Maximising gains and rising to challenges in the North

While rearing dairy cattle in even the northernmost parts of Finland may seem quite a challenge, Valio has succeeded in turning adversity into opportunity and expertise.

Resolving the apparent difficulties posed by the setting have led to novel solutions that enhance our dairy cows’ health and well-being beyond the norm, and quality systems that impose greater discipline and traceability.

In fact, it turns out that combined with a spirit of innovation, nature’s pristine northern environment is the perfect location in which to produce, process and export dairy.

Focusing first on feeding

Top quality dairy products need the right raw material, in this case the cleanest milk in the EU. The chain starts with good feed for healthy cows. Securing the best possible fodder led Valio, and one man in particular, to scientific innovations of historic importance to human nutrition.

High quality silage all year around

The long Finnish winters make it hard for cows to obtain suitable nutrition, a problem which encouraged Valio Laboratory Director (1920−1970) and Nobel laureate Artturi I. Virtanen to invent the eponymous AIV silage method, giving our cows access to high quality fodder all year round. The climate also irons out seasonal variation enabling us to produce milk of a more even quality.

Securing good silage made from cut grass is a precise process in Finland. The grass is harvested when its nutritional content is at its peak, pre-dried on the fields and usually preserved through acidification, which keeps the silage green, aromatic and fresh throughout the winter. The principal cattle feed elsewhere in the world is largely corn.

"Top quality dairy products need the right raw material.
The chain starts with good feed for healthy cows."

Doing what comes naturally

The growing season is short in the North so cows feed predominantly on grass and silage which is what comes naturally to them. Cold winters discourage plant diseases and the frost kills bacteria, while cooler summers make silage more easily digestible.

Silage has a high nutritional value and made hygienically produces top quality milk. The raw material and the silage itself are analysed at Valio’s laboratories, so each individual farm knows what supplementary feed is required, explains Jaana Kiljunen, Development Manager at Valio Farm Services.

In addition to grass, this includes grain (wheat, barley, oats), minerals and vitamins. Added protein comes in the form of turnip rape rather than the more commonly used soy that is an inferior source. With enough available silage and supplementaries, cows can eat when they choose to, a healthier and more natural scenario. Valio further enforces a stringent policy of completely GMO free feed for its dairy herds.

Well fed, well housed

Valio Farm Services invest in well-being and quality at dairy farms and the strict criteria laid down by Valio’s Milk Quality Manual also target animal health.

The cows have to be kept indoors for up to 8–10 months as long winters and autumn rains inhibit grazing, so well-built barns are a significant investment for dairy farmers. The barns are insulated and the processes of e.g. supplying water that often needs to be warmed, drying and cleaning, air-conditioning, supplying feed and maintaining comfortable stalls, are more labour-intensive and create greater costs compared with countries where the cows graze on pasture around the year.

Quality chain management guarantees the high standard of Finnish milk

One of the advantages of a northerly location is that we have the entire milk production chain in our own hands, says Merja Koski-Korhonen, Regional Director, Valio Exports.

We control each and every stage from milk production and collection, through dairy processing, end product manufacture, and delivery where we have learned to be more systematic in order to guarantee that products reach customers on time.

Traceability and trust

International food scandals have made traceability testing an increasingly important part of customer audits, and especially where powders are concerned often a key factor in purchasing decisions. The milk produced by cows fed with AIV silage is ideal for cheese production. Valio Demi™ powder is made from cheese whey, and we can identify which cheese batch the whey in a specific Valio Demi™ sack comes from, as well as the farms that supplied the milk for the cheese.

Overcoming the challenges presented by a harsh climate and achieving this degree of control and reliability has become a driver of value added and made us a trusted trading partner. This is critical to food industry customers who are the biggest buyers of industrial powder products, and often in the business of manufacturing especially sensitive consumer items such as baby foods.

"We can identify which cheese batch the whey in
a specific Valio Demi™ sack comes from, as well as
the farms that supplied the milk for the cheese."

Export success based on value added products

As Valio is a relatively small operator on a global scale, the key to success lies in specialisation and creating value added both for customers and consumers, says Ms Koski-Korhonen.

Advanced products such as Valio Demi™ demineralised whey powders, and value added products that offer specific customer benefits, such as Valio Eila® lactose free milk powders with the world’s lowest lactose content, nevertheless make us a significant player in global export markets.

Investment and innovation

There’s more to it than producing in a cold climate. Even in countries facing similar challenges, Valio has proved that expertise from adversity is not a given. We export Valio Eila® lactose free consumer products to a number of countries including Sweden, one of our key local markets with a comparable climate, which is proving fertile territory for a value added brand born of innovation.

Quality, value added and a pioneering approach come together as positive export factors bred in part from our location and environment. But Valio invests in development to secure the conditions for superior milk production and end products. Critical factors include traceability, a secure cold chain, an efficient and reliable supply chain, and sound manufacturing processes.