When you consider how British Dairy herds bloom on lush green pastures, it’s hard to imagine how they’d thrive anywhere more extreme.
UK farmers often think they have it tough with the changeable weather that farming on a temperate island brings. With the potential for extreme flooding and freezing temperatures in winter and blistering sun in summer, it’s sometimes hard to believe anyone has it any tougher. But rest assured, they do.
We had a chat with our well-traveled, Global Technical Manager here at Volac Wilmar Feed Ingredients – Dr. Richard Kirkland, to pick his brains on the challenges of dairy farming in some of the more extreme climates around the globe.
As part of his role at Volac, Richard has traveled far and wide, to destinations including the Middle East, South America, Australia, and New Zealand to name but a few, so we can’t think of anyone better armed to share such knowledge and insight.
Where in the world is most challenging?
Well where do we start?! ‘Challenging’ you said… what sort of challenging are you after?
With high temperatures and humidity year-round, there’s never really a ‘cool’ period in the Middle East. Farms developed in these areas to meet an identified need for local nutritious dairy products and it has taken the innovative thinking and expertise of many to enable this to happen and continue to prosper.
Temperatures on the UAE and Saudi farms reached a scorching 50°C during 2020, creating the huge challenge of providing mechanisms to cool their high-performing herds. When you consider that large herds in these regions typically consist of thousands of cows – sometimes tens of thousands, often yielding 11,000 – 16,000 litres per lactation, this is no lean undertaking.
Richard explains the situation further, “Forage and feed cannot be grown locally for these farms as the demand for water to grow crops is too large in the stifling desert sun. Water is a scarce commodity and feeds have to be shipped and trucked from all over the world including the USA and Europe to meet their requirements. Given the size of these herds, it is a major task to source sufficient feed ingredients and to store them safely in the hot conditions.”
Australia is another region that has felt the effect of the sun’s heat over recent years, but in a somewhat different way. In certain parts, farms have become so water-stressed that dairying has been forced to move. Added to this, the extensive bush fires of 2019/2020 created arduous conditions, with lack of feed and the destruction of environments a huge challenge.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the ultra-cold temperatures in places like Siberia, where the mercury falls to -40°C or below, pose their own set of challenges. Preventing the freezing of milking equipment in such environments is certainly a challenge, though management can be excellent on some of the large impressive new farms.
Like the UK, more temperate regions can face their own trials too, with places like New Zealand whose heavy reliance on grazing leaves them just as exposed to the vagaries of the weather. Their need to ensure feedstuffs are available as a buffer is clearly evident.
How are these challenges surmounted?
As any member of the dairy farming community can relate, keeping cows performing well while maintaining the health and welfare of the herd is paramount. Doing this in the extreme heat of the Middle Eastern sun is a huge undertaking. However, the yields achieved on these farms are a clear indicator of the success of their systems.
Maintaining milk quality during storage and transport is quite different to more temperate regions, but here they have adapted to do this successfully with much of the milk processed on-site.
With locally grown feed unavailable and feed supplies coming from such a distance, there is not only a need for storage provision, but also the prevention of deterioration of the feed itself. With lower melting point materials such as some of the fat supplements falling victim to the heat of the sun, this can influence supplement choice massively.
Richard adds: “These farms are large-scale businesses and have to return profits the same as family farm scenarios in other regions, so production and regular supply must be maintained.”
Northern Peru is a great example of a region that has developed their dairy industry around a locally available foodstuff. Our Northern Peruvian counterparts make use of the by-products of the local vegetable growing industry. The downside being that this is generally of low feed value, such that achieving adequate nutrition in the desert conditions typical of farms west of the Andes is quite a task. It is testament only to the farmers, that they have established these dairy units to make use of otherwise waste products, with little natural resource to run a dairy compared with that in more temperate regions.
In New Zealand, herds continue to move to higher supplementation levels with concrete stand-off feeding pads becoming more common. This both reduces risk of low dry matter intakes and increases production, as well as helping to save valuable pasture and forage resource for long periods of unfavourable weather. Of course it’s a very different scenario to the desert sun or Siberian frost, but as we’re sure you can appreciate, prolonged wet or dry spells have major implications for pasture growth and the availability of the primary and cheapest feed.
Does more extreme = more resourceful?
It goes without saying that farmers are the product of one of the most resourceful professions out there, with the need to adapt to weather variances, price volatility and global conditions, regardless of geographical location. Added to this that livestock don’t always behave as you’d want or expect (a notion we’re sure you’re all familiar with!) and you will appreciate that the need to be resourceful and adaptable on an on-going basis is a universal requirement of the job.
The Middle Eastern farming businesses are an extreme example of farmers having to look far beyond their local environment in a way that few other regions have to consider. It’s incredibly unusual for a farm not to be able to utilise home-grown feed of some kind as the base for their feeding regimes as is the situation in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Being so reliant on a global supply base for all their needs, it’s easy to see how any interruption within the supply chain could be very damaging for their industry.
Some of the newest farms in the Middle East have been addressing the need to reduce requirements for natural ground water by securing water through desalination techniques – a major step forward.
In New Zealand, palm kernel meal provides a relatively cheap and bulky addition to the diet of dairy herds to support periods of low pasture growth. Another fabulous example of the sourcing of alternative raw materials to those available locally.
The pros and cons of farming in extreme conditions
One thing that’s unanimous is that farmers have developed, adapted and innovated to work with local conditions in order to provide a nutritious food resource for a regional population. That is something to be celebrated in itself.
We can all appreciate that having the sun on our backs can be very pleasant, but when that sun is searing hot and incessant for prolonged periods of the year, it is somewhat less attractive to be out working in it. We also know how a prolonged wet or dry summer can be equally challenging in temperate climates such as in the UK, with such conditions affecting grass and forage yields and the knock-on effect on the subsequent winter’s feed stocks.
So in summary, dairy farming is challenging, whatever the location. For some regions those challenges are simply intrinsic all-year-round.
What an eye-opener
It’s safe to say we can all be a little guilty of being blindfold to how things are in the rest of the world, so it is with huge thanks to Dr Richard Kirkland that we have been able to share this global knowledge with you.
The resilience and adaptability of the global dairy farming community is quite incredible and certainly to be proud of.