Don Curlee: China driving demand for alfalfa
Consumers in China are developing a vigorous taste for more dairy products than that country can supply, and cows there are craving more alfalfa than the country's farmers can grow.
That sets up a snappy export market for hay grown in the United States, one of the reasons hay prices are so high that California and other US dairymen are buying only what they absolutely need. But it also creates an active market in China for dairy products produced in the United States.
So, why can't the Chinese grow enough alfalfa to support a growing dairy industry? Dan Putnam, a University of California, Davis, soil scientist, has offered some answers.
As large as China is, Putnam said, suitable acreage not perched on hillsides, with good soil and adequate water for irrigation, is at a premium. And large-scale production is not that compatible with China's family, small-farm agricultural economy.
Further, the long, hot, dry summer days that promote vigorous alfalfa production in California and other Western US states are a rarity in China. Where they do occur is not usually where large acreage is available.
Then there's the soil conundrum. Because alfalfa puts nitrogen into the soil, it doesn't require what most experts consider to be fertile soils, those rich in nitrogen. Chinese soils tend to be rich in nitrogen, often the result of years of unofficial and unauthorized composting (buried garbage and primitive waste disposal).
One recent report from an American delegation visiting China tells of a 20,000-cow dairy. That's as large as any in California, the nation's number-one dairy state, and the state with a larger cow population than any other. The cow appetite for alfalfa at that location has to be huge.
The poor prospects for hay production in China automatically create (or should) a deep appreciation for the abundance of growing conditions for alfalfa in California. Even the northern reaches of the state have enough dry summer weather to encourage its production.
The conditions are even more conducive to hay production moving south through the Sacramento Valley, the San Joaquin, into Riverside County and on to the Imperial Valley. Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Arizona also can boast of conditions favorable for producing alfalfa.
Criticism of alfalfa production often comes from the water misers who can conjure up hundreds of uses for water other than crop production. Often, however, they are the same voices crying out for feeding the world, exactly what the hay production here makes possible, at least in China.
Putnam said improved handling and shipping conditions have made the transport of hay from the Western US states to the Orient smoother and more economical. An ocean freighter can stow an enormous amount of tightly baled and compressed alfalfa in its hold. Shipping from Long Beach to Shanghai is a reasonable $20 to $30 per ton.
All of these conditions are not going unnoticed by the leaders of China's top-down economy. Recent US delegations to China have learned that plans call for an increase in alfalfa production of 100 million tons per year for the next five years.
The object, of course, is to add fuel to a burgeoning economy by satisfying the demand for more dairy products. Drinking milk, cooking with it, enjoying its derivations — cheese, yogurt, ice cream and dozens of others — contribute to a happy populace.
It might not be a goal of China's meticulous economic planning, but the ambitious increase in alfalfa production is sure to result in perhaps millions of happy cows, scarfing down tons of home-grown alfalfa.
Part of the planners' challenge is to make sure the cows don't become ravenously hungry and perhaps restless an hour or two after each meal.
CONTACT Don Curlee at email@example.com