000 tons in 1970 to 648,000 in 1995, in the process generating revenues of six billion Saudi riyals (1.6 billion U.S. dollars) a year. Traditionally an importer of dairy products, today more than 60 percent of the Kingdom's dairy needs are already met locally, and efforts are underway to expand that figure to 100 percent. Saudi dairies also export their products to neighboring countries. In 1994, Saudi dairy exports totaled 47,000 tons to the Arabian Gulf States.

Photo: Michael Barnes
Photo: Michael Barnes
Saudi dairy farms, such as this one in Al-Kharj, are extensive operations, producing feed for their growing herds.

In 1980, Saudi Arabia had only three specialized dairy farms. Today there are 60. Most are large cattle operations located in the Al-Kharj area, outside Riyadh, because the climate there is less humid and more conducive to cattle-rearing. Riyadh Province has approximately 16 dairy projects, there are 14 in the Eastern Province and eight in the Western region. The remainder are scattered throughout other parts of the Kingdom.

The cattle bred in Saudi Arabia are primarily the well-known Holsteins, easily recognized by their distinctive black-and-white markings. This line originated in Europe nearly 2,000 years ago in the Rhine Delta region, in what is today the Netherlands. They are a popular breed because of their unparalleled milk production and adaptability to a wide range of environmental conditions. The Holsteins in the Saudi dairy farms originally came from stock in the United States. A much smaller number of Friesian cattle, another branch of the Holstein family, has been imported from Europe. Today, most dairy farmers use sophisticated computerized programs to assist them in mating and artificially inseminating cattle to produce the best quality milking cows.

At the Department of Arid Land Agriculture at the King Abdul Aziz University (KAAU) in Jeddah, Saudi scientists have been working since 1985 to develop a new breed by crossing Holsteins with the more vigorous domestic stock. Cows from the region produce only 200 gallons of milk annually. By crossing them with the higher producing Holstein, the scientists hope to combine the positive traits of each breed to develop a hardier animal with an annual milk production of around 520 gallons. The scientists at KAAU have successfully bred three generations of this cross-breed and have begun to send them to other research farms in the Kingdom for further breeding and study.

Cows are usually bred sometime between 14 and 20 months of age, in order to initiate their production of milk. However, a heifer must weigh at least 800 to 1,200 pounds before the farmer will mate her. This helps to ensure a healthy calf and mother. Calf gestation is the same as for humans, approximately nine months. During gestation, the heifer will begin to produce milk, and her production will peak for about 45 days around her second birthday. After this point, her milk will begin to show a gradual linear decrease.

For the last two months of the calf's incubation, the farmer will not usually milk the mother, in order to protect the health of both animals. This is called the dry period. Lactation requires great reserves of the female's energy, which it is counterproductive to expend on commercial milking at this point in her gestation. The farmer will normally increase the nutrients in the heifer's feed to assist her in maintaining her own body weight and to allow her calf to grow. At birth, a healthy Holstein calf weighs approximately 90 pounds.

Once the calf is born, it will remain to be nursed by its mother for only a couple of days. Her first milk, called colostrum, contains nutrients which provide important antibodies and protein molecules which help the calf resist disease and fortify it for the early stages of life. After the calf has been separated from its mother, it will be fed pooled milk from all the cows, in addition to special feed high in proteins, vitamins and including antibiotics.

After having calved, the cow will resume her place in the milking parlor. Ideally, each female Holstein will produce two or three more calves during its lifetime. While some cows may live considerably longer, the average productive life of a Holstein is three to four years.

Saudi dairy farms usually cover large expanses of land, but instead of using precious pastures, which would be unable to sustain large herds of cattle for very long, domestic cows subsist on grain feed alone. The average 1,400 pound cow will consume 60 pounds of dry feed and 40 to 50 gallons of water daily. Saudi farmers grow alfalfa for feed and add to it concentrated alfalfa hay, grain, soybean meal, corn and cotton seed. Most of these concentrates are imported. In hot and humid temperatures above 80 Fahrenheit, such as those in the Arabian peninsula, it is important to keep feed fresh. In order to do this, cattle are fed smaller portions several times a day from large feed lines which are shaded for protection. Farmers must be careful to keep their cattle's feed consumption high, otherwise their milk production will decrease.

After being milked in automated milking parlors (top), dairy cows rest in shaded paddocks (bottom).

