DOVER – Before this year, Joe Miller had never been outside North America. He had only left the United States to fish in Canada.
But on Feb. 10, the Sugarcreek man took the trip of a lifetime. He was responsible for overseeing the care of 1,800 heifers carried on a ship – the Holstein Express – from Wilmington, Del., to Morocco in the northwestern corner of Africa.
Miller, then an employee of Andreas Farms, was hired by the export company responsible for transporting the animals across the Atlantic Ocean to a dairy cooperative with more than 11,000 members.
The animals came from 27 farms in nine states as far away as Colorado, Miller said. The cargo included 79 heifers from Andreas Farms of Sugarcreek, which sold its milking herd last year.
Each animal was selected for genetic traits such as lifetime fitness, milking capacity and the records of their dams and sires, according to Miller.
“When they got over there, they were really the elite genetics of the United States,” he said. “That’s why those guys were wanting these animals, because our genetic-advanced animals are 10 to 15 years ahead (of) what it is over in that country. So these animals are going to perform a whole lot better, give more milk, be healthier, all of the above.”
Miller will share slides and stories about the journey at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Dover Public Library in a program titled “Exporting Heifers to Morocco.”
Preparing the animals for the trip required Miller to travel in December and January to isolation facilities in Pennsylvania, where the heifers were quarantined before their overseas departure. Miller went to Pennsylvania every other week to make the sure heifers were in good health. He then returned home to work for Andreas Farms on alternate weeks.
All the heifers were pregnant when they embarked on their trans-Atlantic journey, a condition of their sale to the Moroccan cooperative.
When the animals were loaded onto the ship in Delaware, the vessel carried enough food and bedding for the 10-day ocean voyage, plus 20% more. The extra supplies were needed when the ship was delayed in the Moroccan port for two days before the cargo could be unloaded.
While on the ship, Miller walked six to seven miles daily, checking the entire herd twice a day.
“You had to watch when they fed,” he said. “You were with the animals during feeding time to make sure … everybody’s standing up, there’s nobody lame, nobody having a baby, nobody sick.”
Miller had to store five boxes of documents about the 1,800 heifers in his cabin. The paperwork was essential for successful completion of the business transaction.
“It was a little stressful sometimes,” Miller said. “It was like, ‘This really depends on me.’ “
The animals themselves were stressed by the change from their previous environments to pens aboard the ship, Miller said. Two aborted their calves and one had a full-term calf. They were the only three that needed milking during the trip.
Miller, too, had to adapt.
Although he speaks German and some Spanish, it didn’t help him communicate with the ship’s staff: a Russian captain, Ukrainian engineers and a 33-man Filipino crew. He relied on a cell phone translation app to communicate on the ship, and in Morocco, where French and Arabic are spoken. He said his agent in Morocco had good English skills
He said the people he worked with in Morocco were Islamic, Jewish and Catholic. Most were Islamic.
The lesson he took away from his experience working closely with people from different faiths and nationalities was this: “There’s good people everywhere.”
He recalled being particularly well treated by the Filipino crew in the ship’s dining area.
“My platter was always fixed, always ready. The hospitality there – they would come and pull your chair back from the table. We’re exporting cattle. I’m just a good old country boy. I’m not used to that. I couldn’t even take my own plate to the sink.”
After the ship docked in Morocco, Miller stayed with the animals during 12 days of the four-week isolation that preceded their trip to the dairy farm that would be their new home.
Among the Andreas Farms animals sold to the Moroccan cooperative was a heifer who had become Miller’s pet.
“You would get in the pen and she would be there to greet you. You had your gloves in your back pocket, guess what? She would be pulling those out. If you didn’t give her attention, she would start rubbing her head on me. Cows have a personality just like humans.”
After being gone for almost five weeks, Miller returned home in early March to his family: wife Rosanna and children Malachai, 16, Jedaiah, 15, Damaris, 11, Hadassah, 8 and Nehemiah, 5.
He recommends a trip to Morocco for anyone who has the opportunity. He said the country is beautiful.
While there, he stayed at a top-of-the-line hotel, toured an ancient city, visited snowy mountains and sampled the sort of fresh produce that is not to be had in northern Ohio.
“Their fruit over there is absolutely amazing. If you’ve never had tree-ripened bananas, you haven’t eaten a banana,” he said.
During his stay, the temperatures in Morocco hovered around 75 degrees; it was below zero here.
Miller found another difference between the U.S. and Morocco. Unlike farmers here, who are squeezed between low milk prices and rising costs for land and feed, the farmers over there are rich, he said. Labor costs are low. A decent-paying job in Morocco pays $12 a day.
Miller has left Andreas, which is moving into grain farming. He will begin working at a dairy farm in Berlin in August.
His presentation will be in the community room of the library at 525 N. Walnut St. Call the library at 330-343-6123 to register for the program.