FRESHNESS HAS COME FULL CIRCLE
It was once owned by the Crown. Today, it produces natural food with a significant nutritional complexity, returning it to its ancestral time. The Monte do Trigo estate, in the Alentejo region, has 1,600 dairy cows. The crown jewel of this sprawling estate is its unique housing. Upon entering, one can immediately tell the difference between this and other barns: classical music fills the air and there are cylindrical brushes to massage the cows, improving their blood flow. Broad-bladed fans circulate the air in the automatic feeding area to ensure heat relief.
As we venture further in, we catch a glimpse of the electronic collar around the necks of each cow, which monitors their stress levels, among other welfare-related indicators. António Serrano, CEO of Jerónimo Martins Agro- Alimentar, is our tour guide: “We take very good care of the cows. We are mindful of the conditions in the facilities, carefully taking care of how they are fed and how we can improve their comfort, promoting good rest. We believe this breeds a positive atmosphere: see those brushes around there, which the cows can walk up to for a massage? They often form queues around them. And ambience music is played to create a more relaxing environment.”
Here rules a strong belief that a “happy” cow produces better milk. The animals’ well-being is essential, but everything, naturally, starts with genetics. Most of the cattle on the property are Holstein-Friesian cows, which is considered the best breed for milk production. We move on to the feed, 70% of which is produced on the estate: “The most important component is the silage (maize and ryegrass), which we supplement with some dry feed.” To make it, by-products from other industries are used: brewers’ grains – consisting of residues from grain such as barley, wheat or oats –, tomato pomace and sweet potatoes.
Liliana Mixão is the estate’s Deputy Site Manager and veterinarian. She bears the Best Farmer logo on her shirt, a Jerónimo Martins Agro-Alimentar subsidiary dedicated to animal husbandry. Liliana points to a machine nearby and explains the process: “This giant “Thermomix” is automated at the front. It loads the feed, makes the silage, collects the dry feed, mixes everything and distributes it. Newborn calves are fed by hand twice a day. We give them bottles, supplemented with minerals and algae”, says Liliana. They are kept in igloos in another part of the barn: “They are vaccinated and, when they’re older, they are then moved and are fed by the automatic feeding system.”
NATURALLY CIRCULAR: A SUSTAINABLE PATH
Environmental sustainability, a key pillar of the Jerónimo Martins Group’s strategy, plays a central role in this project, and is a direct result of its investment in local production. António Serrano explains the link: “Importing feed from outside the estate involves a lot of trucks to transport it here. So, we keep it to a minimum by producing feed here on the estate and nearby, using other farmers who can also produce feed for us. We are thus promoting a reduction in carbon emissions, which is the primary goal. And we also seed permanent pastures for the cows.” These pastures self-regenerate without the need to sow the field and are irrigated by a remote management pivot irrigation system. Humidity sensors help manage water use, thereby preventing water wastage.
“Importing feed from outside the estate involves a lot of trucks to transport it here. So, we keep it to a minimum by producing feed here on the estate and nearby, using other farmers who can also produce feed for us. We are thus promoting a reduction in carbon emissions, which is the primary goal.”
Another remarkable sustainability factor is the way animal excrement is treated and incorporated into the production cycle. “Manure is carried to a septic tank that separates solid and liquid waste”, explains Liliana Mixão. The liquids are recycled as fertilizer, while solid waste is transformed into a kind of fine, odourless sawdust, which is then used for cow bedding. This solution “provides comfort and helps prevent udder infections and inflammation.”
APPROVED BY NATURE, SENSED BY THE MARKET
Following acquisition, in 2015, of the dairy factory from Serraleite (a local Dairy Cooperative), Jerónimo Martins invested 40 million euros in building a new factory in the municipality of Portalegre that has twice the production capacity: nearly 100 million litres per year. It is to this factory, Terra Alegre, that the Monte do Trigo estate sends 50 thousand litres of milk every night for pasteurisation. The milk is then shipped in 1-litre bottles to Distribution Centres in the morning, going from there to Pingo Doce stores in a sip. Offered in the skimmed or semi-skimmed milk varieties, it has a “unique and genuine flavour, approved by nature.”
It is, according to the CEO of Jerónimo Martins Agro- Alimentar, the milk of our ancestors: “A true milk connoisseur identifies with the freshness, in the authenticity of fresh milk. In the past, people bought milk every day. We are essentially turning back time and industrially replicating it to offer consumers a different type of product.” The fact that it isn’t ultra-heat treated enhances its natural properties, which are preserved if used within a short space of time: “Normally around 15 days or so. So, this milk is much closer to what we had in the past. It lets us bring back that extra flavour.”
THE “STAR OF THE COMPANY” GUIDING RURAL GROWTH
The Group’s ambition is to offer consumers a “high-quality, differentiated private brand” product. “Imagination is our challenge. This project is part laboratory and tests solutions that are in line with industry trends. There is significant potential here. We have milk, cream, butter… we can use milk, which is a highly-nutritious raw material, to create other products”. António Serrano has no doubt that the potential product portfolio, together with continuous training and technical and technological innovation, will help make the factory the “star of the company”.
“A true milk connoisseur identifies with the freshness, in the authenticity of fresh milk. We are essentially turning back time and industrially replicating it to offer consumers a different type of product.”
He claims that contributing to the development of the region is a strong motivator and is where the factory plays a decisive role. “Reviving a region that was once known for its milk production, which had been stagnant for a long time”, adds António Serrano, recalling that “the local cooperative we work with was finding it very difficult to keep business going. We prevented the worst from happening. We prevented the dairy industry from disappearing entirely in Portalegre. The region’s leading brand, Serraleite, lives on because we continue to package milk for the cooperative, which then sells it on the market and to our stores. We prevented job loss, created more jobs and boosted the local economy with a lot of people who provide us services. A country that does not take care of its rural areas is abandoning a large part of its territory and is not supporting those regions”, he concludes.
The Milky Way
In Monte do Trigo milk is carefully collected in an environment where animal welfare meets business sustainability.
50,000 litres of this special milk batch arrive at the Terra Alegre factory, every night.
Upon arrival to the factory, the milk is tested to guarantee the highest quality standards. The lab analysis are ready in about 9 minutes and the batch goes to pasteurisation.
After processing and packaging, in 100% recyclable PET bottles, it gets to Pingo Doce stores in a sip. This milk journey takes around 72 hours, from cow to shelf.
Named after scientist Louis Pasteur, pasteurisation is a process that applies heat to destroy pathogens in foods. “Pasteurised” means that the milk has been heated to a minimum of 63°C for 30 minutes or 72°C for 15 seconds to kill bacteria that may be harmful and/or may cause spoilage.