Menu

Dairy products line the shelves of a grocery store in China, where demand for milk and cheese is fueling rapid growth in the dairy industry. Karen Nielsen

Hundreds of miles from the glitzy fanfare of the Beijing Olympics, a different kind of international competition is playing out against the backdrop of a modernizing China. And this one has nothing to do with shot puts or synchronized swimming.

In Heilongjiang and other provinces along China’s northern border, the battle is over feed mixers and bull semen—and more generally, about which nation’s experts are best equipped to usher China’s dairy industry along the path of scientific advancement. Governments and businesses from Europe, Canada and Australia have been angling for a piece of the burgeoning industry, which has doubled in size since 2000. And until recently, the United States had barely showed up for the match.

“The Chinese dairy industry is rapidly expanding, and the U.S. is very late getting into the picture,” says Karen Nielsen, associate director of CALS’ Babcock Institute for International Dairy Research and Development. “Most of the machinery and products you see being used on the farms in China are from other places in the world.”

For the past several years, Nielsen and other Wisconsin officials have worked to change that picture. In 2005, UW – Madison forged a partnership with China Agricultural University and began organizing annual dairy seminars throughout the country, most recently in Harbin, at the heart of Chinese dairy country. On one level, the events are intended to impart the latest research findings on issues such as genetics, milk quality and farm management. But Nielsen also hopes the increased presence of U.S. and Wisconsin dairy experts opens doors for state businesses looking to establish contacts in China.

So far, that seems to be happening. Companies such as CRI, a Shawano-based genetics firm, have taken advantage of Babcock events to meet potential clients and foster new business. Bob Stratton, associate vice president of international marketing for CRI, says the company’s sales in China for the first six months of 2008 exceeded all of last year, and he’s optimistic about future growth.

Although equipping Chinese dairies might seem like aiding the competition, Nielsen says the growth in China’s dairy market leaves plenty of room for all comers. China’s consumption of dairy products—recently as low as one fifth the world average—is rising fast, thanks in part to a government program promoting milk in schools. Although the government and international companies have invested heavily to meet new demands, many Chinese dairies struggle with low milk quality, inefficient technologies and poor animal maintenance and breeding. Chinese dairy cattle currently produce less than half as much milk as American cows.

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