History of Estonian dairying

From wooden pail and churn to butter machine
Dairy products constitute a significant part of Estonian diet today, but they were not as common on the tables of our ancestors. In the 19th century, Estonian farms had two to three dairy cows with average annual milk yield of 360kg. Cows did not lactate in winter, because their forage consisted of straw and marsh grass only and cowsheds were cold and dark. There was enough milk for own consumption in summer, when cows grazed on the pasture. Fresh milk was used to make milk soups, people usually drank curdled milk. Curdled milk was also raw material for making curd and curd cheese (Estonian sõir). Sour cream skimmed from milk was also turned into butter, but it rarely reached farmers’ table.
Until the end of the 19th century, milk churns, like any other commodities used in the farm, were made of wood. During milking, milk was mostly gathered in a tankard and then poured to the pail. Pail had a carrying handle and a tube for straining milk. Milk was strained through straw, juniper branch or tow into wooden tubs (churns or kirns) used for storage and fermenting. At the bottom part of a cream churn was an opening that allowed easy removal of buttermilk. In late 19th century, people started to use linen cloth to strain milk, the first strainers were still made of wood. At the same time, tin pails and milk coolers were introduced.
At first, butter was made by mechanical processing of sour cream: it was beaten in a bowl with a wooden spoon or – in case of larger quantities – beaten vertically with a plunger in a butter churn. In the late 19th century, box or tub shaped paddle butter churns with rotating paddles were introduced. These innovations became widespread in farms in the early 20th century. Farmers began to buy manually operated cream separators and started to make butter from fresh cream. However, butter was seldom found at the peasants’ table, it was mostly for sale and tubs containing salted butter were brought to market.

Following the example of manor dairies brought wealth to farms
According to common belief of countryfolk, the prettiest ladies of the manor used to bathe in milk and eat only cream and butter. Whether it was true or not, the progress of manor dairy farms improved the lives of Estonian countryfolk as well. Manor dairy farms also established the first breeding centres.
Improvement of livestock and proper care led to increased milk production and manors established dairies. They also hired livestock and dairy specialists from abroad. Estonians hired at the manor dairy farms learned the trade from buttermakers from Denmark and cheesemakers from Switzerland. In the late 19th century, there were approximately 200 steam- or horse-powered, but also manually operated manor dairies in Estonia, equipped with cream separators and mainly engaged in production of butter and Swiss cheese.
The peasantry reform in the 19th century allowed peasants to buy their farms, and they discovered milk as a new source of income. Farms reduced the number of draft animals and bought more dairy cattle. Improvement of breeding characteristics by the example of manors laid groundwork to the development of Estonian Red and Estonian Black and White breeds. Farmers learned how to feed and take better care of cows and established homestead dairies. Thus, dairy cattle became main source of income in rural areas before World War I. After declaration of independence of the Republic of Estonia in 1918, national breeding centres were established based on the best manor cattle. Some heads of cattle were given to small farmers to facilitate dairy production.

Dairying laid groundwork to joint activities
The end of the 19th century broadened the horizons of farmers. The press and farmers’ societies provided instructions regarding agriculture, joint activities, home economics, and national policy and culture. Dairy herd was the basis of Estonian farm and entire Estonian agriculture – that concept was ingrained in local farmers in the early 20th century. Soon, small farms produced enough milk to organise joint processing, leading to emergence of private butter factories in villages.
As the technology developed and milk quantities increased, a well-organised milk collection network was established: most farmers took their milk in 40 litre milk cans to the dairy on a horse wagon. After collectivisation of agriculture and nationalisation of dairies under the Soviet rule, collection of milk continued in its traditional manner until the 1950s, because households were allowed to keep up to two cows and money gained from milk was an important source of additional income for rural population. Later on, milk processing became more centralised and tank trucks were used for milk rounds. Each village had its own milk churn stand for loading milk to the truck. These stands became a gathering place for village people, and this peculiar “milk churn stand culture” became part of the history in the pivotal 90s of previous century.
Dairying joint activities were established at the first congress of the representatives of Estonian farmers’ societies in 1899. Estonian farmer lived by the principle – every man for himself, but united they stand, divided they fall. They were driven by and followed the Danish and Finnish example, but also joint ventures of local manors and private dairies. The first attempt to establish joint dairy was made as early as in 1897, but the Czarist authorities were afraid of any joint activities for political reasons. The first statutes of a joint dairy established by the example of Finland was approved in 1908 by Imavere community in Viljandi county (current location of the Estonian Dairy Museum). Soon enough it was obvious that areas with successful operation of joint dairy were also successful in livestock farming and agriculture.
World War I caused serious setbacks to dairying, but after the war ended and the Republic of Estonia was established, the number of dairies started to increase rapidly. By 1934, Estonian dairy industry relied almost entirely on joint activities.

