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close this bookCERES No. 096 - November - December 1983 (FAO Ceres, 1983, 50 p.)
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Chinese striving to upgrade efficiency in dairy industry

Probably few areas in the world are more ripe for major improvements in agricultural productivity than some of the underpopulated counties of Heilongjiang province in northeastern China. Foreign visitors are amazed to find there thousands of hectares of flat, tillable land still waiting to be farmed. Over the years there have been numerous attempts to modernize the agricultural sector in this region, but there have been periods, especially during the Cultural Revolution, when access to essential technical knowledge was difficult; the development of efficient farming operations suffered accordingly. The basic challenge to farm workers and managers has been to achieve a good mix of technical inputs. The experience of Anda County in its efforts to build up a highly specialized dairy cattle industry is illustrative of the frustrations that can arise as a result of unbalanced technological development.

While high-performance dairy cattle breeds are something of a rarity in most developing countries, Anda County has maintained well-bred herds of black-and-white Friesian cattle for nearly half a century. The original breeding stock was introduced in the mid-1930s through donations from the Netherlands and dispersed through the province for several hundred kilometers along the Bo-Jin railway from the capital at Harbin.

After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, these improved breeds were assigned mainly to state farming enterprises, while the communes tended to keep with the traditional Yellow Chinese breed. The region suffers exceedingly cold winters and hot summers, so that much the same management techniques common to such other temperate continental climates as North America and Europe could be adapted to Chinese conditions. The Chinese, however, face some other natural constraints, the principal one being that most of the land is highly alkaline. It has been used over many centuries by Mongolian herdsmen for grazing of non-specialized herds and flocks. The more specialized state enterprises developed in recent times have tended to concentrate in less alkaline areas in order to be able to grow standard feed crops. As long term soil management strategies are developed, proper drainage schemes connected with the present irrigation system should be able to open up thousands of additional hectares where alkalinity is now too high for intensive crop production. Nevertheless, respectable yields are being obtained from maize, soybeans, mangers and sunflowers, crops for which much of the cultivation is done by hand, and from wheat, which is highly mechanized, including the use of self" propelled combines.

There have been ingenious local efforts to increase hay production from the native alkaline grass stands, but yields are low, generally less than one ton per hectare. One method of harvesting has been to use a large bulldozer-type tractor to pull as many as five converted horse-drawn knowers, hitched together and flanked out on one side of the tractor, while a huge towed hay rake on the other side gathers the swathes of the previous pass round the field. This outfit can cover a tremendous area each day. Unfortunately, because there is no equivalent mechanization for gathering the hay from the wind rows and transporting it to the sheds where it is to be fed to the cattle, loss in hay quality from exposure to rain results.

Another area in which some foreign consultants have observed difficulties is in the use of artificial insemination. This technique was introduced to the area during the 1960s, making it possible to draw upon semen from superior Friesian bulls located in the intensive dairy centres around Beijing and Shanghai. In this case, an attempt to economize by using reusable glass insemination pipettes rather than disposal sterilized plastic models led to widespread incidence of a uterine infection, metritis, resulting from difficulties in cleaning and sterilizing the glass pipettes between inseminations. Metritis causes infertility and results in long calving intervals, reducing the proportion of cows in the herd that are milked.

The Chinese have faced a dilemma in devising milking techniques that would maximize output from each cow. While milking machines are considered essential in dairy operations in industrialized countries in order to obtain the maximum amount of milk during the brief five- or six" minute period of "letdown" that follows udder massage, the Chinese have found that a large proportion of their milking cows do not have teats with shape or size adapted to the milking machine. They are thus faced with the prospect of culling a large number of otherwise productive cows simply to permit the introduction of equipment that would put many people out of work, or of milking several times a day in order to reduce the amount of milk in the udders at any particular milking and thus the time required for satisfactory milking. This, of course, would reduce the cow's time during the pasture season and might even reduce her feed intake when stable-fed during the winter. It remains to be seen whether the abundance of capable farm labour will be taken into account in further development plans.