Israeli, Vietnamese dairy experts partner to improve milk quality and yield in Ho Chi Minh City

The Dairy Demonstration and Experimental Farm was officially launched in August 2013, as part of a five-year memorandum of understanding on cooperation between Israel and Vietnam in the dairy sector.

Gonen Harel, Tran Thi Bich Nguyen and Dagan Sadrin with dairy cows  (photo credit: SHARON UDASIN)
Gonen Harel, Tran Thi Bich Nguyen and Dagan Sadrin with dairy cows
(photo credit: SHARON UDASIN)
HO CHI MINH CITY – Parked outside a state-of-the-art milking parlor, equipped with the latest Israeli dairy technologies and monitoring systems, stands a dusty motorbike – its wooden flatbed attachment awaiting the next stock of metal milk jugs.
In a country with nearly as many two-wheeled vehicles as adult residents, the so-called “milk truck” delivers 18 jugs carrying a humble 1,700 liters of milk to the Vietnamese dairy giant Vinamilk, three times daily.
“Soon we will need four times,” Gonen Harel, the farm’s outgoing manager, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
Slowly but surely, the Israeli and Vietnamese experts operating a dairy demonstration farm in the country’s south are succeeding in increasing local milking efficiency and quality.
The Dairy Demonstration and Experimental Farm was officially launched in August 2013, as part of a five-year memorandum of understanding on cooperation between Israel and Vietnam in the dairy sector.
Located on about 10 hectares (around 25 acres) of land in the Binh Chanh District, near Ho Chi Minh City, the farm is managed by the city’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, in conjunction with the Israeli Embassy in Vietnam.
With initial construction of the farm and its facilities funded by Ho Chi Minh City’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, professional operations are overseen by the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Mashav Agency for International Development Cooperation and the Israeli Agriculture Ministry’s Center for International Agricultural Development Cooperation.
The farm’s location in the vicinity of Ho Chi Minh City is ideal, as some 75 percent of Vietnam’s dairy industry is located in the region. Yet despite the wealth of dairy cows in the area, the animals are only producing an average of 12 liters of milk per day, or 3,500 liters per year, as opposed to the Israeli average of 13,000 liters of milk per year, Harel explained.
For the farm’s first two years of operation, Harel worked as the resident Israeli manager of the farm, within his former role as agricultural attaché to the Israeli Embassy. Just over a week ago, his colleague Dagan Sadrinas arrived to replace Harel in these roles for the next year – after which, the farm is expected to operate with more remote Israeli support.
“After [Harel] did an amazing job I have to make sure that when we leave at the end of 2015, the farm will be able to continue to be self-sustaining,” Sadrinas said.
While achieving 13,000 liters of milk per cow each year would not be attainable, Harel – and now Sadrinas – said they hope to see the area’s farmers achieve 8,000 liters per year for their milking cows. At the demonstration farm, where cows were producing only 10 liters of milk daily two years ago, the animals are now supplying about 23 liters per day apiece, Harel said.
“What we are doing here is at least making them feel much better,” he said. “We believe that when they are more comfortable they produce more milk, and farmers will get a higher yield and profit.”
Cows in the region have long faced metabolic problems due to unsuitable feed mixes, as well as poor living conditions, according to Harel. When he arrived to manage the farm two years ago, he stressed a need to make necessary improvements, but with adjustments to local conditions – such as weather, mentality and available feedstock components.
“I told them we are going to work together here to make milk in Vietnam,” he said.
Rather than simply “copying and pasting what we are doing in Israel,” it remains important to provide the Vietnamese farmers with the necessary tools to develop their dairy parlors in accordance with local conditions, Harel added.
One initial difficulty he identified was the struggle to cope with high temperatures and humidity among the milking cows. While Vietnamese farmers were only cooling their animals midday, when they themselves felt the hottest, Harel said that he and his staff members noticed that nighttime cooling was also critical to prevent heat stress.
In addition, the ingredients of the dairy herd feedstocks were problematic, as farmers were waiting too long to cut their elephant grass – resulting in older, and far less nutritious, grasses for the cows to eat. At the demonstration farm, the workers are now perfecting a Total Mix Ration for the cows, which includes a mix of elephant grass, mombasa (a nutritional grass), corn and other ingredients.
“It’s still a learning process,” Sadrinas said.
A start-up Israeli venture is now working toward establishing a private factory in the same region, which will aim to sell premixed cow feed both locally in Vietnam and around the immediate region, Harel explained.
Aside from Harel – and now Sadrinas – the farm receives periodic visits from other Israeli dairy experts, who provide seminars to local farmers interested in improving their milking conditions.
The farmers come to the demonstration center both when experts arrive and for routine courses, while the demonstration facility’s staff members also perform site visits at their farms.
The center contains a total of 174 animals: 88 cows in a milking and birthing cycle, 78 heifers and eight males – the last of which are sold once they reach about two months in age. The milking parlor technologies come from Kibbutz Afikim-based Afimilk and the heat detection and rumination monitors from Netanya-based SCR Dairy. Afimilk has also been a partner in a private Vietnamese venture – the TH Milk parlors in central Vietnam – since 2009.
Although many dairy farmers in the Ho Chi Minh City region have been receptive to adapting changes, the process is a slow and difficult one, explained Tran Thi Bich Nguyen, the Vietnamese vice director of the demonstration farm.
“They only make changes when they see with their eyes, touch with their hands – see the results,” she said.
Tran herself has been working in the animal studies sector for the past 20 years, originally specializing in smaller animals like rabbits and chickens, but eventually moving into the dairy sector. She has been managing the demonstration center from the Vietnamese side since its launch.
The Vietnamese farmers, many of whom are quite poor, do not have the funds readily available to spend on new technologies, and are therefore hesitant to do so unless they can see an instant benefit, Tran explained.
“But if they can’t see it, they don’t want to change,” she said.
Of the 10 farms currently working with the demonstration center, Tran said she would only call about four or five of them successful in following up with her regularly.
“We have at least three farms getting good results,” Tran said.
“They are very happy and want to continue to study.”
Tran, as well as Harel and Sadrinas, emphasized the importance of introducing small, palpable changes that meet the meager fiscal capabilities of the region’s farmers.
“We need to give them cheap solutions – solutions with what they have,” Sadrinas said.
Once the farmers have implemented small changes in their routines and see positive results, they can then focus on bringing in more advanced technologies, the experts agreed.
“It’s step-by-step,” Harel said.