A HUGE surge in dairy food consumption by an emerging middle class in Asian countries such as China has forced Asia’s dairyfarmers to secure larger supplies of quality lucerne hay to feed growing herd numbers.
In just 12 months, Chinese imports of lucerne hay have almost doubled from 35,000 tonnes to 60,000 tonnes as local dairy cattle numbers push beyond 12.5 million head.
Lucerne hay is mainly imported from the United States and a small amount from Canada according to NSW company Canowindra Produce sales agronomist Brad O’Reilly, but he said there were opportunities for Australian growers to tap this market.
“Asia is moving from a large number of small, family-owned dairy farms to larger companies and corporations,” Mr O’Reilly said.
After tapping into the Asian market by exporting premium lucerne hay to Korea last year, Canowindra Produce was now in the process of refining protocols to export to China.
“We already export grain and chaff there but there is a huge demand for alfalfa (lucerne) purely for the dairy industry,” he said.
“The northern hemisphere seasons are opposite to ours so when their season finishes, the season starts in Australia – this means they can secure consistent supply all year.” Canowindra Produce already has a shed at Forbes, NSW processing lucerne hay to meet export requirements but Mr O’Reilly said the company needed suppliers to help fill export orders.
“We have support from regular suppliers but if we could buy 50 to 100 tonnes of hay from each supplier, that would give us enough to secure an order for export,” Mr O’Reilly said.
“Even dedicating one paddock or property, or even the first two cuts from a crop for export would help.
“The benefit for growers is they don’t have to pay storage or marketing.”
The company plans to buy a minimum of 5000 tonnes to fulfil export requirements this season.
“In a typical season we have a very good chance of securing that amount,” he said.
“The plan is to fill the processing shed at Forbes, then grade, process and have it all ready to go.”
Large square bales, measuring eight metres by four by three are bought from the Forbes area before being cut into six sections, about half the size of a small square bale, then packs of 18 before being strapped and wrapped for export.
This process adds more weight to the container so the client gets more value, according to Mr O’Reilly.
He said the company initially struggled to get its Asian exports started because it couldn’t offer top dollar at the time.
“We couldn’t compete with the domestic market, particularly this year when demand was so high, but supplies were so low,” he said.
The domestic market was worth up to $400/tonne at one point while export was $250/tonne.
Lucerne hay for export to Asia must have a good visual grading, be soft, have leaf and be bright green in colour.
Feed tests and vendor declarations confirming chemical usage are also a must.
Mr O’Reilly said cutting earlier was the key to meeting export requirements.
“I can’t stress the importance of the cutting process,” he said.
“In Australia there is a ‘five-to-10 % flower rule’ which is a bit old fashioned but lucerne for export needs to be cut pre-bloom for the best quality.”
Forbes lucerne grower Mark Green is excited about the prospects of exporting home-grown lucerne to China.
“We have been exporting quality lucerne hay to Singapore for some time now, but an opening of a market with China will be good for this district,” he said.
Mr Green works in a family partnership with his brother, Robert, and father, Kingsley, who between them have a large dryland and irrigation aggregation adjacent to the Lachlan River just south of Forbes.
“We all work together as a unit in a mixed-farming enterprise,” he said.
Fifty per cent of the irrigation area is sown with lucerne at any time.
“We produce about 3000 tonnes-plus of lucerne hay and oaten hay (which is sold) to Canowindra Produce,” Mark Green said.
“The type of hay varies from feed to dairy quality hay and chaff for the horse industry.”