Butter and cheese export
When the Republic of Estonia was established in 1918, there were only 97 registered dairies. Their number started to increase rapidly. At first, the leaders of newly independent Republic of Estonia did not favour exporting dairy products, prioritising the provision of food for their own people instead. But as the leaders of farmers kept insisting, the ban on export of fatty substances was lifted in 1921. Furthermore, the state demanded the inspection of dairy products to ensure high quality butter export.
In 1924–1939, butter export constituted about a quarter of total Estonian export and half of the export of agricultural products. Major export destinations were England (two thirds of butter export) and Germany (one third of butter export). Cheese export was not as successful, because cheese production was random and production volumes varied by years.
In the final years of the Republic of Estonia there were 696 dairy industries in Estonia, processing more than 400,000 tons of milk a year. The first milking machine was introduced in Estonia in 1938.

Bottled milk and dairy industries
Under the Soviet rule, Estonia continued to be an important dairying country, supplying major cities with quality dairy products. Collectivisation of agriculture took place in 1948–1949, but the pre-war level of dairy production in Estonia was restored no earlier than in 1965.
In the course of agricultural industrialisation that started in the second half of the 1960s, kolkhozes were combined into huge holdings. In 1989, there were 350 sovkhozes and kolkhozes in Estonia with 300,000 cows, majority of them in farms of 200 to 600 heads of cattle. In mid-1980s, Estonia reached the all-time highest total milk yield with 1,290,000 tons of milk produced in 1987. Export of livestock products constituted 35–37% of total production by the end of 1980s.
Immediately after World War II, milk was processed in numerous co-operative dairy industries. Entire existing dairy industry was nationalised in 1950s, leading to major changes in 1960 with regard to restructuring, centralisation and specialisation of dairy industry. During the next three decades, new urban dairy industries were built in Tallinn, Tartu, Paide, Pärnu and Jõhvi, milk powder industries in Põlva, Viljandi and Saaremaa and cheese industry in Võru. Old small dairy industries and cream stations were gradually shut down.
While there were 212 dairy industries in Estonia in 1950, their number (including production plants and division) had dropped to 41 by 1980. In the last years of the Soviet era, all milk produced in Estonia was processed in nine milk plants and two combined milk- and meat plants. Moreover, milk was processed in 20 production departments, 12 production divisions and two cream stations of these companies.

Estonia as significant dairying country
The restoration of Estonian independence in 1991 turned an entirely new page in the Estonian economy. It gave rise to privatisation of agriculture and processing industry, eliminating kolkhozes and sovkhozes. The first decade following the restoration of independence saw a drastic decline in milk production and consumption. After accession to the European Union, milk production and processing in Estonia started to pick up speed again. New farms and industries were built, equipment and technology were updated, new dairy products were launched on the market. Currently, the number of dairy processing units in Estonia remains around 40, whereas 15 production units belong to five owners. There are clearly distinguished small producers who have found their niche by providing interesting dairy products with exclusive additives and traditional national products.
Estonians value dairy products and our daily diet contains more cheese, fermented products and kefir as well as yoghurt, cream and sour cream than ten years ago. The selection of dairy products in our shops is much wider than in many other EU countries.