Saudi farmers have also had to be creative and employ different methods to protect their herds from the extreme heat. The most prevalent techniques are to cool the cows under sprinklers and then have industrial-sized fans blow air on them. On extremely hot days, sprinklers are used while the cows are eating to keep them comfortable and their appetites hearty. Another effective mechanism Saudi farmers use is a contraption called a "cattle cooler", a large unit that blows cooling mist and air simultaneously on the herd. Cows on Saudi dairy farms live in open enclosures where they exercise and sleep. Their barns usually consist of a roofed structure that has canvas flaps which can be lowered to protect cattle from bright sun and intense heat.

When it is time to milk the cows, the dairymen lead them into a structure called the milking parlor. At farms such as one in Al-Kharj that is owned by Al-Marai, over 1,200 cows are milked three times daily. Al-Marai, the Kingdom's leading dairy company, has over 14,000 head of cattle at its numerous farms throughout the region. On average, each milking parlor can accommodate up to 40 cows at a time in its double stalls. Cows stand on a platform about three feet high so that the milkman can be at a good height relative to the animal's udder. State-of-the-art milking equipment, such as that at Al-Marai's farms, can cost upwards of 1.125 million riyals (300,000 U.S. dollars) per 40-stall parlor. Computerized systems track cows as they enter the parlor by a tag affixed to each animal's ear. The tag is scanned by a machine which notes its bar code. This provides a complete profile of each individual cow, from what blend of feed it needs, to medication it might require, to records of its milk production. From the time the cow enters the milking stall, is prepped, milked and returned to the field takes only ten minutes. In order to milk such large numbers of cattle, crews work 24 hours a day.

Saudi dairy companies process milk into a variety of products, including ice cream and yogurt. A technician at a laboratory (middle) checks for quality.

Saudi milking crews follow the most rigorous of health standards when obtaining and storing milk. First the cow's udder is sterilized to remove dirt or bacteria that could contaminate the milk. The cleaning also stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin, which releases the milk from the alveoli cells in the mammary glands. The milk then flows into the teat cistern and then the teat canal. The vacuum-like pressure and pulsing of the milking machine draws the milk down into teat cups, which are connected to a rubber hose that passes the milk, untouched by human hands, into the milk line, where it is deposited in massive storage tanks which can hold several thousand gallons of milk and keep it cooled to 40 Fahrenheit. The milk remains in the storage tank until refrigerated tanker trucks collect it, usually every day to day-and-a-half, and take it to processing plants. While some very large dairy operations have their processing plants on or near the farm, the majority of the dairy factories are located near cities.

At the processing plants, the milk is pasteurized and packaged for drinking, or processed into other products such as cheese, yogurt, ice cream and reduced-fat milk. Nearly 70 percent of all Saudi milk is used to process a beverage called laban, a refreshing and popular drink.

Al-Safi dairy farm in Al-Kharj is another large cattle operation. It was established on a 2,500 hectare plot with 3,600 imported Holstein cows. That figure has grown impressively to 13,000 cows, which produce over two million gallons of milk annually. In 1995, Al-Safi had 17 milking parlors, with about 375 milking machines, each capable of servicing 24 to 40 cows at a time. Other success stories include the National Agricultural Development Company (Nadec), the Kingdom's third largest dairy company. Its dairies are stocked with more than 25,000 cows with an annual production capacity of 130,000 gallons. The Al-Rabie Saudi Dairy Company based in Riyadh is also a significant producer. Established in 1980 as a Saudi-Irish joint venture, the company now boasts an annual production of 52,000 tons and employs approximately 300 workers. It uses its milk for recombining purposes, such as reconstituted milk powder which is used in its line of dairy products. Al-Rabie markets its line locally, as well as exporting to other Arabian Gulf and Middle Eastern countries.

The Saudi government has remained steady in its support of this industry, as it is considered a vital segment of the nation's food security policy. The government has also strongly encouraged the private sector's involvement.

The Saudi Arabian Agricultural Bank has also been an active participant from dairy's fledgling days through its phenomenal growth. Its range of support varies from technical advice to long-term interest-free loans. The millions of riyals in loans the Bank has provided farmers has allowed for the expansion of existing farms, the purchase of new ones, the construction of processing plants and the acquisition of new technology and equipment.

The rapid success of the Saudi dairy industry is all the more impressive when one considers the great skepticism it has faced and the hurdles it has overcome in its march toward self-sufficiency.

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