By Matt Reese
On Feb. 10, 80 heifers with the quality dairy genetics of Andreas Farms in Tuscarawas County boarded a ship named the Holstein Express — yep, really, Holstein Express is painted right on the side of the ship — bound for Africa. The Andreas heifers were part of a larger group of 1,750 cattle headed to Morocco.
After recently expanding and updating their operation, the challenges of 2020 encouraged the Andreas family to get out of the dairy industry and transition to other agricultural endeavors on the farm. The farm’s 1,200 cows were sold in September of 2020.
“We are phasing out and still breeding and raising heifers we have left,” said Matt Andreas, who managed the dairy with his father, Dan. “We felt it was either time to expand again or maybe change directions. We’re lucky from that standpoint that there are a lot of different options for us moving forward.”
The phase out of dairy, combined with solid genetics of their cattle, put Andreas Farms in a perfect position to supply some of the cattle for the trip to Morocco.
“Morocco has an extremely large dairy co-op that produces dairy products for the whole country of Morocco and the continent of Africa,” Andreas said. “They wanted to buy U.S. genetics. A lot of their genetics have been coming from Europe. Ken Janes from Select Sires got us hooked up with these guys and that is how we got into this.”
The process got started in late 2020. An employee of the farm, Joe Miller, was tasked with getting the animals to quarantine and the necessary testing for international shipping. Miller worked with exporter Stamey Cattle Co. out of North Carolina and federal veterinarians to make sure all specifications were met.
“The animals on the trip came from all over the United States. They got shipped into Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland to be quarantined. They were in quarantine for 6 or 7 weeks before they even got in the ship in Wilmington, Del.,” Andreas said. “Before the trip on the boat, each animal had to be tested and inspected. In mid-December they showed up to the farms where they were quarantined and they got backlogged until later and it got cold and snowy. They were out on pasture on some of those farms. That made it challenging. Joe had to run all of those animals through the chutes two different times to make sure vaccinations were up to date for the boat ride. It was quite a bit of work.”
Miller ended up getting more than he bargained for when he was asked if he could accompany the cattle (all 1,750 cattle) to the farm in Morocco. After consulting his wife and family, Miller agreed to go on the trip of a lifetime on the Holstein Express, a ship designed for transporting all types of livestock.
“Joe had never been on a ship of that size and had never left the country, so this was all new for him. His first experience leaving the country was on a ship bound for northern Africa. It was amazing. He was apprehensive about going but he is extremely excited now that he is done with the trip. He said the experience was awesome,” Andreas said. “On Day 1 he was a little seasick but after that he was fine. The weather was beautiful the whole way. The crew was Pilipino and they got along really well. He was impressed how efficient the process was with almost 1,800 cattle on a boat.”
Miller was tasked with the sunup to sundown daily tasks of caring for the heifers that got feed pellets and hay twice daily and new bedding once a day. The ship is equipped with a system that pulls water from the ocean and converts it to drinking water for the animals (which Miller tried and said was not bad, though it fell short of Tuscarawas County spring water quality). The ocean voyage was set to be 10 days.
“It was typical feeding and bedding of animals. They had three animals calve on the trip over. Joe said he wants to milk every heifer that has calved on a boat because they use all of their balance to stabilize. There is no kicking or moving. She stood there like a block,” Andreas said. “USDA provides regulation on how much feed and bedding are needed to get there. They planned on 10 days plus 20%.”
Everything was going well until they arrived at the port and faced a 2-day delay unloading the cattle.
“They did run into delays at port and that extra 2 days caused some issues. The crews there wouldn’t unload due to rain and ‘cold’ weather, which of course was nothing like what they came from in the U.S. They had to put the animals on 50% rations and the animals started to get dirty because they didn’t have enough bedding,” Andreas said. “They finally did get them unloaded and Joe said the experience went way more smoothly than he anticipated with that many animals on a boat.”
The delay in port, though, caused even more consternation for the crew of the Holstein Express.
“It typically takes 5 days to clean that ship up. They were cut to 2.5 days,” Andreas said. “They had to scrub seven floors of cattle living quarters and leave for Portugal to go pick up a shipment of sheep and goats.”
When the cattle were unloaded in Morocco they had to be quarantined again.
“The cattle were shipped in flatbed open trucks with sides on them. They went to a quarantine facility in the desert in Morocco. After that, they got reloaded and went another 90 miles to their final dairy farm,” Andreas said. “The animals really went through a lot of stress from start to finish, especially with some of them calving in the middle of all of this.”
The barns in Morocco are more like dairy barns in Arizona, Texas or California than Ohio barns.
“Their barns are Saudi style barns. They’re open lot with a shade over the top. There are misters and fans and feed bunks and a parlor,” Andreas said. “With their climate, they don’t have to build barns like we have in the Midwest and there is less overhead investment. It is sunny and there is little rain so they are primarily outside.”
After his life-changing trip, Miller arrived back in Ohio in early March and plans to follow up with friends he made on his journey to see how the cattle are settling in.
“They left here with snow and 20-degree weather and ended up with 75-degree weather and sunshine so I think they’ll be happy long term,” Andreas said. “Joe was amazed at the friendliness of the people and the old, walled cities. He was fascinated with the politeness of the people. He was interested to see multiple religions all living together in the same city and getting along. Jews, Catholics and Muslims were all together in the same city. They really pride themselves on their peaceful nature. And, in Morocco, if you own a farm you have the status of extremely high wealth. A lot of the farms were dairy farms, but also had citrus and bananas and other crops on the farm.”
As for Andreas Farms, the move away from dairy has been the right fit so far, though they are not yet quite sure what the future will hold. For now, the focus will be on crop production and the 2021 growing season.
“We are selling some feeding equipment and we need to get a combine and grain bins up,” Andreas said. “We are trying to figure out life after dairy cows, which is not nearly as busy as it was before.”