4,000 Stalls and No Dairy Farms

Posted: October 28, 2011

Professor shares experiences as a volunteer engineer in Ukraine.
The proposed 4000-cow dairy site. Even this site would be crowded with a 4000-cow facility.

The proposed 4000-cow dairy site. Even this site would be crowded with a 4000-cow facility.

I recently spent an interesting 2 weeks as a volunteer engineer for a milk production and processing company in Ukraine. The company distributes fluid milk and cheese products in Ukraine and nearby Russia. The following description from the CNFA Briefing Book about Ukraine provides a good summary of the country.

“Ukraine, formerly one of the fifteen republics of the U.S.S.R., gained its independence in 1991. For much of it history, Ukraine has been subject to Russian and Polish influence. Ukraine is bordered on the north by Belarus, on the north and east by Russia, on the south by the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, on the southwest by Romania and Moldova, and on the west by Hungary and Poland. One of the largest European countries, Ukraine ranks second in area (after Russia) and sixth in population.”

Kiev, the capital, is in the northern section just above the 50th parallel and in line with Bonn Germany; Cork. Ireland and Winnipeg, Manitoba. 

My trip was arranged through and travel expenses covered by the CNFA Farmer to Farmer Program that is funded by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The goal of this program is “to improve the lives of small scale and private farmers and agribusiness entrepreneurs throughout the world.” Many of my colleagues at Penn State both on campus and throughout the state have participated in this or similar programs around the globe. The local host in Ukraine was an organization called Bridges that is led by a graduate from the Penn State Department of Ag Ec and Rural Sociology and is a fierce champion of Ukraine, its people and agriculture.

While I have made many trips and attended various professional activities around the world this was my first experience as a volunteer consultant. Both CNFA and Bridges are well-run and experienced organizations. Travel and creature comforts went smoothly although as expected there were various local customs, foods and other items to learn about and adapt to. I had a very competent and enjoyable full time interpreter and guide. The background materials provided and discussions with previous participants were mostly about what we might call conventional farm visits and small group meetings. I was looking forward to seeing and learning about Ukraine, its people and agriculture along with hopefully helping their dairy industry.

As expected, my primary assignment was to work with the CEO of the milk company and his design group of 3 individuals in reviewing, improving and in general moving along plans for a model 4000-cow dairy complex. This facility would ultimately serve as a source of milk for the company and also be a training and demonstration farm and twin for a second similar farm. I lived and worked in Kiev, an interesting, lively and comfortable city. As it turned out all of my time was spent working on the 4,000-cow project in a nice office, including internet access provided by the milk processor, the Bridges office or my apartment kitchen table all in Kiev. I worked from a 30-page proposal with parts translated from Russian to English that included floor plans and cross sections for 5 buildings and also a site layout plan.

I can honestly say I spent 12 days in Ukraine and was never on a dairy farm. I did see two bovines along the road during a one day field trip north and east about 2 hours from Kiev to visit the two proposed building sites for these demonstration farms. The country side was flat and there were long stretches of very rural driving on a well maintained concrete highway through very large expanses of fields interrupted occasionally by tree lines, commercial buildings and small hamlets. Much of the soil was a dark black and it was easy to understand why this country was considered the breadbasket of the Soviet Union.

Some nuggets from my experience:

  • Like too many U.S. projects, the site plan was already congested and decisions that seemed arbitrary limited alternative suggestions.
  • I was often taken back to my earlier design days when we tended to “force fit the cow” to our design ideas.
  • Day-to-day management expectations and their relationship to the early design process and ultimate construction were not present.
  • Without any farm visits I was not calibrated to present dairy housing and management practices.
  • I should have started with a brief “dairy housing in U.S. conference” to help my colleagues understand what I was used to seeing and doing.
  • The major motivating force seemed to be “starting construction before winter.”
  • All of these points can probably be found on many U.S. dairy construction projects being planned today!

Yes, I would I do it again! I am sure another trip would include other new experiences, issues, situations and people. I have added “this trip to my data base” and hopefully some slices of what I have learned will be of use in future interactions, including cross-cultural ones.

- By Dr. Robert Graves, professor, Penn State Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering