Words by: Chris McCullough

Dairy farmers in Israel are concerned about their government’s plans to open the doors to imports.

Israel is one of the world’s top dairy producers having climbed the ranks since the 1950s with the aid of effective breeding policies and technology.

It has about 135,000 dairy cows producing 1.56 billion litres of milk a year on a quota system. There are less than 800 dairy farms which have, until now, been able to supply the home market with fresh milk, cottage cheeses and yoghurts.

Those farms comprise 625 private family owned Moshav farms, and 162 Kibbutz, which are co-operatives.

From January 1, 2019, Israel opened its doors to dairy imports in a bid to increase trade and become more competitive.

Last October the government signed an agreement with farmers that will regulate the dairy industry over the next 10 years. While the agreement demands a reduction in import duties, raw milk prices are also expected to fall but farmers will be compensated by means of grants and investments by Treasury.

Dairy farmer Jonathan Amir runs a 70-cow milking herd at HaYogev in northern Israel.

His herd is one third Holstein Friesian and most of the rest Norwegian Red cows.

The combined average of Jonathan’s herd is a respectable 11,000 litres per cow per year at 4% butterfat, 3.6% protein and a somatic cell count of 200,000.

“Our cows are all kept in the open air, albeit under a shade,” Jonathan says. “We do not have any cubicles but have to keep the animals cool as temperatures do reach 38C to 40C. Our farm is only 100 metres above sea level therefore we do have a high humidity as well as the heat.

“Heat stress can have terrible consequences on the cows so at night our fans run above 20C to keep them cooler. We did have snow once here in 1991 for two days,” he adds.

Jonathan also sprays his cows five times a day with a fine mist to try and keep their body temperatures down especially in the hottest times of the day.

All Jonathan’s milk goes to the Strauss Group dairy processor which pays him 1.99 New Shekels per litre (about NZ 80c).

“We milk the cows three times a day in a six-point swing-over milking parlour. All of our cows are fed in their enclosure. There is no outdoor grazing in Israel like in Ireland or New Zealand. We feed a total mixed ration and use silage, wheat, corn, winter crops and sunflower seeds. Feed costs accounts for 60% of our cost of production.”

Calves command high prices even for the bull calves.

“Bull calves sell for around 1500 Shekels at two months of age. If sold at one week old they would fetch 650 Shekels each,” he says.

“It is important for us to have healthy strong calves, both female and males, and the Norwegian Red breed provides that, even when crossed with the Holstein.”

Fellow dairy farmer, Israel Bloch, is chairman of the Israel Cattle Breeders Association, and milks 130 Holstein cows.

He buys in bull calves to fatten and sells them at 12 to 14 months of age at 400 to 500kg.

“I need healthy calves that grow fast,” Israel says. “At the optimum fattening weights I receive 12 to 17 Shekels per kilogram liveweight for them. I would buy around 120 bull calves per year.”

Both Jonathan and Israel are concerned for the future of dairying in Israel.

“Our government wants to make us more competitive by opening the doors to imports. I don’t think they want to harm us but we are concerned about a deluge of cheap imports hurting our own prices. “We do not export very much so these imports could see a drop in our prices,” Jonathan says.

Like everywhere else, Israel has a problem obtaining labour on dairy farms and has looked to Thailand to find workers.

Farmers have to sign five-year contracts with their Thai employees and pay a minimum of 2500 Shekels a month. The Thai workers must return home following their contract.

However, the major issue for the Israeli farmers is that they must continue to pay the workers a pension even when they have returned home.