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Dairy goat production in China

From the moment I landed at the airport in Beijing, China did not seem like a Communist country to me, certainly not like the Soviet-style economies I had visited in the 1990's. Whether its economy can overtake the United States in twenty years is another matter.

I found China to be a country of contrasts. The cities are modern and bustling with activity and new construction, while a visit to the countryside takes you back in time. China's huge economic boon is challenged by an aging population, a widening income gap between the rural and urban populations, and various forms of environmental degredation, especially air pollution.

I visited China for two weeks in October 2008. My travel companion was Dave Martin, Agricultural Extension Agent and County Extension Director in Baltimore County. While I was learning about China's goat industry, Dave was getting an overview of the apple industry.

We spent our time in the Shaanxi province in North Central China. Xi'an is the provincial capitol and its largest city. It is one of the four ancient capitols of China and the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. The climate and rainfall is similar to Maryland.

We were hosted by Northwest Agricultural & Forestry University (NWAFU) in Yangling. The University of Maryland and NWAFU are entering into an agreement to conduct student and faculty exchanges. We will work with our Chinese counterparts to develop an agricultural Extension program based on the U.S. model of Extension, in which Extension is research-based and delivered from the land grant university.


Chinese Agriculture
In China, all of the land is legally owned by the government, though farmers can enter into long term (e.g. 30 year) rental agreements. In the countryside, each member of the family is entitled to 1.5 Chinese units of land. Rural families are allowed to have more than one child. A Chinese unit of land is called a mou. Five mous are equal to one acre. Fifteen mous comprise a hectare. The family lives in the village and walks to their land to work it. The small plots are intensively farmed.

Farmers appeared fit and well-dressed. Labor is done by hand: planting, fertilizing, and harvesting. The harvest is hauled from the field in three-wheeled vehicles that are motorized or pedal-powered. Some pulling and pushing of carts is done. I was surprised that horses or donkeys were not widely used in the countryside. In fact, the only horses I saw were for horseback riding at a tourist venue. I did see a few donkeys in the countryside outside of Beijing. They were being used as beasts of burden.

Announced in October 2008, China's recent economic stimulus package will allow farmers for the first time to trade or rent their land tendancies. The hope of the new policy is that larger, more efficient farms will be organized, which authorities believe will improve the prosperity of people living in the countryside. In the 1950's, Chinese agriculture was forceably organized into collective farms. Collective farms were later combined into larger communes. In 1982, the communes were broken up and each household was assigned a small plot of land to farm on their own. This was the beginning of China moving towards a more open economy.


Dairy Goats
There are more dairy goats in China's Fuping County than any county in the world. According to goat specialists, there are 320,000 dairy goats in Fuping County. This compares to 310,000 dairy goats in the entire United States, according to the latest USDA NASS statistics (2008). Fuping County's land area is similar to the county where I live.I was told that dairy goats are special to farmers in Fuping and nearby counties because during difficult times, dairy goats provided nutritious milk to the struggling population. Millions of people starved to death during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.


The average goat farmer has fewer than 10 does. Single dairy goats can often be seen being led down the road. The government is encouraging larger dairy goat farms, based on several organizational models. The larger farms I visited have 600 or more does. The goats are owned by many farmers. Some of the big farms breed via artificial insemination with fresh semen. Most of the goats are disbudded.


Almost all of the dairy goats are Saanen. A few are crosses with a local breed that also has strong Saanen influence. There are no colored breeds of dairy goats in China. The genetics are European and in need of replenishing. I suspect high levels of inbreeding. Currently, there is no breed registry for Saanens or national performance record keeping program analogous to the U.S.'s DHIA or NSIP programs.

On small farms, the goats are kept near the homestead. On large farms, the goats are kept in confinement:  brick buildings with concrete or brick floors. The goats are fed in fence line feeders and have an outside loafing area. No bedding is used. On the large farms, corn silage or green chop is fed, along with some hay and grain. Small farmers feed mostly the corn plant and grain, if they can afford it. Purina seems to have cornered the market for livestock feeds, at least in Fuping County.

