The Hohhot Daily recently described the difficult transition to "modern" dairy farming currently underway in China. The country's dairy industry was jump-started in earlier decades by recruiting small farmers who saw dairy cattle as a road to riches. But today's dairy cattle have become susceptible to disease and need high quality feed, putting producers under intense cost pressure. Many small-scale producers are giving up their dairy cattle for an urban wage while the industry tries to boost commercial-scale farms.
50-year-old Wang Zhanwei smiles wistfully as he recalls the 1980s when he first took up dairy farming in Inner Mongolia. At that time every farmer's dream was to have a dairy cow, and two cows were enough to support of family. The price was only 0.2 yuan per 500g, but life was happy and comfortable.
Wang sighs as he recalls the increase in production costs in recent years. As costs rose faster than the milk price, many farmers sold or killed off their cows and quit.
The main cost component is feed. Rising feed costs pushed many farmers to cut corners on animal nutrition to save on costs. The health of dairy cattle deteriorated accordingly and so did the quality of milk, forming a "vicious circle." The poor quality of milk contributed to the melamine adulteration that decimated the industry after 2008. (Melamine was added to fool tests for protein content.)
Most farmers know how to raise cattle well. Mr. Wang doesn't skimp on feed quality; he views the health of cattle as a kind of capital for the future.
Another Inner Mongolia farmer, 68 year-old Pan Yijin, says today's dairy cattle have become "effeminate" (娇气--frail or delicate). If you're not careful, they are always getting mastitis or some other disease. He says cattle have become more vulnerable to disease, resulting in many farmers losing confidence in dairy production.
The article asserts that the veterinary service system has not kept up with the extremely rapid growth in Inner Mongolia's dairy production. Disease outbreaks are common and difficult to control. The reporter was told that about 30 percent of dairy cattle in the area around Hohhot are infected with subclinical or full-blown mastitis. When farmers see signs of mastitis they treat the cow with pharmaceuticals and can't sell the milk for half a month. Farmers can't tolerate the lost income when they only have a couple of cows.
[To be fair, a google search indicates that infection rates of 30% are not unusual around the world.]
People in China's dairy industry are emotional about the fallout from the 2008 melamine adulteration incident. Since then, the dairy industry has been the focus of food safety regulation. There has been a push for raising cattle in larger-scale operations, either "cow hotels" where farmers keep their animals in a group or company-operated farms. A large number of small farmers quit dairying in 2009 after the melamine crisis, but since then more have continued to quit. Farmers interviewed by the reporter also describe a loss of trust and a "collapse of the honesty principle" among farmers.
In Shen Lan Dai village the number of dairy cattle has fallen from 200 to about 40. The volume of milk is not enough to support the village's milk-collection station. Mr. Li, the manager of the station, says he can't eat or sleep because he worries that the station will be shut down.
Eight years ago, farmer Duan came from Hebei Province to raise dairy cattle in an Inner Mongolia village. Since then net returns have been falling and he has seen a lot of neighbors selling off their cattle. Duan has to make his cattle pay because he has no land and is not registered as a local resident. He has nothing to fall back on. Duan hopes to take his eight cattle to another place that has a better environment and better prices for raising dairy cattle.
Many "farmers" are becoming "workers." Duan's son has no interest in dairy farming. The younger Duan went to work in the city and is now studying in a vocational school.
The 12th five-year plan calls for support to push commercial-scale dairy production. This article says local authorities invested in 17 scale farms in 2012 and bought 77,000 cattle. An earlier dimsums post reported on this campaign and its slow progress.
Large farms are not necessarily better-managed or more profitable than small farms. Where are they going to find knowledgeable managers to operate these farms? Will hired workers on big farms do a better job milking cows than small farmers who own their cows?
An article that studied mastitis infection in Tanzania found that milking practices and sanitation of housing were the main cause of infections--more important than the breed--and smallholder farms were more efficiently operated than large-scale operations in the area where the study was conducted.
The Hohhot Daily article asserts that increasing the scale of farms is not the ultimate objective. Improving science and technology is identified as the key. However, the confidence in technology also may be misplaced. The Tanzania study found that breeds were not as important in preventing infection as the techniques and care used to milk the cattle--for example, ensuring that the udder is completely emptied after milking.