By Ofier Langer
Editor’s Note: Langer is the managing director of the Israeli Dairy School, an institution that offers expert training on dairy farm management, herd nutrition, industry technology, breeding, and business marketing. Langer also served as the Vice President of Afimilk, a leading Israeli dairy herd management company, for five years. His passion is bringing the success of the Israeli dairy industry to people all over the world. He may be contacted at
During the Israeli summer, temperatures often surpass 100 °F, while in the winter, the desert region to the south only receives a few inches of rain annually. These conditions may sound inhospitable to farming and animal husbandry; however, Israel has overcome its natural climate to become a world leader in agriculture.
The Israeli dairy industry is a stellar example of the country’s innovation in agriculture. With about 129,000 cows on fewer than 800 farms, the nation’s industry is small, but they are the world leaders in dairy production per cow. The country’s remarkable success is the result of strategic breeding and advanced technology carefully developed by dairy farmers and agricultural innovators over the past century. The Israeli dairy industry is also characterized by a passion shared among communities, which is hard to find elsewhere.
A Brief History of the Israeli Dairy Industry: 1912 to Today
The history of Israel’s dairy farming stretches back to herding practices that began thousands of years ago, when herding was a key means of survival and social status for Jewish people’s nomadic ancestors. It is the past century, however, that has turned Israel into a dairy powerhouse. The first Kibbutz, or collective farm, was founded in 1912, when the entire nation of Israel had fewer than 1,000 head of cattle. In the 1920s, Israeli farmers began importing Dutch and Friesian bulls for cross-breeding. Then, in the 1940s, they began cross-breeding with North American Holstein-Friesian cows, leading to the development of the highly productive breed that is still immensely successful today.
The 1950s and 60s are when the Israeli dairy industry really took off. An influx of immigration led to increased demands for milk, and small-scale dairy farms began popping up all over Israel. All of a sudden, Israel transitioned from a nation that needed to import cattle to a nation exporting cattle that were in demand for their high quality. As farmers from the 1980s on have begun incorporating advanced technologies into their farming practices, milk yields and breeding rates have only gone up.
The Israeli Dairy Industry Today
Today, Israel has over 129,000 cows spread among about 625 Moshav (private family herds) and 162 Kibbutz (cooperative) dairy farms. These cows have impressively high milk yields. According to the Israel Dairy Board, average per cow production in 2016 was 26,334 lbs. milk, 987 lbs. fat and 908 lbs. protein. This compares with average per cow production in the U.S. of 22,393 lbs. (for 2015).
Keeping Cool in a Hot Environment
Israeli dairy farmers will tell you that what you need for a lot of milk is happy cows, and in order to make Israeli cows happy, the first thing you need to do is keep them comfortable in the heat. Israeli farmers, who must deal with a hot and dry environment, have made it a priority to develop effective and affordable cooling techniques. The most common cooling methods used on Israeli dairy farms are low-pressure sprinklers or foggers combined with high-speed fans. This process can be completed relatively quickly and cheaply. A standard cycle consists of 30 seconds of watering followed by 4-5 minutes of fanning and is usually repeated 5-7 times a day during feeding and milking periods.
These cooling sessions are cost-efficient and highly effective in keeping cows much closer to their natural body temperature. Israeli farms using these cooling methods maintain summer milk production and pregnancy rates similar to their winter rates.
Beyond Cows: Sheep and Goat Farming in Israel
Although cattle form the heart of the Israeli dairy industry, goat and sheep (ruminant) farming is also very important within the country’s agriculture. Ruminants have a rich history in Israel; Jews dating all the way back to the Old Testament were goat and sheep farmers. Today, there are still farmers who practice traditional nomadic methods. In the south of Israel, for example, Bedouin tribes raise about 20,000 goats nomadically.
In addition, Israel is famous for its two sheep breeds: the Awassi and the Assaf. The Awassi breed is native to Israel and has been carefully bred for almost 100 years. Today, Awassi sheep produce an average of 550 liters of milk annually. Beginning in the 1950s, Israeli farmers began breeding Awassi sheep with German East Friesians to create a more prolific breed, the Assaf. The Assaf have slightly lower milk production, with an average of 450 liters a year, but a higher fertility, with an average of 1.3 lambings a year, with 1.6 lambs per lambing.
These impressive statistics have helped to make Israel one of the world’s leaders in sheep and goat farming.
There’s something else happening on Israel’s dairy farms that’s a little harder to put into words: a sense of pride and community, not just commercialism, that drives success. A lot of this comes out of the history of the Kibbutz (Kibbutzim in the plural) – Israel’s traditional collective farms. Historically, Kibbutzim were socialist communes in which residents all shared the farm’s ownership and profits. Kibbutzim were therefore not just farms, but whole communities including schools, recreational facilities, and social services.
Today, as Israel as a nation has moved towards privatization and capitalism, many kibbutzim do not operate according to a strict socialist, cooperative structure. However, in many cases workers still retain some ownership of their dairy farms. The sense of community, and of pride for the work, has remained strong. You can sense this community ownership behind the success of Israel’s dairy farms.
A Window into Israeli Dairy: Mesilot
To better understand Israeli dairy, you’d have to visit one of its farms. A 300-cow dairy farm in Mesilot, Israel is one great example of the combination that makes the Israeli dairy industry great: longstanding tradition, a modern and international edge, innovative technology, and passion. The farm in Mesilot was founded in 1938 by Bulgarian and Polish immigrants, and it is part of the Mesilot Kibbutz, a traditional communal settlement. Today, the farm is managed by Eduardo Mesnick, a Brazilean herd management expert. The other members of the management team come from Chile, Israel, Vietnam, and Nepal. Their shared expertise and passion for dairy management is what brings them together.
On the dairy farm, the day begins at about 3:30 a.m., with the first milking. After that, the cows will be fed multiple times. The farm buys fresh TMR mix and forage material daily from a local independent cooperative. As the cows move to and from the feed alley, all the cows eligible for breeding are monitored by pedometers. Mesnik and his team will spend time every day reviewing the tracking data to plan insemination and keep track of health. After the afternoon milking session, employees check the maternity pen for new calvings, feed the calves, observe the herd and check for mastitis. By about 4:00 p.m., the day is finished.
The farm’s 300 cows produce about 73 lbs. of milk daily. From the milking parlor, the milk goes directly to a milk tank. Every day, a truck picks up the fresh milk and takes it to an Israeli processor, Tnuva. This same truck will also pick up milk from some of the 10 dairy farms around Mesilot. Instead of seeing each other as competitors, these farms share data and advice. Together, they form a community performing an important role for all of the country’s people.
Opportunities to Learn from Israel
Luckily for dairy farmers outside of Israel, many Israeli dairy farms are opening their doors to visitors from around the world who want to learn about Israeli practices and implement them on their own farms. In fact, a small side industry has developed in providing tours and classes to those interested in Israel’s dairy industry.
The Israeli Dairy School is one leader within this industry, providing a combination of expert seminars and hands-on tours of farms such as the one in Mesilot, all paired with immersion in Israeli culture. For dairy industry leaders around the world, this is a great opportunity to learn about today’s most successful dairy methods. The school offers carefully tailored seminars in cattle, goat, and sheep farming. Even if other areas can never replicate Israel’s unique history and communal structure, dairy farmers everywhere can learn from Israel’s example of innovation and perseverance.