Dubai witnesses birth of a nation's milk supply

45 years ago a farmer employed by the Trucial States Council flew in 28 cows and two bulls to the Arabian Gulf to start the area's first dairy herd and begin milk production.

The McKay family at Digdagga left to right, Robert, Lesley, Murray Fiona and his wife Margaret. Robert and Margaret lived and worked at the Digdagga Experimental Farm from 1967 until 1972. Courtesy Fiona McGuckin
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RAS AL KHAIMAH // The problem with the cows was clear. They were too pregnant.

When placing his order for the region's first herd of dairy cows, Robert McKay had been very precise: the cows should be pedigree Friesians, selected from the best British herds and seven months pregnant. Not nine.

But when the cattle landed at Dubai airport after flying more than 5,000 kilometres aboard a DC-7 from the UK, they were ready to calve.

It was December 20, 1969. Mr McKay had dealt with bigger problems in his years as a farmer abroad. For instance, mortar strikes on the South Yemen border before the British withdrawal from Aden.

"It wasn't very nice, upcountry," his wife, Margaret, recalled recently.

But the overly pregnant cows of The Experimental Farm in Digdagga, Ras Al Khaimah, were not going to get the better of the world-savvy Scot.

It was to be his greatest experiment yet. Could the cows survive a desert summer where temperatures reached 50°C? And, if they survived, would they produce milk in commercial quantities at such temperatures?

The 28 cows and two bulls were loaded off the aircraft and on to lorries bound for the agricultural station at Digdagga, where Mr McKay, an agricultural adviser for the Trucial States Council, and his wife worked to turn the desert green with cabbage seeds, sprouts and tomato plants.

"We didn't realise until we came back that we were the original pioneers," said Mrs McKay, who visited her old farmstead in February this year with her daughter, Fiona.

"It has got so sophisticated but then it was so sophisticated from where we had come."

Mrs McKay was one of several Britons who lived in RAK during the 1960s and returned this year on tour, thanks to Sheikh Saud bin Saqr, the Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah. It was her first visit since the 1970s and she remembered the first cows well.

When the first calf made its appearance on the morning of December 23, there were no milking machines, sterilizers, bottles or cartons. They had expected the first birth in February. Farm staff and their friends frantically collected glass bottles of all shapes and sizes so no milk would go to waste.

The calf was named Simon-Christopher, in honour of the twins of the English head of the RAK police force who shared its birthday.

"Everyone was ooing and aahing at this calf that was born, but of course we really wanted a female," said Mrs McKay.

RAK's expatriates enjoyed fresh milk in their tea for Christmas. But summer was ahead.

"Nobody knew whether they would survive or not," Mrs McKay said. "It really was an experiment. There had been cattle before but just the odd cow, I think."

The coast had its share of sardine-fed Brahman cows, half-tonne beasts imported from the Indian subcontinent. But the Friesians had been bred for hundreds of years to withstand the bitter winters of the Netherlands and northern Germany. New to the desert, these were Friesians on the front line.

They were hand-fed Iranian hay, imported concentrate and the farm's coveted alfalfa, which was so popular there were holes in the perimeter fence from nocturnal raids by other farmers.

Each cow drank an average of 25 gallons of water a day, 10 more than in the UK. They lived in a fanned shed with showers that were activated when they stood on a platform. The cows' faces would contort into strange expressions as they were sprayed but they soon learnt that cool relief followed a step on to the platform.

"They settled in so quickly and they didn't seem to be upset by it," Mrs McKay said. "Eventually they came out and they survived and they were quite happy. I don't think we had any record of that type of cow doing well in a tropical climate."

The cows were chaperoned by Chris Yewdall, a handsome blond Yorkshireman who, late into the reception of a friend's wedding, had volunteered to fly with the cows from the UK to Dubai. He was their primary caretaker for their first six months in Digdagga.

"During the flight, the engineer asked me what wewere going to feed the cattle on," Mr Yewdall told the Gulf Mail in an interview in 1970. "When we arrived at Dubai, I saw what he meant."

The cows produced three gallons [13.5 litres] of milk a day in winter, comparable to their UK counterparts. Milking machines arrived in February. Production fell to two and a half gallons in the first summer.

"They were a good yield," Mrs McKay said. "It wasn't very rich milk, not like a Jersey, but it was a good quality milk and a good quantity. It wasn't a high fat milk so we didn't make butter, there wasn't enough production in it. With only 20 cows you can't really do a lot."

Green and white cartons of Digdagga milk appeared at grocers in Dubai, Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah, including Spinneys. It was the first supply of fresh commercial milk.

By July 1970, the herd numbered 51 - 27 cows, 23 calves and a bull. Two cattle had died in the first six months -a bull, probably from tick-born disease, and a cow that died during a Caesarean section. Ironside, the bull named for the English Civil War general Oliver Cromwell's troops, survived.

Friesians are now found the world over but in the 1960s they were a rare sight in a desert country.

The Trucial Coast had been devastated by high food prices after the Second World War, so when the farm first opened in 1955 any produce or diary gave much-needed nutrients to local diets.

The Digdagga Friesians became celebrities. Newspapers and agricultural experts sang the praises of these durable cattle. Their survival was evidence that cows could live, thrive and survive in any climate.

The Friesians were one part of the experiment to provide nutrients in a land where agriculture had been limited previously to tobacco, date and citrus cultivation.

The Friesians were just one part of the experimental farm. Mr McKay collected seeds, especially from the US where conditions were similar. He grew carrots, cabbage, aubergine, okra, sprouts, tomatoes, wheat, barley, other cereals, a variety of fruit trees and even attempted cotton. There were chickens, too, and goats - even a horse named Othello.

The road to the Digdagga station, now the RAK airport motorway, was a dirt track marked by a tree painted with a red dot. When it rained, the family were marooned for days.

Even so, it was never a lonely existence. "I did a lot of dressmaking, for myself, and for the girls," said Mrs McKay. "Quite a few parties."

Her only complaint was the brackish well water. "You couldn't get a good cup of tea or coffee, it was quite horrid."

The experiment had proved itself and become a commercial success by the time the McKays left in 1972.

Today, Digdagga dairy is home to 1,200 Holstein Friesians, many descended from the original 28. They produce 7,500 litres of milk per day in winter for supermarkets - and camel owners who buy it for their herds.

Digdagga is proof that cows like it hot.