Beijing seminar helps Wisconsin dairies build a bridge to China

by Michael Penn, UW-Communications

Along the northern and northeastern borders of China, traditionally considered the country’s dairy belt, daily life can resemble a scene from a Wisconsin of a bygone era. The farms that dot the vast grassy plains are typically small operations with less than a dozen cows, and hardly modern. Most farmers still milk their animals by hand and feed them whatever bits of grain they can find.

Old-fashioned though they may be, these operations are part of a burgeoning Chinese dairy industry, one that has more than doubled its production since 2000 and stands poised for continued rapid growth. Government officials have bold plans to expand and modernize the industry, which they hope will emerge as a major player on the world dairy scene.

But Chinese dairy farmers aren’t facing the hurdles of modernization alone. To help them meet their lofty goals, they are turning to a state that knows a thing or two about building a dairy industry: Wisconsin.

This month, a contingent of Wisconsin dairy scientists and industry officials will travel to China to participate in a seminar for Chinese dairy producers, which will take place Sept. 17-18 in Beijing. Organized by the Sino-U.S. Dairy Center, a joint project of UW-Madison’s Babcock Institute for International Dairy Research and Development and China Agricultural University, the seminar is designed to share the latest scientific findings on milk quality, animal nutrition and other aspects of sound dairy management. It is the fourth such conference organized through the partnership, which aims not only to boost Chinese dairy expertise, but also to establish business relationships and tap into markets in the world’s most populous nation for Wisconsin industries.

“This is an opportunity for Wisconsin dairy businesses to get their foot into China,” says Karen Nielsen, associate director of the Babcock Institute and primary organizer of the seminar. “The Chinese dairy industry is rapidly expanding, and the U.S. is very late getting into the picture. Most of the machinery and products you see being used on the farms in China are from other places in the world, and we’d really like to get the U.S. into this booming industry.”

This year’s seminar will run in conjunction with Governor Jim Doyle’s trade mission to China and Japan, which departs Wisconsin on Sept. 7 and visits Beijing Sept. 16-18. For Wisconsin businesses such as CRI, a Shawano-based cooperative involved in cattle genetics and livestock marketing, the coordinated events create an opportunity to make deep inroads into the Chinese market.

“Our hope is that China becomes one of our top countries for exports within the next four to five years,” says Bob Stratton, associate vice president of international marketing for CRI, which began exporting products to China a year ago. “We already have a distributor in China, but our name needs to be spread more widely there. We look at the trade mission as a way to link our name with the explosive power of the Wisconsin dairy industry.”

Historically, demand for products such as cheese and milk has been low in China, where citizens consume as little as one-fifth as much dairy as the world average. But that is rapidly changing. In 1998, the government instituted a program to ensure schoolchildren drink at least one cup of milk each day, and tastes for Western foods such as pizza and ice cream are growing. Although government and international companies have invested heavily to meet the rising demand for milk, Chinese dairy operations struggle with low milk quality, inefficient technologies and poor animal maintenance and breeding. As a result, Chinese dairy cattle produce less than half as much milk as American cows.

The Babcock seminars are designed to present proven strategies for dealing with such problems, says Nielsen. She says she expects nearly 200 of China’s top dairy farm managers, association leaders and government officials to attend the Beijing sessions, which this year feature an emphasis on milk quality, dairy cow reproduction and cheese manufacturing. Cheesemaking, in particular, is a topic of keen interest for many Chinese dairies, which are eyeing its potential as a growth market in China.

“There is strong interest because cheese is high value and has a long shelf life,” says Scott Rankin, a UW-Madison professor of food science, who will present four lectures on cheese and milk quality at the seminar. “I’m there to show them what dairying looks like in the Cheese State. It’s a great opportunity for us to demonstrate how a developing nation such as China can build a successful industry.”

Others slated to present at the conference are Rod Nilsestuen, Wisconsin secretary of agriculture, trade and consumer protection, and Humberto Rivera, an expert on dairy cattle reproduction with Accelerated Genetics in Baraboo, Wis., as well as scholars and officials from China Agricultural University. CRI and other businesses are scheduled to exhibit products at the conference site, which Stratton says will help forge a mutually beneficial partnership between China and Wisconsin.

“I think the United States and Wisconsin are in a unique position to be able to offer expertise to China right now,” he says. “We have the kind of dairy industry that China wants to build. We can offer what they are looking for.”