Annabelle Latz

Intensive sheep farming could be an answer to some of the challenges facing China, but it will still be a long time until the industry can meet its own demands.

Growing cities, evolving consumer tastes and combatting poverty are key drivers for the need for greater sheep meat production.

John McEwan, Southland-based principal scientist at AgResearch, is a sheep geneticist specialising in DNA sequencing and genotyping technologies and has been in the game for 40 years.

Last year he attended the Intensive Sheep Farming conference in Tianjin, China, and learned the ropes of an intensive, predominantly indoor farming system. He worked closely with a stud breeding operation in the far west of the country which is state-owned and linked to one of the universities. He returned again this year.

“The Chinese government wants to increase its sheep meat production but has reached or exceeded the potential of its grazing land, so they only have two ways; improve per animal productivity and go intensive.”

The arrival of African Swine Fever (ASF) last year also meant a rapid decline in China’s pig production, requiring an increased need for sheep meat. Intensive sheep farming has been a solution for less reliance on meat imports, which has spiked since ASF hit with recent predictions of a 20% decline in production.

China is the world’s largest sheep meat producer. According to the 2016 FAO statistics it boasts 162 million sheep, producing in excess of 2.35 million tonnes of meat a year, all of which is consumed in China.

This farm John visited was vast: 600,000 hectares, (of which 100,000ha was flat and arable) grazing 28,000 sheep, 6000 cattle and 10,000 horses. The farm also produced grain, mainly wheat, barley and rape seed. The local village accommodates 6000 people, many of whom worked on this farm or similar operations. Big farms like this, and even bigger, (some house 60,000 sheep indoors) make up only about 5% of China’s agricultural scene. Most farms are very small holdings.

The indigenous Hu sheep is very popular, meeting the required high lambing percentage. For thousands of years these sheep were fed crop residues on the coastal plains and would have been farmed indoors to mitigate the cold. Nowadays, when crossed with breeds like the Australian White or South African White Dorper, they have good growth and meat-producing characteristics.

These ewes are farmed indoors part of the year, lamb every eight months, and produce five lambs every 24 months. The pens are about 4 metres x 6m, with a centre passage allowing a feeder to deposit food. Plastic or bamboo make up the floor.

“They’re short some 8m tonnes of pig meat, usually producing 55m tonnes each year. The Chinese are looking all around the world for meat, and it will be like this until ASF is under control.”

China wants to eradicate poverty by 2020, so it’s encouraging rural employment through subsidising rams, offering low-interest loans, and helping with price supports for some farm products.

“It wants to keep as many people on the land because they can only build those towers in the city to a certain rate, and the city urban work force can only change at a certain rate.”

Strict biosecurity measures such as buffer zones, quarantines, and showers in and out, will be required, and this will be difficult for smaller producers.

“For people from New Zealand, this is quite foreign.”

Between 20 and 40% of NZ lamb and 50% of mutton goes into China, and John said with their high production costs, NZ does not need to be concerned about being out-competed.

“My perception is that they have sent a lot of very smart people overseas to learn and many are returning… We definitely need to be involved with China – they are our biggest market for sheep meat right now.”