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1209 PD: Quality forages limit production on Chinese dairies

Randall Greenfield Published on 05 August 2009

In April I had the opportunity to spend two weeks visiting the People’s Republic of China as a dairy consultant on behalf of the U.S. Grains Council (USGC).

The USGC is a trade organization whose mission is to promote the export of U.S. grains and grain byproducts by connecting potential exporters with end-users. In China they work with dairy producers to improve their nutrition and management skills as well as promoting the use of U.S. distillers grains.

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My trip included visiting two different provinces. I was met by my translator from USGC in Beijing, after a 13-hour flight from Chicago. We then flew south to the city of Guangzhou in southern China where we were hosted by the Guangdong Province Dairy Association. Guangzhou is a city of about 10 million people located 100 miles northwest of Hong Kong. The climate in this area was tropical – mid-80s for temperatures and very humid.

We visited three dairies in this area that milked from 600 to 1,200 Holstein cows. Two of these dairies were state-owned. Most of the cattle genetics were from the U.S., with some coming from Australia or New Zealand. Average daily milk production ranged from 40 to 45 pounds per head on 2X milking. Cattle were housed in open brick-paved lots with covered feedbunks. Some of them also had some sand-bedded freestalls, with more planned for construction. All of the dairies I visited provided fans and sprinklers for cooling, though most had not yet started the sprinkler systems, as it wasn’t summer yet.

Cattle were milked in relatively modern parallel or herringbone parlors, some with automatic take-offs. They were very concerned about keeping cows clean and used a lot of water to accomplish that task. This, along with their climate, contributes to their ongoing struggle with udder health. Labor seemed to be plentiful and inexpensive. The 1,200-cow dairy, which did not grow their own crops, had 159 total staff members.

The government owns all of the land in Communist China, and they let out small parcels of land (1 to 2 acres) to individual farmers to work, still mostly done by hand. In this region, the two largest crops are banana trees and sweet corn. Because the dairies do not control the land, they must try to use whatever is available as a forage source. On these dairies, they ensiled chopped sweet corn stalks which are cut after the corn is harvested for human consumption. This is their staple cow forage. Think how challenging it must be to work with such a large multitude of local growers to procure enough forage to feed 1,200 cows. Predictably, this system does not produce much high-quality forage, and its prospects for doing so are not very good. They supplement this forage supply with some fresh-cut, locally grown grass, some very poor grass hay imported from northeast China, and, when they can get it, high-quality alfalfa hay imported from Washington State (current price was $400 per ton).

Byproducts seemed to be readily available and relatively inexpensive especially when compared with the poor-quality forages available. Wet brewers grains, whole cottonseed, dried distillers grains (both domestic and higher-quality U.S.-sourced) and soybean meal were staples in the TMRs of this area.

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These dairymen were very proud to note that they had not been affected by last year’s melamine scandal where intentionally tainted milk caused death and serious health issues in children. They were producing fluid milk for the local and Hong Kong markets and continued to be paid well ($26-27 per hundredweight [cwt]) for their product. They were very interested in improving their management practices and facilities. They even wanted to learn more about the new cross-ventilated barns that are becoming more common here in the U.S. Living in a tropical environment at the latitude of central Mexico will likely limit their milk production potential, as will the unavailability of high-quality forages.

The second part of my trip was in the Shanxi province of east-central China – a three-hour Saturday morning flight north from Guangzhou. We were hosted here by the Shanxi Dairy Association, a government department that educates and administers the local dairy industry. After a couple of sight-seeing days, it was back to visiting dairies.

The climate in this area was cooler and drier – much more comfortable for cows. The dairies I visited in the Shanxi region milked from 120 to 860 Holstein cows. Production ranged from 40 to 50 pounds per head, all on 2X milking. They were typically housed in outdoor brick-paved drylots and brought into a barn three times a day to be fed. One dairy had a very nice sand-bedded freestall barn, but the cows were only given access to the stalls in bad weather.

Cows here were also milked in quite modern milking parlors, most with individual milk weight recording. Most parlors were oversized here compared to a typical U.S. dairy. The 860-cow herd had a double-24 parlor.

Some of these dairies were feeding whole-plant corn silage, as the main crop in the area was corn. The silage was immature and very wet. They were still learning how to make it. More commonly, the corn was allowed to mature, harvested as grain and the dry stover was harvested for dairy cow feed. There was also some alfalfa grown for hay in this area, with many of the same byproducts available.

This area was affected by the melamine scandal, and the dairy economy was much more depressed than in Guangdong province. Milk prices typically ranged from $14 to $17 per cwt, well under costs of production. One side-effect of the scandal is that processors refused to pick up milk from very small dairymen. To remedy the situation, the local government is helping these smaller farmers build collective farms as well as offering interest-free loans. One collective farm that I visited was milking 162 cows. The cows were owned by 38 different dairymen that owned from five to 37 cows each. They were paid for their own cows’ production (tracked by individual weigh jars in the parlor) and were responsible for the care and feeding of their own animals. The government officials were very proud that they were helping the dairymen in this way and we visited several of these collective farms.

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While the climate and growing conditions in this area seem much more conducive to making milk, it will still take a major change in forage production management and thinking for them to progress. I focused on making good corn silage at one of the seminars I gave to the dairymen. A very respected veterinarian from the regional dairy hospital argued that while we harvested the stover and grain together in the U.S., their process of harvesting the grain and stover separately was superior because they could feed the appropriate amounts of each in the ration.

Overall, it was a very interesting trip. The dairy visits were enjoyable, especially when the owner/manager genuinely wanted criticism of his/her operation in order to improve.

Greenfield is a dairy nutritionist with Vita Plus Technical Services. He can be reached at

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