Farm Chokchai – More Than Just Dairy Cows12 February 2013
From a 40 hectare farm an enterprise boasting steakhouse, an agro-tourism tourism attraction, 3200 hectares, 3000 cows and a milk processing plant has been developed, writes Stuart Lumb for the cattlesite.com.
Standing by the side of the major highway running through Nakhon Ratchasima province, which lies to the north east of Bangkok, is an eye-catching restaurant which would not be out of place if it were in the middle of Texas. The car park is crammed with huge colourfully decorated coaches, some of which have travelled from the furthermost parts of Thailand, a distance of over 900km.
The restaurant is built in typically American Western style, rough hewn logs and wooden tiled roof. As you walk inside, you hear the strains of music – the theme from that classic western, the Magnificent Seven. The staff, resplendent in jeans, cowboy boots, stetsons and colourful red check shirts, wait to take your order for a massive T-bone steak.
Somewhat bemused, I asked my colleague, Chakrit Ridmontri, “Where is the 3200ha dairy farm that we are supposed to be visiting?” “The reply came back “ We are on it, but we are here all day and need a meal first “ As we ate, all was explained. Farm Chokchai is the brainchild of Dr Chokchai Bulakul who founded the business back in 1957, initially buying just 40ha of pasture land.
Dr Chokchai is a great follower of Western culture, hence the Chokchai Steak House plus a Western style theme park is also an important part of the business. In 1969 Dr Chokchai started farming beef cattle with Santa Gertrudis stock imported from the USA. Herd numbers peaked at 12,000 but because of economic circumstances the farm moved into dairying, with the beef cows being crossed with imported dairy semen. Then in 1985 the company set up its own processing and bottling plant, selling milk under the “Chokchai Milk” brand label.
However, due to economic circumstances the milk business was sold off in 1994 and at the same time Choak Bulacul, Dr ChokchaiBulakul’s son, a graduate in Animal Science from the University of Vermont USA, took over the running of the business and got it back on its feet again, such that employee numbers swelled from 200 to 1300, along with cow numbers rising to 3000 head. Choak Bulacul is something of a celebrity in Thailand and in 2010 he was awarded an honorary Ph.D in Animal Science from the Rajmangala University of Technology Tawan –ok, Thailand.
Farm Chokchai has widened its remit over the years and is now run as 7 different companies. Whilst dairy farming is the core business, it has diversified into other businesses such as tourism, hospitality, retailing, production, catering and consultancy. The actual farming area is split into 4 blocks, with 2 of them located 20 and 30km respectively away from the main holding which has the cows, milk plant and administration block.
The dairy cows are 93% Holstein/ Freisian. The remaining 7% is Santa Gertrudis and Brahman blood, included to give the cross the ability to perform under extreme temperatures and humidity, typical of the Thai climate. Cows are zero grazed and kept in large groups in what were originally the beef feedlots.
Shade is lacking and this is being increased. The original beef lots had drainage problems as the soil is quite heavy and so gravel is being spread to improve this situation.
Milking takes place twice daily, at 5am and 3pm, with the high yielders being milked first. Milking equipment is sourced from DeLeval.
The average lactation yield is 5000kg, analysing out at 4.2% fat, 3.2% protein, and 8.6% SNF. Holstein semen is imported from World Wide Sires, based in the USA and pregnancy checking is carried out manually. Around 16-17kg of milk is produced daily with the target being 18kg, which given the number of milking females translates into a daily milk production of 22 tons.
Milk doesn’t have far to travel as the milk plant is located just 50m from the parlour. Even milk benefits from a brand name and the Chokchai milk was duly branded as “Umm!. Milk” back in 2002.
Milk is obviously sold in the restaurant plus milk products are sold through outlets in Packchong, Rangsit and Bangkok, with an additional 5 tons of milk being sold daily to Nestle’s Foods in Bangkok. The Chokchai Ranch Company operates an on site feed mill which produces 3,500 tons per month of pelleted feed, 20% of which is for internal consumption. The company also handles the distribution of drugs and medication for the cattle.
The cows receive feed both in the parlour and in the yards, with a 3ton feed wagon distributing a total mixed ration to cows when in the yards. On the health front, cows are vaccinated 3 times a year against FMD and Anthrax. A vaccine is also used against worms.
Farm 3 is used for rearing heifers (on grass) and Farm Chokchai was the first farm in Thailand to export breeding cattle to neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Laos and Vietnam. Farm 3 is surrounded by forest which harbours ticks and a tick eradication programme is ongoing.
Farm Chokchai is self sufficient as far as roughages are concerned and the farm’s research division is working on finding new and higher yielding roughage crops, which can grow well on the Chokchai farms. Lucerne was tried some years ago but that proved unsuccessful.
Mombassa grass grows in clumps and is looking promising as does Pangola grass which can be cut every 30 days. Artificial fertilisers are frowned upon so a green manuring policy is in place plus of course manure from the penning areas is collected and spread on pasture.
A relatively new facility is the MAH building, so named because it’s the Chinese family name of the Bulakul family. It houses the managers’ offices plus the “Umm!...Milk” plant and its testing laboratory. Here visitors can learn about how milk products are made and actually get to make ice cream as part of the visitor experience.
Dr Choak is a very forward looking business man and at the turn of the Millenium could see that Agro – tourism was a potential growth area. As well as making money from selling milk & top quality heifers, why not expand the farm to cater for visitors who would come and pay to be taken round a working dairy farm by tractor and trailer, on a tour taking 2.5hours, and who would learn that milk does not just come out of a carton or bottle.
Hence Farm Chokchai became the first farm in Thailand to have an agro-tourism focus. Being an ardent fan of the Wild West, Dr Choak developed the Farm Chokchai Western style theme park complete with period style shops, bucking broncos and calf roping displays. Naturally a well stocked Western themed souvenir shop features prominently as part of the package.
Before visiting the theme park, visitors get taken to see a line of immaculately groomed line of cows being milked and are encouraged to have a go, by farm staff clad in colourful Western garb. Plus hardly surprisingly the tour experience ends up at the famous Farm Chokchai steakhouse.
In 2005 the Boutique Tent Complex came into being. This is basically an upmarket hotel under canvas, where 200 visitors are accommodated in 100 tents complete with fully sprung beds – not a sleeping bag in sight – and Wi-Fi internet connections in each tent. Luxuriously appointed shower blocks and a self contained restaurant are of course part of the complex.
Visitor numbers to Farm Chokchai stood at 200,000 in 2005 and this number has risen by 50% to 300,000, despite the fact that entrance fees are not cheap by Thai standards, as it costs £15 for a typical family of 2 adults and 2 children to enjoy the Farm Chokchai experience. A venture bringing in over £1million a year is definitely not to be sneezed at!
Farm Chokchai is continually evolving and as part of its aim to deliver knowledge the farm has established a number of practical training courses. Students studying at the local Institute of Technology can spend one semester studying at Farm Chokchai, as part of a degree programme.
Farm Chokchai also puts on practical training courses in dairy husbandry. Thirdly Farm Chokchai hosts students from 3 local universities who wish to use the farm facilities to carry out research into breeding, nutrition and animal care.
Five year plans are something we associate with China, But Farm Chokchai’s undoubted success likes in the fact that it has evolved through a series of 5 year business objectives.
“The future is unpredictable, but Farm Chokchai is focussing on knowledge, on human resources and factors that build sustainability. The dreams will continue, the creativity and innovation will always be there. You will always find something special about Farm Chokchai in the future.”