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Israel’s low rainfall no barrier to yields

Israel’s dairy herds are among the highest yielding in the world, despite the challenges of forage production and feed intake presented by the hot, dry summers. Martin Rickatson discovered more on a farm visit, hosted by netwrap manufacturer Tama.

Despite the dry climate, Israel’s national dairy herd is among the highest yielding in the world.
Despite the dry climate, Israel’s national dairy herd is among the highest yielding in the world.

High labour, fuel, feed and machinery costs mean producing milk at a profit in Israel is a considerable challenge. Yet it is the climate which presents perhaps the biggest barrier to economic production, and even within the country itself additional feed and husbandry costs mean profits from farms in the hotter south of Israel are about 10% lower than those in the north.


But with its 125,000 milkers producing around 1.455 million tonnes and averaging just over 12,000kg per lactation at 3.64% butterfat and 3.27% protein, the collective performance of Israel’s 835 dairy farms is impressive for a country which experiences only 40 days of proper rainfall, totalling just 600mm of precipitation during the autumn-winter period from November to March.


Just 25 years ago, yields were one-quarter of that figure. Much of the difference is credited to the adoption of advances in breeding, feeding and management and, in particular, improved irrigation which has boosted home-grown production. In addition, new technology has helped lift performance while cutting labour costs, and the country’s milk production carbon footprint per kg of milk produced has become among the lowest in the world at 80% of that in western Europe.


But compared to the UK, what becomes most apparent is the lack of concrete and manure handling facilities which are deemed unnecessary in the hot climate. Despite this, most cows are kept ‘indoors’ all year round with food brought to them, and much of the manure is left to dry in the bare soil loafing compounds.


Farms are run on either moshav principles, where families own their own farm units, or as kibbutzim, where they are operated much like co-operatives as self-contained social and economic entities in which a number of families live, work and make decisions collectively. The modernday need for fewer people to work on farms, though, means some residents often now work elsewhere, while some kibbutzim have diversified into other enterprises such as the Tama netwrap business. The first dairy kibbutz was founded in 1912, and of the country’s 835 dairy farms, 150 are kibbutzrun units.


Holstein blood predominates, but Israeli breeding has focused specifically on cow health and yields. While most farms are mixed units growing a wide variety of human consumption and forage crops alongside their dairying activities, feed management tends to be contracted out to dedicated TMR feed suppliers which process and deliver rations to local units according to the specifications of herd managers. Around half of concentrate rations are sourced from fruit, vegetable and baking industry by-products.

Cows image: No bedding is sued

No bedding is used on the unit, with the hot summers creating a loafing surface similar to a sand bed.


Israeli Dairy Board quotas have been used since 1963 to regulate output, and currently most producers sell to one of the three main processors – Strauss, Tara and Tnuva – with the latter company, now majority-owned by the Chinese firm Bright Foods, being the largest, processing about 850 million litres a year. Key consumer products are liquid milk, yoghurt and cottage cheese.


Producer price is the result of government/ processor negotiation, based on the average production costs from 15% of randomly selected kibbutz and moshav farms. Current producer price is around 36.7ppl, while production costs per litre average 31ppl, with just over 50% being feed costs.


Summer temperatures, which can top 35degC for sustained periods, see milk output per cow dip by 5-10%, but the IDB offers summer bonus payments of around 9ppl. Maximum retail prices for dairy products are set by the Government’s Department of Commerce and based on processing costs, with liquid milk currently £1.06/litre.


But recent product shortages and price rises, caused largely by population growth rather than milk supply issues, mean quota was gradually increased towards the end of the last decade.


Israel occupies third place after Japan and Norway in terms of food expenditure per head, and the respective prices of natural yoghurt and cottage cheese have risen by 46% and 41% in recent years. As an additional measure, in summer 2011 the markets for milk powder and hard cheeses were opened to imports to help reduce domestic prices, and the domestic industry now supplies around 80% of the country’s needs.


Beginning in 2012, import agreements are now approved for five-year periods, with the aim of improving market transparency through mandatory disclosure of profit margin by milk producers and supermarkets.


In an effort to aid the drive for efficiency gains and sustainable lower prices, in 1998 the Israeli government introduced a dairying reform programme which encouraged farm amalgamation.

Left images: Installation of four Lely

Installation of four Lely Astronaut 2 robots has helped cut labour costs.

Right image: At feeding

At feeding, the sandy soil loafing surface is power harrowed to level it out.

Of the government money made available for modernisation, 30% was targeted at efficiency increases such as improved irrigation, automatic milking systems and sprays in place of sprinklers for cow cooling, plus increases in individual housing space to an average 20sq m. Some 50%, however, was committed to environmental protection measures such as roofing of livestock housing, manure separation, composting equipment and nitrogen reduced feeds.


Dairy unit numbers have since consolidated from 1400 to around 835, but 85 per cent of them remain smaller moshav farms. Efficiency gains across both unit types have helped lift yields by over 1000 litres/cow.


At the kibbutz on which Tama’s offices and research facilities are based, at Mishmar Haemek, close to Haifa in the north west of the country, 240 loose-housed Holsteins are milked on a unit built in 2005. The most recent upgrade in technology has been the installation of the largest number of robot milking systems on one farm in the country, comprising four Lely Astronaut 2s.

Skilled Labour

Guy Shapira, manager of the Mishmar Haemek kibbutz dairy unit.

Farm manager Guy Shapira says: “Although we’re based on a kibbutz, we still need additional skilled labour, particularly as the Tama business accounts for many of our people.


“We face the same labour challenges as dairy farmers in many other countries, and it can be difficult to find good staff.


“Moving to robotic milking has made a big difference here, mainly by cutting our labour costs in half and reducing the number of people required for herd management from eight to four. We’ve also invested in a robot feed pusher to further reduce labour needs, freeing up more time for cow management and for milking robot maintenance, which takes around half a day for all four units.”


Yields are about 42 litres/day in winter, dropping to 32 litres/day in summer, and averaging out at 12,500 litres at 3.9% butterfat and 3.35% protein, targeting a massive 6.4m litre quota. At a price of 1.95 shekels/litre (34.5ppl), Mr Shapira reckons to make a margin of 0.4 shekels/litre (7ppl).


While some 1900 beef cattle graze 2800ha of uplands, with annual sales of 900 calves, low rainfall and hot summers mean the dairy animals are housed all year round, fed on a TMR of 3.5-4.0kg/head maize and 14kg/head wholecrop wheat silages, plus alfalfa hay, grass hay, rolled wheat and rolled barley, plus concentrates. Hay is round baled and stored outside with B-Wrap, a breathable film developed by Tama and John Deere, used to protect them.


Milkers are fed twice-a-day, and dry cows every other day. Since the housing was constructed in 2005, no bedding has been used, with a power harrow run over the ground at feeding time to level hoof marks.


“The dry conditions mean it is like a natural sand bed, and we have few issues with mastitis,” says Mr Shapira.


“Our biggest health issue is the effect of the summer heat, which can hit feed intakes by 30%. Despite the housing being open-sided, cooling fans are essential, and if they break down cow health can quickly suffer.”


Heat can also impact on pregnancy rates, but these currently stand at 43% in the herd at Mishmar Haemek.


Heifers and cows are almost exclusively inseminated to Holstein bulls, with almost all females retained and the herd kept closed. High outputs do mean a high replacement rate, with an average lifespan of five years and 2.5 lactations.


“I think, though, there is still more genetic potential to be had from the Israeli Holstein,” says Mr Shapira.

Left image: Some 1900 beef cattle

Some 1900 beef cattle graze 2800 hectares of dry upland grasslands at Mishmar Haemek, with annual sales of 900 calves.

Right image: Kibbutz cropping includes

Kibbutz cropping includes wheat, maize, sunflowers, clover, onions, chickpeas, almonds, avocados and the cotton gathered by these harvesters.


“In particular, there’s more we can do yet with management and utilisation of performance data to help with breeding.


“Israel’s population continues to grow and that, in turn, puts more pressure on us as an industry to improve efficiency and land utilisation.”

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