Milking sustainability opportunities

Despite harsh desert conditions, the local dairy industry has innovated to provide perishable products sustainably

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By Nisthula Nagarajan

Published: Thu 24 Jun 2021, 9:39 PM

Today, the environmental impact of each action is at the top of the consumer's mind, bringing about a drive for more sustainable food systems and analysing the carbon footprint of the food we consume. When it comes to dairy production, historically it has been an activity that heavily impacts the environment, so the need for impact measurement to ideate on innovative practical solutions is now.

Responsible food production encompasses various facets - food safety, food security, animal welfare and socially sustainable practices. It includes the equitable use of sunlight, water and soil to yield food without depleting resources. As fewer but larger farms feed the world, today's dairy farmers are balancing economic objectives with environmental stewardship and animal welfare.

Grocery shopping in the UAE has also seen a huge shift as customers are becoming more aware of where their produce is coming from. The biggest shift has been in the dairy sector and every major dairy producer has launched an organic line. Residents and citizens are even willing to buy imported organic milk from Europe. But fresher is always better, so the UAE's burgeoning dairy market has expanded and continues to expand to keep up with

this demand.

At the same time, these farms are keeping with the growing sustainability sentiment. Local dairy producers have adopted UAE's National Food Security Strategy 2051 and the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals. The UAE's strategy aims to make the UAE the world's best in the Global Food Security Index by 2051 and among the top 10 countries by this year. The strategy specifically aims to implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems.

Technological innovation

One of the largest dairy farms in the UAE champions the country's vision with the use of the latest technology alongside greenhouses and large open fields. To complement this, it is also the largest local producer of open field vegetables with almost 1,000 acres of potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions and lettuces. With soil and water also being one of the priorities for farming sustainability, the farm is successfully researching solutions on how to overcome the challenge of sandy soil and desalinated water. 

'Smart farming' or farming with the implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) and other automation technology is also on the rise. In 2017, at Osaka University in Japan, Professor Yago Yasushi conducted research to invent a simple-to-use a handheld scanner to detect the life-threatening laminitis and other diseases in cows, which affects their gait. By analysing the movement pattern of the livestock, the ailments can be detected in its initial stages and treated. Today, it is reported to have almost 100 per cent accuracy.

With AI, farmers learn a host of information about their livestock, such as if a cow should be milked or not at a given time, disruptions to normal feeding patterns, milk quality and more. There are also virtual fence systems, where AI manages the movement of cows to prevent overgrazing in certain areas of pasture. AI is a trusted partner that helps dairy producers protect their prized cows, boost milk production and improve overall farm productivity. In a farm in Canada, using this technology they noticed that cows were not hydrating themselves enough, therefore affecting milk quality. On investigation they found a stray electric current running through the water.

According to AgraME, the agritech field is booming in the UAE. There is a need for a more comprehensive and systemic approach to innovation to catch up to the fourth agricultural revolution, focusing on practical actions to improve technological developments in intelligent dairy farming. The Artificial Intelligence Programme introduced by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to accelerate the adoption of AI technology in various fields, is also a grand incentive to local farmers and to the country.

Animal welfare

To protect cows from the rising temperatures, farms in the UAE have shaded areas fitted with misting ventilator fans in feeding and milking areas. Cattle feed is also an area of concern due to the strain on water usage. To combat this, forages are shipped and trucked in from other countries as far away as South America, supplemented with imported cereals and grains. In heat-challenged areas, fat is one of these factors with low metabolic heat production offering a nutritional method of reducing internal body heat generation. Innovation is born from limitation and to meet the ever-growing demand for dairy, farms here are more diverse than the ones found in Europe. For example, camel milk is unique to this region, with strong brands contending for a top position. This reduces the pressure on cows and offers customers more options.

The happier the cow, the better the milk so ensuring the livestock are stress-free is in the interest of dairy production farms. In 2020, a farm in UAE pledged to ensure the wellbeing of its 15,000 cows, providing the best environment and living standards. Every cow is assured premium quality feed meeting individual needs, access to outdoor space and fields, protection from pain and are treated with compassion by the staff. The farm equipped itself with specialised houses, milking parlours, young stock sheds, hay stores and commodity barns, which are spread over an open-air farm in the middle of the desert so that cattle can roam free.

Professor Ahmed El Tigani Abdel Rahim, CEO, Al Rawabi Dairy Company commented on how the company had evolved to accommodate sustainability, "From its establishment, Al Rawabi Dairy Company started with innovation. In local dairy farming, we are the only company using electronic data to identify all our cows. There is a microchip inserted into every cow's neck that measures its movements in the yard and other indicators such as the number of steps, breathing, and ruminations per minute. It also measures the angle of the back. When a cow gets into the milking parlour there is a sensor to read and analyse all this data and if the parameter deviates from the normal, the cow will not be able to go to the yard. Cows are also directed for veterinary examinations, to recognise potential disease up to two days before other symptoms appear. In our processing plants, everything is automated - we have robots for filling bottles and our plan for the next year is to invest in more new technologies."

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