Most of the goats I saw appeared healthy and well tended. There were a few spoiled udders and some occasional hoof problems. China is not free from foot-and-mouth disease, so vaccination is mandated by the central government. Mastitis could be a bigger problem than suspected, especially on farms where the lots are not kept clean, teat dips are not used, or where goats are overcrowded. There seems to be a heavy reliance on herbal medicines for livestock. It would be good to test some of these products in the U.S.

Fuping County is a crop production area, which is why dairy goats are kept in confinement and fed harvested feeds. Corn is harvested by hand and the kernels are dried on the roads and in parking lots. Some corn is kept on the ears and hung around the farmstead for drying. The leftover fodder is fed to livestock or burned in the fields.

Kids are born mostly from December through March. Kidding rates approach 200 percent. On most of the dairy goat farms, the kids remain with their dams for about a month. When they're a month old, they'll weigh about 10 kg (22 lbs.) and those not being kept for breeding will be sold.

Most of the goats, regardless of farm or herd size, are milked by hand. The milk is collected into a bucket, strained into another container, then cooled in a vat of cold water. It is transported to the processing plant in containers. Most of the milk is made into powdered milk, some of which is exported to other Asian countries.

If a doe is treated with a drug, her milk is segrated. The milk processing company purchases the tainted milk and discards it. Apparently, the companies are reluctant to refuse to purchase milk from farmers. There is an educational need to explain to farmers why milk that contains antibiotic residues cannot enter the food chain. There is also a need to teach farmers to wash the udders of the goats prior to milking and to use teat-dips after milking. Some do, but it is not a routine practice on small farms.

Within five years, most of the goats in China will probably be machine milked at milking stations built by the milk processing plants, government, or with financial assistance from the World Bank. A farmer will be able to take his or her goats to a milking station in their local villlage where the goats will be milked by a trained milker. The authorities believe that centralized machine milking will improve the quality and safety of the milk. One milking station is considered ample for milking 500 to 600 goats.

China's dairy goat industry is untainted from the international melamine scandal, in which Chinese milk processors admitted to adding melamine to diluted cow's milk to increase protein levels. Melamine is an industrial

chemical used in the processing of plastic. Melamine-tainted cow's milk has been blamed for four infant deaths and is believed responsible for thousands of illnesses and hospitalizations.


One of the goat milk companies is experimenting with cheese production. Cheese did not seem to be a popular food ingredient in China. As in the U.S., goat products are not as popular as cow products. There is a strong need for promotion and to tout the health benefits of goat milk, cheese, and meat. Goats seem to have more cultural significance in China than they do in the United States, but cow's milk still dominates the market place. Prices are similar for goat and cow milk.


Meat Goats
China has far more goats than any country in the world: over 197 million, according to the FAO (2007). Like the United States, the majority of them are meat goats. There is also a large population of Cashmere goats. I had the opportunity to visit a Boer goat breeding station. The station is located in a more mountainous area, thus the goats are allowed to graze. After having symptoms of Haemonchosis described to me, I introduced my Chinese peers to the FAMACHA© eye anemia system for monitoring barber pole worm infections.

According to goat specialists, Boers are crossed with local breeds for meat production and the crossbred offspring are superior to either of the parent breeds. Prices for meat goats are generally good, though prices for Boer goat breeding stock have plummeted as the breed has established itself commercially. Boer goats were imported into China in the 1998 from New Zealand and Germany.

Meat goats are slaughtered when they are approximately 10 to 12 months of age and weigh over 35 kg (77 lbs.). The meat "yield" is about 40 percent, though I'm not sure yield is calculated. Most of the kids are born from December through March. According to goat specialists, the industry is growing.

Northwest Agricultural & Forestry University

Northwest Agricultural & Forestry University boasts world class facilities for biotechnology research. It even has a farm for cloned animals. A Pygmy goat was cloned in similar fashion as Dolly the sheep. Her name is "Sunshine" and she has several offspring. She was cloned from skin cells from a donar goat. There is an admission fee to enter the farm of cloned livestock.

At the University's dairy goat farm, goats are still milked by hand. A new goat farm is being built at another location on campus. The new farm will include a milking parlor. It also has a large vat for dipping goats. The vat is long and deep and we wondered how the goats would handle the "swim." Dipping is no longer a common practice in the U.S.

