Dale Farm's £40m push helping it milk record export deals
The head of Northern Ireland's biggest dairy company has hailed its "best year ever" in the wake of sales growth of 30% and sales volumes recording a 20% rise.
Dale Farm cheese exports to Russia have now broken the £10m barrier with the company recently landing a further order for £1.7m worth of cheddar.
The company has recently completed a £40m investment programme in its processing plants, including its cheddar and whey processing facility at Dunmanbridge in Cookstown.
The cheese plant, one of the most advanced in Europe, is now capable of producing over 50,000 tonnes of top quality cheddar per year.
After entering the Russian market two years ago with an initial contract for 100 tonnes of cheddar, the firm has now sold over 2,500 tonnes.
While cheese goes to places like Russia, Africa and Europe, the Chinese buy what has traditionally been treated here as waste product, like whey protein and skimmed milk products, for use in baby foods and other items.
David Dobbin, Dale Farm's group chief executive, who was given honorary Chinese citizenship for his contribution to economic development, said that export success has been based on demographics.
With so many cows and just over 1m of a population, the region has to sell 80% of its dairy products abroad as it makes five times more dairy products than Northern Ireland can consume.
"Russia has been a growing market and we are getting a lot of repeat business. Previously it was not a region we had paid much attention to, but with 140m of a population, it's a very lucrative market," he said.
"The Russians have similar tastes to us. Their palate is a bit like ours – they like their cheese and their butter – but they have very harsh winters so don't tend to produce so much milk during colder periods.
"One of the companies over there is a dairy firm like us, which is buying the cheese that they cannot make and another is a more traditional food importer for supermarkets.
Mr Dobbin said that one of the company's strengths is that it is not too strongly tied to one product or one country.
"Both Russia and China are very strict on health and we were only able to start selling back to Saudi Arabia three years ago, following the BSE crisis, where all meat and dairy products from the UK were banned," he said.
"There have been other health scares which have meant bans on products coming from up to 80 countries. Russia banned all products from New Zealand, and it made Russia nervous about relying on one country.
"We're not wanting to be focused on one big customer and we have a nice spread of business.
"We deal with over 40 countries covering Africa, the Middle East, Taiwan and Thailand. We are not too exposed to the risk from currencies, export licences, or import and export bans and we are making moves into the Japanese and US markets."