Driving east from Abu Dhabi the terrain changes from russet to green quite quickly.
The United Arab Emirates capital is a rather dusty affair, no matter how many signboards urge you to believe it is leafy, as are its environs.
Soon out of town, though, the broad and black E22 expressway starts cutting through some proper desert on the way to Al Ain, two hours away, on the border with Oman.
Sand dunes spread out to the horizon on the two-hour journey to Abu Dhabi emirate’s second city, one where the late founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, spend much of his life.
As the soporific drive wends on, seemingly unendingly, the odd road sign makes an unexpected appearance, advertising a farm along the barren road. Then another and another, with increasing frequency. This is farm country, UAE style.
This is not Texas or the prairies by a broad stretch. But over thousands of years farmers plying Al Ain’s seven oases have evolved an underground irrigation system known as falaj, which brings water from boreholes to date farms. Having formed the trappings of this basic agriculture, the Green City, as Al Ain is known, has expanded into other pursuits.
Al Ain Farms
Founded in 1981 by Sheikh Zayed, Al Ain Farms was the first dairy to be established in the United Arab Emirates. Thirty-eight years later, it runs four farms under its brand, including the dairy business, a juice line, camel milk production and a poultry section for fresh chicken and eggs.
It began operations with a milk processing plant for 200 imported Friesian cows, before the herd grew to 500 by 1985, with the opening of a second farm at Seih Al Dai. Three years later, a third farm was commissioned at Seih Al Sulimat with an additional 500 cows. In 1990, a new dairy processing plant allowed for volume expansion and an increased variety of products.
This volume was increased to 100,000 liters of milk per day at the start of this century, following the installation of a new HACCP-certified processing plant. Subsequently, Al Ain Farms became the first dairy company in the UAE to introduce recyclable PET packaging, gained full control over its distribution network to be able to deliver direct to all retail outlets in the UAE and was awarded a raft of further certification.
Despite its accomplishments, Al Ain Farms is not the biggest dairy company in the UAE. That accolade goes to an upstart in Dubai, the emirate to the north with which Abu Dhabi has a fierce and enduring rivalry.
Whereas the older dairy company says it milks 4,600 cows a day from some 10,000 head of cattle, Al Rawabi claims a herd of 13,000 Holstein Fresians at its farm in Khawaneej, on the outskirts of Dubai.
Al Rawabi was established in 1989 with 500 cows from Germany and only 10 trucks for distributing its products. It quickly set about ramping up production and finding niches in the export market, to neighboring Oman and Qatar, by 1993. It also diversified into juices soon after cementing itself in the dairy market, in a typically Dubaian approach to saturating the market with a brand.
Also thoroughly representative of a Dubai company, it has relied on heavy investment to grow its herd and facilities, with cash injections of more than AED200m (US$55m) between 2013 and 2015 alone. Last year, the business commissioned new fully automated dairy facility and inaugurated a new warehouse in Abu Dhabi to increase its storage capacity sixfold and march deep into Al Ain’s traditional territory.
In a country where temperatures can top 50 degrees Celsius in summer, Emirati farms seem to have turned housing into an art form, protecting their cattle from the heat and humidity of the desert while also maintaining milk yields.
Whereas some of the UEA’s 30-odd farms have rented air-cooled industrial chillers, such cost upwards of AED50,000 (US$13,600) monthly, Al Ain Farms have put efficient cooling systems in place to ensure the temperature in the cow sheds do not rise above 25 degrees. These use curtains and shaded walkways that protect the cows from direct sunlight, while overhead showers at feeding barriers remain on throughout the summer.
In Al Khawaneej, Al Rawabi uses a Korral Kool System that comprises 850 overhead fans that spray water mists them from above to provide evaporative cooling. In summertime, the farm uses some 1,800 cubic meters of water each day—more than four times as much as it would in winter to keep the cows frosty. At the same time, each animal can lap up up to 80 liters of cooled water a day.
Such measures allow both companies to achieve milking rates of up to 40 liters per lactating cow per day, on average.
In addition, Al Rawabi in June launched a AED50m (US$ 13.6m) biogas project to produce 1.3mW electricity and 1.4mW of thermal energy, as well as realizing an 80% reduction in odor emissions.
The project will also produce 10 tonnes of organic fertilizer per day, and will extract a further 150 cubic meters of water from manure to be used in agriculture irrigation. The initiative will help protect groundwater by reducing ammonia migration by 90%.
“We have taken great strides throughout our 30 years of operation. Today, we are more than just a dairy farm, we are tackling environmental issues on a regional and global scale through our technologies, innovations and partnerships with leading international companies,” said Abdallah Sultan Al Owais, Al Rawabi’s chairman.
The brand also aims to be present in all Gulf countries by next year while doubling its turnover from 2018 levels.
Typically more low-key, Al Ain farms in July became one of the few food producers in the Arab world to gain ISO 22000:2018 for safety management systems. It has also been named official dairy provider for the upcoming 2020 World Expo in Dubai.
Though the two dairy companies have evolved very differently over the decades, they are both now seen as super-brands in their home country and its neighbors, and have become much-loved names in the Gulf.
They have yet to reach the massive production levels of Qatar’s Baladna, especially in such a short time, but they do show that a blisteringly hot desert need not stand in the way of milk production.