Cattle breeds: Estonian Native
The history of Estonian Native breed dates back to the 19th century. The need for improving local herd was first discussed in 1803. Estonian native cattle have evolved from local indigenous cattle over the centuries, but purposeful breeding started in 1909, when Aleksander Lilienblat, who had obtained special education in Finland, started to measure the cows of native cattle and choose bulls for breeding purposes.
The Pedigree Book of Estonian Native Cattle Breed dates back to 1914. To better facilitate breeding, the Estonian Native Cattle Breeders Society (ENC Society) was established on April 20, 1920. Breeding aimed at monochrome light red and genetically hornless dairy herd with small to medium weight, strong physique, long productive life, high output and extra fatty milk. Bull cooperatives and stations were established for the purposes of breeding. In 1939, there were 59 breeding centres of Estonian Native herd. Determined breeding under the guidance of the society had remarkable results. According to the Estonian stock control annals 1938/1939, one Estonian Native cow of produced milk with fat content of 4.8kg per 100 feed units.
During the Soviet period, marginalising approach to Estonian Native breed left the breeders without their organisation. ENC Society was liquidated in 1947 and coordination of Estonian Native cattle breeding was left for other breeding centres. That was a huge mistake that put the Estonian Native cattle breeding on hold for a long time. The number of Estonian Native cattle decreased to a critical level in terms of breed preservation, reaching 696 heads of cattle by early 1989. By that time, however, the political situation in Estonia had started to change and people were ready for breeding our own native cattle. Thus, under the leadership of Ain-Ilmar Leesment, the Estonian Native Cattle Breeders Society was re-established in 1989 and the breeding started to recover.
As at January 1, 2010, there are total of 713 purebred Estonian Native cattle in 111 herds, including 363 cows. There are 11 breeding bulls in nine herds, and the sperm of 20 native cattle bulls is stored at Kehtna Artificial Insemination Station. The breeding stock of Estonian Native cattle consists of 24 breeding farms with 317 cows. Native Cattle breed is annually represented in at least three cross-national exhibitions and competitions, the best-looking cow of Estonian Native breed is chosen at the exhibition held in Ülenurme.
Genetic base for milk productivity of Estonian Native breed has been studied in two feed experiments. In Põlula experimental farm, Estonian Native cows produced 6,000 to 8,500kg milk in 2000–2002 already during first lactation period. The results have improved year-by-year. ENC Society has close cooperation with the scientists of the Estonian University of Life Sciences. One way to preserve a breed is to have deep frozen embryos (currently 103 embryos). In 1993, Estonian Native breed was included in the book of endangered species and breeds “World Watch List for Domestic Animal Diversity” published by FAO.

Cattle breeds: Estonian Holstein
Cattle breeding in Estonia started in 1838, when black and white Dutch Friesian (predecessors of modern Holstein breed) cattle were imported in the manors of North Estonia. Later on, animals of that breed were brought from Germany. Dutch Friesian cows had significant milk yield. The stood low, had wide compact body and weighed 500kg and more.
Today, Holstein dairy cattle can be both black and white and red and white. Holstein has become the most abundant dairy breed in the world. Popularity is ensured by greater milk yield compared to other breeds. Breeding of Holstein cattle in Estonia started in 1975, when the old Estonian black and white breed exterior type was improved with bull sperm imported from the USA. Contemporary Holstein dairy cattle stand taller, their body is longer and deeper, the animals have increased body weight, exceeding 700kg in adult cows. Animals have peaceful temper and very good appetite. In 1998, the Estonian Black and White breed was renamed Estonian Holstein breed. Holstein breed is suitable for both smaller farms and modern large free-range barns. Over the past two decades, the share of Holstein cattle has increased by 25%, reaching 77% of total dairy cattle population.
Today, Estonian Holstein breed is also known outside Estonia. Since restoration of independence of Estonia in 1991, Holstein heifers have been sold to Latvia, Lithuania, Russian Federation, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Poland, Holland, Malta, Spain, Romania, Moldova and Turkey. The advantages of Estonian Holstein breed include long-term determined breeding, participation in using international breeding material, good breed exterior type and high milk yield. Another important factor is that animals come from dairy farms with suitable herd structure and free of infectious diseases.
Milk production of Holstein cows has significantly increased over the past decade. In 2017, production recording covered 67,696 Estonian Holstein cows, who produced on average 9,905 kg milk with fat content of 3.91% and protein content of 3.37%. Annual milk production exceeding 10,000 kg per cow was recorded in 85 herds. In 2016, the highest 305-day lactation yield was recorded: 19,767 kg milk and 1,349 kg fat and protein.
Annual cow competitions Viss are held to find the best-looking Holstein cows, candidates are assessed by a panel of judges consisting of foreign experts.

