Over a thousand miles from the Malaysian peninsula, across the South China Sea, the vast jungle state is considered by many to be the country’s Wild West. People there love to brawl, ride customized pick-ups and do things just a little bit differently to the more urbane mainland states.
It is better known for its rafflesia, a giant parasitic plant that stinks of rotting meat, than for dairy farming. But Yap Yun Fook has sought to change this perception since he began milking cows in the state in 1982.
From a small ladang, or block of land, with just a few cows, Yap now operates a herd of over 5,000 head on some 400 hectares on several farms across Sabah, producing more than a third of the milk supplied in the state of over 3.5m residents. Sustainability has become the focus of his operation.
“I’ve been a dairy farmer for a long time, so I have gathered a lot of experience doing this,” he said. “Being a farmer, we learn from our mistakes and we improve over time. This is important because our dairy represents our country, our future. Milk is essential for the development of young people.”
He uses cattle dung to nourish napier grass that feeds the mostly sahiwal-Holstein Friesian that are imported from New Zealand. Alongside the pastures, he grows pineapple, pomelo, rambutan and durian in an orchard, and tends to an aquaculture business which breeds freshwater fish like tilapia and empurau commercially. Every drop of rainwater is conserved and reused through a unique process he has developed.
“The system is sustainable with the cows in the field. We collect the manure in the morning and we have a composting plant,” he explained.
“Our wastewater is recycled to the field. And then the dairy cows produce lots of milk. If I had enough land, I could supply the whole of Malaysia with all the milk it needs.”
Malaysia has had a poor run until late with its milk production. Since the early Seventies, its government has made efforts to reduce Malaysia’s dependence on imported dairy products, albeit without a great deal of joined-up thinking.
Dairy colonies were set up in the mainland states of Selangor and Negeri Sembilan, and large-scale dairy farms were established in Johor, Kelantan and Terengganu, as well as the Borneo Staes of Sabah and Sarawak. This was during the First, Second and Third Malaysia Plans, which set five-year strategic directions for the economy.
Yet temperate breeds were introduced to develop the dairy sector, and it was hardly a surprise that these experienced low milk yields, low reproduction levels and early mortality. Despite this central dairy planning, Malaysia’s rate of self-sufficiency for milk only ran at about 5% by 2012, with its dwindling herd producing less than 80m litres a year.
Things have improved in recent times, spurred mainly by peninsula-based The Holstein Milk Company, which has carved out a large share of the local market—though peanuts compared to imports.
All the while, Yap has focused on the basics: sustainable farming, developing a local market for his dairy products and finding the right breed to cope with the tropical Borneo heat. Today, he hopes to grow this on a national scale, if only he had the pasture.
“We can produce 4m liters per year, and 2,000 calves for meat. If we had the land available, there would be enough milk here for the entire nation. There’d be no need to import because I have the knowledge now,” he said.
He chuckles when he says “it’s just a small matter of finding the land”, especially when the state government is sitting on vast tracts of land that could be used for expansion. Though he doesn’t say so, Sabahan politicians have enjoyed decades of spectacular corruption, with farming their primary source of enrichment.
Things changed in May last year, when a general election returned the first change of government in Malaysia’s history. The chief minister from 2003 until vote, Musa Aman, has since been charged with 51 corruption-related offenses, including receiving an extraordinary US$93m in personal kickbacks for agricultural contracts. Musa, who fled the country shortly after the election, denied all charges after he was arrested on his return.
“It’s a very small matter, as the government has lots of empty land. Maybe we can use that to increase our production in Malaysia,” said Yap, perhaps with a hint of irony.
“This country imports a lot of dairy, but this issue we can cater for. Every agency should sit down and work together to develop our food industry in this country. That’s all it takes.”
Under the new state regime, led by the well-respected former opposition leader Shafie Apdal, farmers like Yap appear to be getting recognition for their achievements. Perhaps now it will be easier for Yap to find the land he craves.
It has been reported that Shafie has ordered state-owned dairy farms to visit Yap’s farm to learn how to turn around their unproductive businesses. The farmer only half-confirms this, saying: “They would do well to look at how our management and our system works. Nobody can ever learn too much.”
Earlier this month, though, he was awarded national recognition by being named by the federal agriculture ministry as a mentor to Malaysia agri-entrepreneurs.
“Yap has developed various industries in the past 37 years that cover agriculture, livestock and fisheries,” said Mohd Sallehhudin Hassan, secretary-general of the ministry, during a visit to Yap’s farms.
“His expertise is derived from his first-hand experience in the field and not from the classroom… he knows the intricacies of the industry.”
The honor means Yap’s expertise will be called on for efforts to produce successful farming entrepreneurs in the country.
Sallehhudin added: “Yap develops and establishes eco-friendly farms. There is no wastage because all waste is used for other development.”
“His approach should be developed as the best integrated farm model to be practiced in the country.”