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Some thoughts on China’s beef business

Nutrition with John McKinnon, beef cattle nutritionist

Recently I had the opportunity to visit China and spend some time with beef and dairy producers in this vast and truly interesting country. As this article goes to press in midsummer, I thought it would be interesting to provide you with a few insights into beef production in this part of the world. This was my third trip to China, but really the first where I was outside of Beijing, which as you may know is an incredibly large, congested city. On this trip, I visited Xinjiang Province, which is in the far west of China, as well as Dalian, which is a city in Liaoning Province, in the far east of the country. These are two very distinct regions from both an environmental and cultural standpoint.

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cows at a mineral feeding trough
cows eating pellets- Glen Nicoll

The terrain of Xinjiang Province is quite diverse, ranging from large mountain ranges to great expanses of desert, with stretches of grassland and some incredibly rich cultivated land. In the area I visited, you would have thought you were in the foothills of Alberta, with the Tian Shan Mountains that would rival the Rockies and vast areas of rolling grassland. Climate-wise, summers tend to be hotter and drier than what we experience in Saskatchewan, while winters are somewhat milder.

In short, from a geographic and climatic perspective, I could just as easily have been in Western Canada as in the far west of China. However, that is where a lot of similarity ended. Historically, people native to this area lived nomadically with their sheep, cattle and camels by grazing at higher elevations in the spring/summer/fall and wintering at lower elevations. In contrast to this traditional lifestyle, the company that I visited, which is in part government owned took a much more intensive approach to production with 21 farms that collectively housed 40,000 dairy cows, 5,000 beef cows and 5,000 ewes. Production was fully integrated with dairy-, beef- and lamb/mutton-processing facilities supplying value-added products throughout the country. As seen from their livestock numbers, dairy is the predominant focus, but increasing their beef business is a key goal. Touring their farms, I was not surprised by the management of their dairy cattle, as their barns for the most part could fit into production programs here in Canada. Many were new in the last five years, designed by western experts and operated for the most part in a fashion one would see in Canada. While it was hard to get a handle on their average production, it was clear they would not match typical North American production standards. Issues with forage/feed quality, feeding management and health, particularly mastitis and calf scours were common.

What surprised me was how they managed their beef cattle. The company focused on Angus breeding, both red and black with seedstock imported from Australia. As with the dairy cows, the beef cows and calves were housed in large, recently constructed barns. Each operation had several barns that housed different classes of cattle (i.e. bred cows; recently calved cows; cows and calves and weaned calves). Like the dairy cows, the cattle were managed intensively, and most surprisingly they used a year-round breeding program.

There was no attempt to develop a concentrated breeding/calving season. Cows were bred either by AI or in some cases naturally where the bull was run with the cows year round. As the cows came close to calving, they were moved to a calving barn and once calved, they were moved again to a cow-calf barn where they were maintained until weaning. In each barn, the cattle were fed a total mixed ration along a central alley. Rations varied but were based on corn silage, corn stover, shredded alfalfa hay, ground corn grain and supplement. Calves were weaned at three months of age with males left intact. Other than replacement heifers, all calves were finished for slaughter. As one might expect with confinement housing, some of their biggest issues centred around health, particularly calf scours and pneumonia.

The second operation was in eastern China with a more temperate climate due to proximity to the Yellow Sea. It consisted of a 200-head Limousin cow-calf operation and a 1,500-head commercial feeding operation. As with the operation in Xinjiang Province, all cattle were housed and managed indoors. The Limousin calves were weaned and sold at four months of age while the feedlot focused on feeding yearlings and other “opportunity” cattle. When we were there, the barn was full of cull cows that were being fed for slaughter. His second barn was under construction; it will hold 800 individually housed animals. Feed ingredients were similar to that used in the first operation. What was unusual was that the corn silage was ensiled in covered bunkers that were housed indoors. With the humidity, mould growth was a big issue. All market-ready animals were destined for the Hong Kong market.

Two things really stand out for me from this visit. First, beef consumption in China is gaining market share and represents a major opportunity for beef-exporting countries like Canada. However, don’t be surprised that domestic production fills a large part of this demand. Their incredibly high infrastructure costs are offset by cheap labour as well as a political desire to grow this industry.

About the author

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John McKinnon

John McKinnon is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan and a consulting nutritionist who can be reached at [email protected].

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