One of the odder official gifts ever offered to China was surely the Holstein calf given to former Premier Zhu Rongji on a visit to Canada. That calf is now a veteran bull, servicing China’s dairy cows in Xinjiang province.
Chinese herds need the help. As domestic beef and milk consumption rates rise, China is importing breeding expertise and gene lines. Purebred cows and bulls have been flown in to build the country’s own breeding programs. Foreign gene lines are also brought into China as semen, frozen into swabs on plastic straws used for artificially insemination.
Shi Qiupian, general manager of Shanghai Golden Glory Livestock Genetics Development Company, decided to import Britain’s favourite beef breed, the South Devon, as stock. “These animals are big in size and easy to breed,” he says. Shi also praises the South Devon’s adaptability; it can endure winter in Heilongjiang and summer in Gansu province.
Aesthetics also play a role in South Devon’s popularity here, Shi says. “The South Devon’s reddish-brown colour suits the aesthetic criteria of China’s farmers.” Golden Glory sells South Devon semen straws for RMB30 (€3.15) each.
Since operations began in 1999, the Shanghai firm – with financial backing from the Shanghai’s government – has seen its semen sales jump 20 percent a year. He estimates there are now 400,000 South Devon animals in China, thanks to the 80 percent success rate of the 60,000 artificial inseminations performed each month using the company’s semen.
Shanghai Golden Glory is not without competitors, but there seems to be room for everyone at present. For example, Liu Dong, China representative at German cattle genetics specialist Bessamungsverein Neustadt (BNV) says BNV sales grew 200 percent in 2008. Liu claims the firm’s Simmental-breed semen is the top seller at breeding stations in Shandong, Xinjiang and Heilongjiang.
Competition is limited, explains Liu, since the government already prefers Simmental cattle, a beefy European breed introduced in the 1980s. Liu predicts that BNV semen will be used for 1 million inseminations annually in China within three years.
China is keen to improve its indigenous cattle lines, including dual-purpose beef and dairy breeds, says Simon Appelby, chairman of Yu Feng Nong Holdings Limited, a company with dairy and breeding interests in China. But poor nutrition and husbandry mean local breeds perform poorly, he says. Imported breeds such as Simmental, Angus and Charolais in the north and central parts of China do well if well managed, he says.
But since smaller farmers are unwilling to pay for “superior” genetics (BNV straws sell for RMB200), improvements to overall breed quality tend to be policy-driven instead of market-driven, he says.
There’s also the harder question: Is beef right for China? Since the country lacks sparsely populated prairies, it’s not efficient to fatten cattle on the land, explains Appelby. Nor is feeding them in lots an alternative; China needs its crops to feed people. China’s herd will continue to grow, but how big is the question.