Recently, I visited China to consult on dairy farms. It was a fascinating experience. If you want to read more about my trip, see the article in the Feb. 9 edition of Dairy Star or visit my blog
    While there has been dairy production in China for a long time, it was a very small industry until recent times. Today, there are somewhere between 8 and 10 million dairy cows. Dairy product consumption has also been low by world standards. In 2013, the average urban consumption of dairy per capita was 63 pounds. The global average at that time was 240 pounds per person, and in the United States it was 637 pounds. So, the Chinese only eat about one-tenth the amount of dairy as we do here per person. However, consumption has been growing. A survey published by the China Dairy Industry Association in 2018 states that dairy product sales will grow 6.4 percent this year and that annual sales will grow by nearly 17 percent by 2023. Most Chinese consume dairy only as milk or yogurt and consume very little butter or cheese.
    I was not aware of this when I arrived in Beijing, but it was soon clear that dairy is a much smaller part of Chinese life than it is here. For example, in nine days I did not see one piece of cheese, not sliced, shredded, melted, nor blocked. I saw milk served at only one meal, but it was hot. I saw butter once. I did see a little yogurt, mostly of the drinkable version. However, I did see several McDonald’s, and I was told they serve cheeseburgers. Pizza is supposedly popular with the young in China, though I did not see any. I saw ice cream twice. I also saw a population of people that dress like we do, drive cars like we do, use cell phones like we do and all around look like they could be in Minneapolis or Los Angeles. Clearly China has been westernized in many ways, and it looks like their diet is changing, as well.
    The production side of their dairy industry is westernized also. The newer farms I saw looked like newer farms here. Cows lived in curtain-sided, naturally-ventilated freestall barns and cross ventilated barns. The new farms had lots of technology including cow identification and parlor systems, manure scrapers, manure digesters, ventilation systems and feeding equipment. The best farms looked a lot like our best farms. Their cows look like our cows, too. While cows and heifers have been imported from a variety of countries around the world, semen mostly comes from the same companies United States or European dairy farmers might use. Part of this modernization is because of the melamine scandal in 2008 when six babies died and thousands more were sickened by consumption of contaminated baby formula. According to a variety of sources, Chinese consumers still to some degree distrust Chinese-produced dairy products.
    Indeed, an article in the February online edition of Dairy Business talks about a recently developed U.S. cheese label for the Chinese market, hoping to capitalize on this lingering mistrust of locally produced dairy. Overall though, younger middle class Chinese are paying increasing attention to their health, and consider dairy products to be healthy, especially western-produced products. Following the melamine scandal, the Chinese government created new quality regulations that resulted in the exit of many small dairy farms. It also began subsidizing construction of large scale dairy farms. All of this was done to consolidate production and gain better control over the safety and quality of dairy products, according to the Jan. 11, 2018, edition of Dairy Global.
    Dairy farmers in China are paid more for their milk than here. From looking at a variety of online sources, I found producers were paid about $23 per hundredweight in 2017 on average, and that farmers have been paid about 50 percent more that our farmers over the last few years. Most likely much of this advantage is lost in feed costs. I only saw one farm that had attempted to grow alfalfa. All the hay was shipped from places in the United States including Utah and Idaho. According to a 2014 report called, “China’s Rising Dairy Industry,” published by Biomin, hay imports increased from 2,088 tons in 2007 to 755,600 tons in 2013. China also imports a lot of corn grain and soybeans.     
    Fundamentally, China has a problem in that only 15 percent of the total land mass can be cultivated and much of this is not very productive. Plus, much of the land goes toward producing rice or wheat for human consumption. Thus production of feeds for livestock is challenging and not likely to keep up with the demand.
    When visiting the country, it is obvious change has been rapid and dramatic in many aspects of Chinese life. Dairy is really no different, especially on the production side. It sure looks like demand for dairy in China is going to continue to go up, and China really has no way to meet that demand even with modern facilities, top notch technology and great genetics. Dairy farmers somewhere in the world will need to fill that void. Hopefully U.S. farmers can be at the front of the line.
    Bennett is one of four dairy veterinarians at Northern Valley Dairy Production Medicine Center in Plainview, Minn. He also consults on dairy farms in other states. He and his wife, Pam, have four children. Jim can be reached at with comments or questions.