Amid all the buzz about Israel’s “start-up nation,” a lesser-known success story is the high-tech and hyper-efficient Israeli dairy industry. By Alina Dain Sharon
Surprised? Don’t be. The combination of Israelis’ high demand for dairy products and the Jewish state’s well-documented ingenuity has truly turned Israel into a “land flowing with milk and honey.”
The Israeli love for dairy
Michal Kraus, the Executive Director of the Israeli Dairy Board, tells JNS.org that Israelis love dairy. Israeli supermarket shelves feature about 800 varieties of dairy products.
During the summer months, Israelis prefer milk, yogurt, cottage cheese or soft cheeses, because they are cooler and easier to digest. Hard cheeses tend to be eaten more during the winter months.
The Israeli Dairy Board’s estimates show that in 2016, 32 percent of Israelis consumed soft cheeses, 30 percent drank milk, 26 percent consumed hard cheeses and 12 percent ate other dairy products, such as desserts.
The current trends in Israel’s dairy market involve “going back to basic, nostalgic products but also clean label [production],” and also focus on the “reduction of salt and sugar,” according to Tzvika Dor, the director of business development at the premium dairy plant Gad Dairy. Her plant produces 5 percent of all of the dairy consumed in Israel.
The quota system and the ‘Herd Book’
Milk production in Israel is carried out under a quota system that exists in only two other nations, Canada and Norway.
“In case of an increase or expected increase in the demand for milk products, the Dairy Board lifts the quota. … The Dairy Board advises the farmers [if they anticipate ]high demand for holidays and summer months, allowing the farmers to plan and get organized accordingly,” says Dr. Ephraim Maltz, a senior researcher emeritus at the Volcani Center, the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture’s research arm.
Demand for dairy is particularly high for Shavuot, when eating dairy is a holiday tradition.
Israel’s dairy sector functions in a unified manner because the country is relatively small, Kraus explains. Israel also uses artificial insemination to breed cows, which enables increased milk production.
More than 80 percent of the country’s cows are registered in the Israel Herd Book, a computerized database that allows tracing the genealogy, history, milk yield and other factors for each cow. Theses metrics “are monitored continuously for production health and reproduction,” Maltz says.
Israel’s Holstein cows — the nation’s specific breed of dairy cattle, which have adapted to a warm climate — produce about 3,000 gallons of milk per cow per year. This figure is “among the highest … in the world, if not the highest,” says Maltz.
With the government’s support, Israeli farmers have learned how to breed cows by utilizing the natural environment, despite the Israel’s arid climate and chronic water shortages. Israeli farmers’ methods include feeding cows with recycled natural foods, using recycled water to grow fodder and reusing manure in agriculture. Several delegations from other countries have visited Israel to learn from these techniques.
To increase production, a majority of Israel’s dairy cows are “equipped with electronic individual identification, and almost all the milking parlors are equipped with electronic milk meters,” Maltz says.
Most Israeli dairy farms use electronic methods to detect a cow’s estrous cycle — the reproductive cycle — “by using individual cow activity as an indication for insemination time,” he says.
Special sensors measure cows’ daily body weight and milk composition for protein, fat, lactose and more. Many farmers also measure daily rumination and eating times.
“It’s like placing a watch on a person’s hand and measuring blood pressure, body temperature or any other parameter you want to know,” Kraus says.
These sensors improve cows’ health and reproduction capabilities, and increase efficiency in the milking process. The monitoring and production technologies are managed by two Israeli companies, Afimilk and SCR. These companies are recognized throughout the world as dairy industry pioneers, and often export their products around the globe, says Maltz.
Other cutting-edge technology comes from Tnuva, Israel’s largest food manufacturer. Recently, the company began feeding some cows with a substance containing flax, which the company says improves both the cows’ health and the vibrancy of their milk. Based on this technique, Tnuva rolled out a new brand of milk, “Chalav Hameshek,” which is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids.
Managing growing demand
Israel has experienced a notable growth in demand for dairy products, Kraus says, especially for holidays such as Shavuot. But the demand on Shavuot can be met because the holiday “falls in a period of the year (roughly December to June) that … is when cows produce the most milk.”
One challenge, however, is that milk plants might be closed for Jewish holidays and Shabbat.
“In this case, the [facility] gets organized by allowing sufficient storage by dehydrating surplus milk and delaying milk evacuation from the farms that have sufficient storage space,” Maltz says.
At Gad Dairy, being prepared for Shavout means increasing production as much as five or six months before the holiday, Dor says.
Tnuva employs similar foresight.
“The combination of high milk production [around the time of Shavuot], together with careful planning,” says Paikowsky, “enables [us] to provide the full range of products before the holiday.”