Rocketing up the learning curve
The dry statistics don’t do it justice. You have to get some mud on your boots to experience the pace of change in Chinese agriculture, and to understand the emerging opportunities for long-term partnerships with Chinese producers – and consumers – who are eager to grow as fast as they can manage.
I recently spent a week, presenting at a conference and meeting with customers and traders. We made time to tour Chinese swine farms to get a perspective on the modernization and state of the local swine industry. We drove for about an hour and a half and seemingly never left a populated/urban area. As we meandered our way through a Chinese concrete mine that literally lays the foundation for neighboring Kunming, we found ourselves stopping at the top of a hill. What greeted us was a red iron curtain that is way more literal than figurative.
The door swung open and out stepped a cheerful Chinese lady dressed in what looked more like a butcher’s robe than a hog farmer’s coveralls. Her smiling face was a warm welcome as watering trucks constantly drove by in their fruitless effort to control the choking dust from the adjacent mine.
The team then met her husband, Mr. Chen, who ushered us to a footbath that stood guard outside of the entrance to their hog house. The exterior of the hog house itself looked much like something I remember from my childhood back in Iowa – old and not fancy. It’s the kind of building my grandfather had (okay, still has). However, once you step inside, it feels much different. The setup was something that reminded me of a showpig barn the day of a sale. Shiny new gates formed pens on one side and gestation crates on the other.
“We just got everything you see here. We used to be broiler producers,” said Mr. Chen. “When the margins tuned sour, we sold our flock and bought our foundation swine herd.”
The symbolism was remarkable to me. What this represented was a price-conscious Chinese citizen that wished to make more money by producing a higher level of protein. He proudly displayed his two new herd boars-two purebred Durocs-standing sentinel to roughly 50 York/Landrace cross gilts. He will use both natural service and AI to service the gilts. He has only had the herd for roughly a month, as he purchased them shortly after the Chinese New Year-the most important holiday in the Chinese culture.
As we learned about his operations and motivation to raise pigs, his wife diligently swept (not scraped) the manure into a channeling trough that ultimately ran onto his neighbor’s vegetables (and everything else) with an old-fashioned, traditional broom. They feed a complete, pelleted feed purchased from their local feed store, but have no idea of its contents. They simply tell the feed supplier what they need and the age/size of the pigs. The feed store then gives them a suitable feed at a suitable price. They have absolutely no idea what DDGS is and ethanol is literally and figuratively a foreign idea.
The couple had three buildings that would eventually become their farrowing house, finisher and gestation barn. Currently, everything was housed together as the boars may have been 300 lbs, but the gilts were about 200 lbs. Although it was a relatively new setup, the facility lacked slatted floors or nipple waters-veritable “must haves” in modern swine production. What would easily be a part time job in the United States, fully employed two people-Mr. and Mrs. Chen-in China.
As we said our goodbyes, I couldn’t help but gaze in the not so far distance and see factory smokestacks piercing the sky like needles and think to myself all of the astonishing economic progress and improvements taking place, literally all around me. I wished them good luck and we were on our way.