Cattle breeds: Estonian Red
Breeding of Estonian Red cattle commenced at the same time as the breeding of other European breeds. The breed is the result of more than a century long breeding, strongly influenced by Danish Red breed. Estonian Red herd was improved by Angeln, North Slesvig and Danish Red dairy breeds.
In 1862, 21 heads of Angeln breed cattle were imported from Germany, used for pure breeding of Angeln cattle in manors. Import bulls were used for improving local breeds by mating. Significant breeders in the 19th century included academic Middendorff and Angeln breeding instructor Sievers. In 1885, the Baltic Livestock Farmers Society was established, and a pedigree book was introduced. The first pedigree book titled “Pedigree Book of Baltic Breeding Herd” was published in 1886. That pedigree book was the first of its kind in the Russian Empire. After that, breeding started to pick up pace. At first, great attention was paid to milk production, whereas other features were put on the backburner. In the early 1890s, professor Stegmann started to promote animals with stronger physique, which led to importing Danish Red cattle that already had large body weight and milk productivity.
In late 19th century, Red breed spread to farm herds. A particularly eager advocate for the Red breed was Jaan Mägi, who believed that Angeln breed was better suited for local environment. Under his leadership, Estonian Angeln Breeders Society was established in 1919. In 1926, his work was continued by Aksel Mägiste. In 1928, Mägi renamed Estonian Angeln to Estonian Red breeding herd and the society was renamed Estonian Red Breeding Herd Society.
Red breed has survived several ups and downs. Lots of valuable breeding herd was destroyed already during World War I. It suffered another major setback during World War II and collectivisation that followed. Recovery of dairy production took time, the best results during the Soviet period were achieved in 1985–1990. In 1989, average annual milk yield per cow was 3,919kg, with at content of 4.07% and protein content of 3.39%. The number of Red cattle was the highest (168,053) in 1975. The number of cows has continued to decrease since then, dropping to just 14,435 by the end of 2017.
New stage in breeding began in 1993, when Danish Red breeders invited the breeders of Angeln, Lithuanian Red, Latvian Brown and Estonian Red to Denmark. That meeting resulted in founding the European Red Dairy Breeds Association. Main emphasis has been placed on increasing the protein content of milk, animal health or resistance to disease, calving ease, and strong legs and hooves. Membership of this Association has given the Estonian Red breeders a good opportunity to exchange knowhow with the breeders of other European Red breeds, acquire valuable breeding material at favourable conditions and introduce Estonian Red breed across Europe.
Over the past years, Estonia has also made a breakthrough in terms of milk production. There are numerous cows of the Red breed who produce more than 10,000 kg milk a year. Breed’s 305-days lactation record – 18,189kg – originates from 2013. There are several herds, where average milk yield per cow exceeds 10,000kg.
Estonian Red breed is calm and friendly. Breed features include red basic colour, which may vary from red, red and white and brown, depending on using the breeding material from different countries (both dark and light colours are allowed). Black colour is not recommended.

(Based on the materials of Estonian Dairy Museum and production recording agency Eesti Põllumajandusloomade Jõudluskontrolli AS)