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Dairy academic challenges Chinese dairies to improve cow comfort, manager skills

Karena Elliott for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 July 2016

Editor’s note: This article is the fourth in a series profiling sources for an in-depth feature about the Chinese dairy industry, appearing in print later this summer.

Dr. Robert Collier is a professor and former chairman of the department of animal sciences at the University of Arizona. A former scientist with Monsanto, Collier has also served as the Donald Barron Visiting Professor at the University of Florida.

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He is a member of the Biotechnology Advisory Boards with the Nutritional Sciences Advisory Committee and the University of Iowa, as well as the Animal Sciences Advisory Board of the University of Illinois.

Collier received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in zoology from Eastern Illinois University and a Ph.D. in physiology from the University of Illinois. A Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering from the University of Missouri – Rolla adds to his professional credentials.

Today, his laboratory work in environmental physiology studies the environmental effects on gene expression in domestic animals. Collier’s research occurs on operating dairies in both the U.S. and abroad, as well as controlled research facilities. His most recent scientific trial compared two different evaporative cooling systems on a commercial dairy farm in Saudi Arabia.

While his expertise regarding modifications of dairy environments is of primary importance to the dairy industry, Collier also works with beef cattle, horses, sheep and goats.

One of Collier’s areas of expertise is heat stress. His work on the effect of body temperature, time of day and climate conditions for heat stressed lactating dairy cows appeared in the January 2015 issue of the Journal of Dairy Science. He advocates the use of shades, fans, misters and water troughs, especially for just-fresh and high-production pens.

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Chinese dairy experience

Collier has made multiple trips to China, where he has focused on central and southern dairy companies in the country.

“They have a lot of heat stress related problems in central and southern China,” Collier explains. “Other than providing shade, they haven’t worked hard to reduce heat stress in their herds.” While some Chinese dairies do use fans, there are widespread limitations on electricity availability throughout the country.

The explosion of growth in the Chinese dairy industry has also revealed a number of additional infrastructure challenges.

“Chinese dairies often don’t have enough water pressure to run the sprinklers when the parlor is going,” he says.

Because the dairy industry in China is an “overnight phenomenon,” according to Collier, they have significant needs with training and cow experience.

“The only source available right now has to come from abroad,” Collier says. “But there is considerable resistance.”

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“Agriculture is traditionally a very conservative culture in China,” Collier explains. “The Chinese will listen and nod in agreement while an expert is there, but when you come back in six months, they haven’t really implemented your recommendations.” As a result, he has found that one demonstration isn’t enough. “They have to be shown that it works in their herd.”

While many Chinese dairies tout huge numbers of animals on the farms, they often struggle with low reproductive success rates. “A 3,000-cow dairy may only be milking 300 cows due to repro problems,” Collier says.

He believes this is a win-win arrangement for U.S. professionals and companies. “We need to develop relationships with training opportunities for all aspects of the dairy,” Collier says. “This will pay off with improved managerial skills.”

Producers in both China and the U.S. are often much more influenced by their peers than by experts. “The key is to find the industry leaders who want to enact change,” Collier says. While most international experts working in China are making presentations to the herd owners, the managers who are actually doing the work are often not included.

Even with the massive population, governmental support for the dairy industry and acceptance of dairy products by the average consumer, Collier believes it will take years for China to rival U.S. production. “They are not a threat in the near future, but they are making strides,” he explains. “Building a facility is not any guarantee of success if they can’t manage the animals.”  PD

Karena Elliott is an international freelance writer who makes her home in Amarillo, Texas.

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