In the News:
Milk flows from desert at a unique Saudi farm

by Craig S. Smith (New York Times, Dec. 31)
Posted January 8, 2003

AL KHARJ, Saudi Arabia -- The American Holstein cows moseying up to a milking line at Al Safi Dairy here are so skinny that they look like a row of piebald dropcloths draped over scaffolding.

"Big, heavy, fat cows just can't take the heat stress," remarked John Gibbs, 64, watching from a window as a young Nepalese man with a bandanna on his head clapped to hurry the bovine procession. The line of listless, udder-emptied animals stirred up a cloud of powdery manure as they ambled back out into the sun.

With its 29,000 cows and costly technology, Al Safi, deep though it is in the Saudi desert, has been certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest "integrated" dairy farm in the world. It grows the hay that the cows eat, turns their milk into crème caramel and strawberry laban, a yogurtlike drink, and delivers it all in Safi trucks to stores across the kingdom.

Mr. Gibbs is in charge of the animals. Almost everything about the place is the opposite of the small dairy farm in the damp green fields of Dorset, England, where he grew up milking fat Jersey cows. Al Safi's fields are dry and brown, the cows are lizard-thin and the farm is gigantic. Most of all, temperatures in the Saudi desert can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

The dairy is the product of a panic after the 1973 Arab oil embargo against Western nations made the Saudi royal family realize its own vulnerability to such tactics. Food was Saudi Arabia's Achilles' heel, so the king decreed that his kingdom should become self-sufficient in its food supply.

The government gave Saudi farmers huge subsidies to import irrigation equipment and to grow grain. It also paid the freight for milk cows to be flown in from Europe and Canada. Al Safi, owned by Prince Abdullah al-Faisal, quickly became the biggest dairy in the country--and soon, the world.

Mr. Gibbs, a large, plainspoken man who had spent much of his life working on farms in africa, was hired 20 years ago to manage the herd, which produces 122,000 gallons of milk a day. Half the herd consists of calves and heifers too young to milk and young bulls that are slaughtered for veal. (Unfortunately for the bulls, breeding occurs by artificial insemination.)

To keep the milk flowing, the cows spend most of their time under open-air sheds fitted with Korral Koolers, special water- spraying fans made by a company in Arizona. The fans lower the temperature under the sheds to about 80 degrees.

Because heavy cows cannot breed easily in the hot weather, they do not produce calves and eventually stop producing milk. When they run dry, they are sent across the road to the slaughterhouse, which the prince also owns. Only the bony cows survive.

Mr. Gibbs watches Nepalese and Indian men, wearing blue aprons, green baseball caps and black boots, as they herd the next group of cows into the milking gates. Automatic sprinklers and blowers wash and dry the animals' udders as they file in.

Al Safi, which means "the pure," has workers from 22 countries. Many are Hindu, which can create difficulties because Hindus consider cows sacred.

"You have to let the Hindus know what is happening when a cow needs to be put down," Mr. Gibbs said with a farmer's matter-of- factness.

The milking parlor, one of six at Al Safi, is among the biggest in the world, milking 120 cows every 12 minutes. At this parlor alone, 3,100 cows are each milked three times a day.

The dairy's technology includes transponders at each milking station that identify the cow, monitor its output and send the information to a central database where each cow's fate is eventually decided.

Mr. Gibbs says no cow is kept once its output falls below 8 liters a day, though most cows calve 10 times before they are worn out.

"It's like the Tour de France all year round in terms of the amount of energy these cows take in and put out," Mr. Gibbs said, the smell of manure heavy in the still air.

The cows spend their lives in the sand without ever seeing grass other than the dusty green bales of Rhodes hay and sorghum silage that they eat. The fodder is grown on the farm's huge circular fields, irrigated with pivot sprinklers.

The operation consumes a tremendous amount of water, which is sucked from as deep as a mile underground and comes out at temperatures close to boiling.

Each cow uses about 30 gallons a day, between drinking and cooling. "Controlling the heat is the main thing," Mr. Gibbs said, adding that milk production drops in the summer months. "When it gets to 50 degrees centigrade"--122 Fahrenheit--"cows start to lose interest."