Dairying in the Ukraine is currently facing unprecedented threats and difficulties due to the invasion by Russian troops. We find out more about how one herd is rising to the challenges and running a successful dairy unit in a country at war.
TEXT RACHAEL PORTER
It’s a task that’s become increasingly challenging during the past year but, alongside a 65-strong team of staff, Ion Moraru is determined not to be beaten. Together they have taken every possible step to ensure herd management and milk production are impacted as little as possible by the Russian invasion. Ion is a qualified vet and co-manager for a large herd, based in the Kropyvnytskyi region in central Ukraine, on a US-style high-input-high-output system.
The dairy enterprise was established in 2005 and the unit belongs to a Ukrainian group of agricultural technology companies, owned by Mykola Monashok and his son Mykola. And it’s this technological approach to its dairy business that sets it apart from many other Ukrainian herds, and is helping the business adapt to the challenges faced by the country’s dairy sector since the country came under attack from Russia.
The herd comprises 1,570 Holstein cows, plus more than 2,500 dairy followers and beef cattle. “Our herd size is above average for Ukraine,” says Ion. “Most herds are between 200 and 800 head,” he says. “During the past 20 years Ukraine’s cow population has been decreasing, but this has accelerated considerably since the Russian invasion. Some say that Russian troops have killed 25% of all Ukrainian cows, which is truly shocking.”
The unit also comprises 10,000 hectares of arable land, growing maize for grain, as well as sunflowers, soybeans, rapeseed, wheat and barley. “We grow forage maize for the herd,” he says. “We used to grow alfalfa for haylage and hay, but we have stopped growing both grass and alfalfa for harvesting and conserving, and we now just make silage from maize. It’s the main component of cow and replacement heifer rations.”
Ion explains that other dairy units in the Ukraine still feed grass silage. “But we consider it an expensive and inefficient feed. We follow the US dairy-production model and place emphasis on maize silage.” Other components in the diet include straw, maize meal and soybeans. The latter are, in Ion’s words, ‘roasted at a high temperature’. “This is another US technique that we’ve adopted.”
Milking ration: maize silage forms the foundation of dairy diets
Rapeseed meal and brewers’ grains are also usually bought in and added to the ration. “But this year the low price of maize grain, resulting from Russian forces blocking exports from Ukraine’s sea ports and leaving more on the domestic market, has led us to make cornage, which is a paste made from crimped under-ripe maize grain.”
Calf housing: rearing facilities for the all-year-round calving herd
Cows are housed all year in cubicle sheds. “They were built 13 years ago, and we use chopped straw for bedding, sometimes mixed with lime to help prevent mastitis. When the war ends we plan to switch from straw to sand because we think this is better for cows.”
Day-to-day running of the all-year-round calving herd is overseen by 65 staff. “The farm is large and we have 36 permanent employees, but a lot of the work is carried out by temporary staff,” explains Ion. “Our laws stipulate that employees cannot work more than eight hours a day and many processes, such as milking and feeding, take almost a whole day.”
The herd rears all its own replacements and uses sexed semen. “As a result we have a lot of heifers,” says Ion, adding that before the start of the war they sold surplus youngstock. “But now the war prevents us from doing that. So we keep the best heifers for replacements and what’s left, unfortunately, we sell for beef.”
The herd’s average 305-day lactation yield is between 9,760 and 10,000 litres, but limited electricity supplies can affect and limit milking times. “Because the Russians are bombing and destroying our country’s infrastructure we also have issues with buying in some feed components for the herd’s ration, and this also has a negative impact on productivity,” says Ion.
The farm has two milking parlours, a 32-point rotary and a 2:6 herringbone, and cows are milked three times a day: “With the exception of fresh cows, which we milk just twice a day for the first 10 days of lactation,” adds Ion.
Many Ukrainian dairy units have more than one milk buyer. “At the beginning of the war, we sold milk to several factories at the same time, but now we sell most of it to just one processors. This could, however, change.”
During the first weeks of the war there were difficulties with logistics and many dairy processors struggled to adapt to the situation. “So we fed some of the milk back to the cows, as part of their TMR,” says Ion.
When logistics improved the factories began accepting milk again, but recent bombings of the country’s infrastructure mean that dairy plants are on the verge of shutting down again. And there are still staffing and transport issues related to the curfew.
Ion adds that dairy businesses closer to the frontline still have serious problems with logistics. “Roads and bridges have been destroyed, and the Russians are continuing to destroy infrastructure to create severe problems with electricity supply. In the occupied territories herds are facing extremely difficult conditions. Cows are typically milked just once a day, feeding is inadequate, medicines and vaccines are difficult to get hold of, they are using stock bulls – not AI. And the milk price is also low,” explains Ion. He adds that all dairy herds are experiencing these problems to some degree. “We are without electricity most days during the daytime. We use a generator, but that pushes up our diesel usage and this is also problematic. At the beginning of the war the shortage of diesel fuel was even greater because the Russians destroyed all fuel reserves in our country and bombed oil refineries.
“Dairy processing plants are also still having issues with power supplies, and spare parts for machinery and equipment, as well as medicines and vaccines, were difficult to get hold of when the war started. “This is less of a problem now, but prices have risen significantly across the board.
Labour is also an issue, according to Ion. “Many people became refugees, moving away from war-stricken areas, so we have a shortage of skilled workers in some places. Many of our workers are now at the front protecting our country from the Russians and, unfortunately, there are already widows working at our farm who have lost their husbands. We thank God that we did not suffer as much as other units that are closer to hostilities, or those that fell into occupation. The Russian occupiers prevented the units from harvesting silage and hay, they destroyed the infrastructure and even some farms,” says Ion.
“I have friends who were in the occupied region that have been liberated. But it is still extremely difficult to run a business where they are. Cows are milked only once a day, there has been no electricity for a long time, the means to care for and manage cows are limited, and in some places the Russians during the occupation simply kill the cows for food, and do not allow the people to work.”
The milk price is currently high enough to continue working and developing the dairy business, according to Ion. “At the beginning of the war milk price fell, but it’s gradually levelled off and started to rise. The current price situation is good and stable, and sufficient to continue working and developing the dairy business. But that could change in a second. “We try not to complain and, instead, look for a solution and work hard to succeed,” says Ion, stressing that resilience and optimism is key to their continued success. “We do not ask for anything from anyone. We simply work with what we have. “It is extremely difficult for us, but we will not stop,” he reiterates. “It is difficult for everyone, but the main thing is to win the war and take back control of our country.”
Co-manager - Ion Moraru
Unit size - 10,000 hectares
Herd size - 1,570 milkers plus 2,500 cattle
Average milk yield - 10,000 litres
Employees - 65 full- and part-time staff