Feeding The World With Alfalfa

A new large-scale nationwide survey suggests that a large segment of U.S. consumers do not believe farmers should be responsible for addressing projected global hunger. The Center for Food Integrity found that 40 percent strongly disagreed that the U.S. has a responsibility to provide food for the rest of the world. More than half of those surveyed strongly agreed that it is more important for the U.S. to teach developing nations how to feed themselves than to export food to them. However an indirect way of feeding the world is to export livestock feeds to those countries so they can produce their own animal proteins. Corn, corn co-products, and soybean meal have been exported for a long time, now seems to be the turn for alfalfa hay.

U.S. and China among top milk producers
Three countries led the world in fluid milk production in 2015: India with 146.5, the U.S. with 96.2, and China with 39.0 million metric tons. China is a new contender with an unparalleled growth during this century. Demand for dairy products in China continues to increase through a combination of technology, changes in retail-supply chains, consumer trends, income growth, and government policies. Between 1987 and 2007 per capita consumption of dairy products went from 4.9 to 17.4 percent, for an annualized growth of 6.5 percent. This was the largest growth in dairy product consumption for any market outside the U.S. Between 1989 and 2009 the annualized growth in milk production was 9.7 million tons, again the largest of any market. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports predict dairy production will grow 3.4 percent annually between 2011 and 2020 to total 59 million metric tons.

The largest Chinese dairy farming company in terms of herd size as well as the largest raw milk producer is “China Modern Dairy”. As of December 2013, this group had 22 farms operating, 2 farms under construction invested through the joint venture, and 2 farms under construction with approximately 186,838 dairy cows in total. At this time there are in excess of 40 dairies that house each more than 10,000 cows. Considering elite dairy cows can eat on average approximately 5 tons of dry forage and 5 tons of concentrate yearly, it is clear the problem these dairies will face. Faced with limited access to land the choice for large Chinese dairies is to import feed. From this perspective the U.S. has established itself as a market for exporting alfalfa to this destination constituting almost 95 percent of China’s hay imports. Since 2009, alfalfa hay exports to China have grown exponentially to a record 1 million tons in 2014. China is now the second largest importer behind United Arab Emirates. One of the reasons behind this trend is the U.S. has large purchases from China and return ships can put U.S. hay in Chinese soil at lower prices even than transporting it from one end to the other of California.

Top U.S. states for alfalfa production
The top five alfalfa producing states making up 35% of all production are: California, South Dakota, Idaho, Iowa, and Minnesota. California, the leading alfalfa hay producer in the U.S., is undergoing a severe drought. This has resulted in increased demand for hay to supplement cattle. To make matters worse forage yields in California were also negatively impacted due to reduced soil moisture. During the 2013-2014 period California and Idaho hay stocks dropped by 56 and 44 percent, respectively. It is highly unlikely that hay production in these western states will rebound, and large amounts of hay will need to be shipped from other states to feed California’s livestock and exports. South Dakota’s alfalfa could become increasingly competitively priced in the future and the state needs to be prepared.

2015 SINO-US Fifth Dairy Conference
On June 24-25 SDSU Extension presented at the 2015 SINO-US Fifth Dairy Conference that took place in Tai’an, China. Coordinated through the US Grains Council the goal of SDSU’s participation was to open markets for forages and co-products produced in South Dakota and elsewhere in the U.S. Topics addressed were forage quality and ethanol co-products as well as a new forage processor (Shredlage®) patented and sold in South Dakota. All types of hay are coveted by the Chinese market, however those with high nutrient density (more than 20% protein, less than 40% NDF, and more than 150 RFV) are definitively attractive. The market also requires bales that use space efficiently in the vessels and thus large, 400-500 kg compressed square bales are preferred.

Source: Alvaro Garcia, South Dakota State University 

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