International spotlight: Azores dairy industry

By Glenda Pereira, PhD Animal Science student and advised by Brad Heins, Associate Professor of Dairy Science

***Author’s note: I was born in the Azores, but moved to the United States at the age of 10. My family still owns and operates a dairy farm with 100 milking Holsteins (see Figure 2). It wasn’t until recently that the Azores become the “Hawaii” of Portugal as tourism has substantially increased in the past 5 years.  

History of the Azores

Azores dairy

Figure 2: Cows graze for 365 24/7 days of the year

When you picture volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (932 miles from mainland Portugal and 2,423 miles from North America) would you think of dairy cows? One of the most talked about tourist attractions in the Azores is the green hills filled with dairy cows.

The Azores were discovered around 1427 and populated in the 15th century mostly by people of Portugal mainland. But these volcanic islands have been around for long, as some believe the oldest island to be 5-8 million years old.

Very small in size, covering 901 sq mi (2,333 km2) over 9 islands, the Azores have a total population of 245, 283. The largest and main island named São Miguel has 138,138 habitants on 290 sq mi (760 km2). The official spoken language is Portuguese, however, many different dialects are heard throughout the 9 islands. Temperatures vary from 40 to 80 Fahrenheit (4 to 26 °C) throughout the year, and the breeze is a way of the ocean reminding you that you’re surrounded by water.

Dairy Industry

Azores dairy

Figure 1: Small herd sizes are common with grazing pastures broken down into small sections.

Because the weather is so favorable, grazing is the most common practice during the year. The pastures are predominantly made up of ryegrass, some clover and alfalfa. Permanent fencing is rare other than hydrangea bushes or the lava rock walls dividing pastures (Figure 1), therefore electric fencing is heavily utilized.

Most dairy cows receive a pelleted grain concentrate during the milking time as this is an incentive for cows to come into the milking parlor from pasture. Some farmers also supplement corn silage and hay bales in feed bunks during this time. With the average herd size of 20-30 cows, mobile milking parlors are used.

Producers still bring milk to the milk processors after every milking in the back of a pickup truck. In the first 6 months of 2018 alone, the Azores have produced 104 million US gallons (394 million Liters). Most of the milk produced is utilized for consumption, including UHT milk (Ultra-high temperature processing), cheese (mainly raw and aged), whey protein, butter, yogurt and heavy cream.

As the quote states “small but mighty”, there are around 90,000 milking cows in the Azores with 50% on the main island. Most producers utilize artificial insemination; however, many still use a herd bull. The predominant breed is Holstein, allowing producers to participate in two national Holstein shows during the year.

After the quota system came to an end in early 2015, niche markets became explored in the Azores. One of the main milk processors on the island of São Miguel is Terra Nostra, owned by Bel (owner of the laughing cow and baby bel cheese). This company started the happy cow program with the goal to incentivize consumers to buy milk from Azorean cows which are allowed to graze year round. (Learn more by watching this video).

Being a main industry, with many dairy products exported to mainland Portugal and Europe, the dairy sector will continue to thrive in the Azores. If you get a chance to visit, make sure to try a cheese board with traditional cow cheeses, be it fresh white or aged, such as Queijo de São Jorge. However, beware of the delicious taste for you will want to purchase a whole wheel of cheese!