The only sheep I saw during my visit to China were Polled Dorsets at the University's farm for cloned animals. China has more sheep than any country of the world: almost 172 million, according to the FAO (2007). Most are raised in northern China, where the land is not suitable for cultivation. China has some interesting breeds of sheep, notably the Large-tailed Han, whose fat-tail is so huge (up to 25 kg) it hinders movement during grazing. Hopefully, I'll see more sheep on my next visit to China.

History and Culture

You can't visit China and not be awed by its culture and history. China boasts one of the world's most continuous civiliations. Its culture spans more than six millennia. "Modern" China began in 1912 after centuries of Imperial rule. The People's Republic of China (PRC) was born in 1949 when the Communist Party siezed complete control. President Nixon's 1972 visit to China was the first step towards normalizing relations between the U.S. and the PRC. The Beijing Olympics showcased the economic success of China and were a great source of national pride.

For me, a visit to the Great Wall of China was analagous to visiting the Pyramids at Giza. We visited the Mutianyu section of the wall, one of the best preserved sections. It is located about 70 clicks northeast of Beijing, amongst some very picturesque mountaneous scenery. A ski lift takes you to the wall and you can take a toboggan ride down from the wall. When you reach the wall, there is much walking and climbing to do. While the wall is not contiguous, more watch towers can be seen off in the distance.


Seeing the Terracotta Warriers (near Xi'an) was another incredible experience. It was interesting to learn that farmers discovered the site in 1974 when they were drilling for water. In fact, one of the farmers signed a book I purchased at the museum store. The Terracotta Army was built during the reign of China's first Emperor (Qin) to guard the Emperor in his after life. So far, only a small fraction of the estimated 8,000 soldiers, horses, and chariots have been restored. They are in pieces and their vibrant colors are long gone.

Visits to Tiananmen Square brought back memories of the 

student protests in 1989 which ended in bloodshed. Tiananmen Square serves as a reminder that China is still a Communist country that limits the rights of its citizens. Despite his complicity in the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Chairman Mao (Zedong) is still highly regarded by the Chinese population. A portrait of him hangs at the entrance to the Forbidden City. The Chairman Mao Memorial Hall (mausoleum) is located in the middle of Tiananmen Square. Mao's remains are on display for public viewing. We didn't have time to visit. Perhaps, next time.


You couldn't go to Beijing and not visit the site of the 2008 Olympics. We toured the Bird's Nest. It had only been open to the public for about a week. After hosting the Olympics in August, Beijing hosted the Special Olympics. Inside the Bird's Nest are displays of all the costumes worn during the opening ceremonies. The Water Cube, where Michael Phelps won his eight gold medals, is an awesome piece of architecture. Unfortunately, we didn't go inside. The Olympic Park seem to go on for miles. At least, my feet felt that way.


People and Food

The people of China are friendly and gracious, always smiling. Their hospitality is unmatched. I observed them to be fit people, which I attribute to their more active lifestyles and healthier diets. They walk a lot and ride bicycles. Motorcycles and motor scooters are also popular modes of transportation. A lot of motorized vehicles have only three wheels. Even the monks have cell phones.

"Real" Chinese food is nothing like what we think of as "Chinese" food in America. The cuisine is regionalized. Most food is prepared in bite-size portions that can easily be picked up with chopsticks. It is not necessary to cut meat at the table. Street fare includes a lot of food on sticks, including vegetables and various animal parts. A typical Chinese "fast food" meal is a bowl of noodles.

Pork seems to be the most popular meat. Chicken, beef, and fish are also widely eaten. The lamb and goat meat I had were very good. Soy protein [ick!] is also popular, but difficult to pick up with chopsticks (slippery). Noodles and/or rice are mainstays of the Chinese diet, which includes many differents kinds of vegetables. Fruit is more of a desert food. Cold drinks are not commonly consumed. Hot water is often served with the meal.

I enjoyed my first trip to China. I look forward to a return trip, hopefully to work with the small ruminant industry.

This article was written in 2008 by Susan Schoenian.

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