Equipment and expertise are two essential ingredients to producing quality alfalfa. Although the Chinese have acquired much of the first, they’re borrowing the expertise – in the form of Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin Extension forage specialist.

As part of an effort by Chinese universities to improve alfalfa utilization there, Undersander was invited to tour several of the country’s alfalfa production areas and dairies this summer. His mission: to help determine what alfalfa research is most needed.

The Chinese are trying to grow more forage to supply an emerging dairy industry and improve beef and sheep production, he says. Large and small operations were visited.

“They have big dairies with modern machinery and big balers and a lot of corn silage. But I was amazed how they didn’t have the technology to go with it. They didn’t pack silage.

“I saw one farm that had a big baler making 600-lb bales and they were baling at 24% moisture because that’s how they used to make little stacks.” After explaining that the hay would grow moldy if baled at high moistures without preservatives, he also had to describe the merits of propionic acid.

“There are some big farms that are buying the hardware, but they need the information to go with it.”

He also visited with farmers who harvested their alfalfa hay by hand, leaving it to field-dry in bundles.

“Then they would haul it in to a hay company on little three-wheeled motorized carts, and it would be baled into small square bales. Hay companies were starting to pay them a premium for forage quality – if it was over 18% protein, they paid 30% more than if it was less than 18% protein.”

China is about the size of the U.S., yet has four times as many people and about half the tillable acreage, he says. A significant acreage of alfalfa is grown across northern China and there’s interest in growing more.

Generally, dairies are found in the east around population centers. They range from 1,000 to 50,000 cows, and many buy most of the feed for their milking herds. Corn silage, alfalfa and concentrate make up typical rations.

Eastern China has higher rainfall, so there’s an interest in alfalfa haylage, and huge acreages are planted to silage corn. “They’re going to run into the same problems as us with laminitis and the need to feed alfalfa simply to improve herd health – and get protein.”

Some east-coast China dairies find it less expensive to import hay from the U.S. hay than to haul it from western China, where many small farmers grow alfalfa on terraces and in valleys.

“Alfalfa is preferred for rotation because one or two cuttings can be taken without irrigation in western China,” Undersander says.

He’s been asked to return. For more photos of Undersander’s three-week trip, visit bit.ly/NXmxpQ.