Meet the Irishman helping Qatar import 10,000 cows
There's dairy expansion and then there's going from zero to 3,000 cows in less than four months.
That's what happened on the Baladna farm just north of Qatar's capital city Doha in an embargo-busting mission being masterminded by 58-year-old John Dore from Kildare.
And he's only getting started as the overall target is to have 10,000 cows milking on the Baladna farm by next April.
In June, Qatar's neighbouring countries Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain severed all diplomatic ties with Qatar as they believe it supports terrorism. This included a boycott on trade and imports from these four countries.
Heavily dependent on dairy products from Saudi Arabia, for many the blockade signalled potential disaster, but for John it was the golden opportunity to expand the operations of the 700,000sqm Baladna farm even further.
"There were about eight different players in the Qatar dairy market prior to the blockade," says John. "Four from Saudi, one from the United Arab Emirates and two or three local players. Almost 80pc of our food came from exports from these countries and 90pc of our dairy came from Saudi, so we saw the opportunity to expand and jumped at it.
"We already had the plans to expand in place and got the finance for it all going. It's very exciting."
The plan got under way in July, when Qatar Airways flew in 165 Holstein cows from Budapest. Over the following months, the herd expanded to 3,000 as cows were flown in from far-flung locations such as Australia, the US, the Netherlands and Germany.
"We flew in Holsteins, we only want the best to produce the best milk for the market," says John.
While a lot of dairy farms in Qatar - which is about a sixth the size of Ireland - have yet to move on to modern milking technologies, the Baladna enterprise is leading the way in modern milking and is using world-class Irish products to do so.
"Qatar hadn't applied the same technology that other countries had. They hadn't moved on since the 80s and 90s. We have the biggest and best rotary parlour in the Middle East and guess where it's from? Dairymaster in Causeway. So that's one for Kerry. It can milk 750 cows an hour per 200 units," he explained.
At present Baladna supplies 30-40pc of the Qatari dairy market. By April 2018, John is determined that they can make this 100pc by expanding the herd to 10,000.
"I don't just want to make Qatar self sufficient. It will happen. There's 30-40,000 native Qataris living here and about two million foreigners. Yes, the market isn't big but it's a lucrative one with lots of opportunities for us. We will make enough milk as the market demands," he added.
Food security is the word on everyone's lips on Qatar, and beef is next on John's agenda.
"Food security is the big word here in Qatar. The whole blockade has woken Qatar up. Most of our food came from Saudi before this. People are pro-Qatar now and want to buy Qatari milk.
"What we're doing here is born out of the need for food security and the 2030 Qatar National Vision. We will rear our own bulls here and enter the beef market and increase our 40,000 sheep herd as well," he says.
The cows in the Baladna herd stand on rubber mattresses while automated scrapers remove their manure.
The system resembles a factory production line rather than your normal dairy farm, but for John it's not the hectic system that's the biggest challenge, it's the temperature and humidity that takes the most getting used to for an Irish man.
"The challenge is humidity. It's the trickiest at dawn and dusk and drops in the middle of the day so that's when you need to get things done," he said.
While John is based in the middle of the desert, his family are still in Ireland and he recently became a grandfather.
"My wife and family can visit anytime. They love it here. So it's all going well."
John is a veteran of life in the Middle East, having moved to Saudi Arabia in 1984 after graduating from UCD with a degree in Agricultural Science.
He worked for dairy foods company Almarai and was quickly promoted from general farm worker to farm manager and later to national manager.
"I was a fresh graduate when I first moved and Ireland was in the depths of a recession. There were no real opportunities so I decided to go to Saudi Arabia. I came back to Ireland in the mid-90s and got married and reared my four children," he says
He worked as a beef farmer and a self-employed agricultural advisor until 2013 before returning to Saudi to work as an executive manager on a 3,000 strong dairy herd.
"In 2013 things dried up a lot in Ireland because of the crash. It was a bit like the 80s. I said to myself that I had my family reared so why not go again, and give it a try,"he said.
John visited the Al Tukhaim dairy project in Saudi Arabia in 2013 and soon became manager of the herd there.
Over the course of four years he said that he saw the herd's productivity increase by 40pc. Never one to shy away from a challenge, in April John jumped ship again and was appointed CEO of the Baladna farm in Qatar.
"I visited the farm in March and saw that the expansion project was very exciting and wanted to get involved in it."
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