As a child, U Than Myint rarely played with toys other than a small wooden cow he had since he was four.
He bought a real cow at 14 and now, 40 years later, his affection for the animal on which he has built a successful business remains undiminished.
“Since I was young, I loved cows very much. I didn’t have other interests, I just loved to keep cows,” U Than Myint recalled, sitting in a gazebo at his farm in a Yangon suburb where around 1,000 of his milking cows, a Holstein Friesian cross-breed, are housed in cattle sheds.
Born in a small village on Bilu Gyun Island near the Mon State capital of Mawlamyine, U Than Myint’s passion for cattle likely came from his grandfather, U Pho Thaung, who had kept around 100 cows in the state’s Kyaikmayaw Township.
However, after the military seized power in 1962 and sought to nationalize farmland, U Pho Thaung decided to offload his livestock. Initially, he didn’t want his family to follow him into farming.
“He was concerned that if we were connected with farming and cows we’d be ill-fated like him,” U Than Myint said. “So I kept my first cow secretly.”
When U Pho Thaung did eventually learn of his grandson’s genuine interest in rearing cows, he happily offered advice on how best to manage and care for them.
Today, U Than Myint’s TM Dairy Farm is the country’s largest, distributing 3,000 one-liter bottles of milk daily with the help of 70 workers.
When U Than Myint began selling fresh milk in the 1980s, he owned about six cows.
“At that time… all condensed milk houses were owned by Chinese and Indians. They didn’t raise cows like us. They just bought milk from us and made profits from that. But we didn’t make profits like them although we devoted ourselves to keeping cows,” U Than Myint said.
His hobby would soon become a burgeoning business and in 1991, he founded a condensed milk house in Chaung Sone Township. Eight years later he owned 100 cows, but began to face challenges; the small market wasn’t meeting his supply.
“There were only two things to consider,” U Than Myint recalled. “Reduce my cows or move to a bigger market.”
Reluctant to relinquish any of his precious cattle, he made the decision to shift his operations to the then-capital Yangon.
“I wanted to develop my business and also desired to move to a metropolis so my sons could gain experience and knowledge there,” he said.
After searching for suitable farmland for nearly one year, he received the official documents granting him permission to leave his native town and move to Yangon. He and his family settled on their current property at Htauk Kyant in Mingaladon Township in 2000.
“All the other dairy farms were bigger than mine when I first arrived,” U Than Myint said. Dairy farms including the Chinese-owned Fun Hwa and Super Cow had around 400 cows.
He sold fresh milk from his car in downtown Yangon twice a day and sent condensed milk to regular customers in Mawlamyine.
In 2005, he launched pasteurized products using the brand name “TM,” his initials, and began targeting the bigger retailers like City Mart supermarkets.
More than 10 local dairy products, including Fun Hwa, Pyin Ma Pin, Super Cow, Walco and Silvery Pearl, were already prominent in the market at that time. As the newcomer, U Than Myint had to work hard to be competitive.
“I maintained the best quality and sold at lower prices than the others,” he claimed, adding that he used only natural milk from his farm and didn’t mix his products with water, or with milk from other sources.
TM’s efforts at providing quality milk have not gone unnoticed.
Khin Maung Oo, deputy director of the Livestock Breeding and Veterinary Department under the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Rural Development, said that an expert from New Zealand had recently evaluated Yangon’s local milk products. The expert, who works on a dairy cattle breeding development project between the two countries, collected a number of local dairy products in March and took them for testing in a Bangkok laboratory.
“It turned out that TM milk is the best [in quality],” Khin Maung Oo said.
U Than Myint was also awarded the President’s Excellent Performance Award in 2014 for his 40-year devotion to the dairy industry, although he said the government had not extended any assistance to cattle owners like him.
Some 15 years since relocating to Yangon, TM Dairy Farm now boasts 1,200 cattle and U Than Myint has opened another farm in Naypyitaw, with 50 cows.
Wary of balancing the demands of his business with the welfare of his livestock, U Than Myint has continued to explore better ways to care for his animals.
With the help of one of his sons, he hit upon a more advanced type of cow shed used in the United States. While they’re not cheap at 2 billion kyat (around US$1.95 million), for U Than Myint the sheds, which house 250 cows, are worth it.
“Although my farm became the biggest one in the country, the systems we are using here are not modernized like internationally,” he said. “I’m now building a modernized cow shed. In there, I can give them better facilities and they will have more space to walk and to lie down.”
U Than Myint’s passion for the animals not only helped him win over his skeptical grandfather, but also his wife.
Daw Tin Swe said that while others may have stopped raising cows in difficult times, her husband was stubborn and would be more likely to sell the family jewels than let go of his stock.
“In 1980, I told him not to keep cows anymore because it was really tiring. We were failing our social duties since we couldn’t go out or close the farm for a day,” she said.
But his lifelong devotion is something she has grown to accept.
“He loves cows very much,” Daw Tin Swe said with a smile. “So I just leave him to do his hobby and support him.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.