Don Kieffer is optimistic that Vietnam will develop a healthy appetite for U.S.-grown alfalfa, just as South Korea did in the early 1990s.

“The Vietnamese government wants to become self-sustaining in providing dairy products to the country's children,” says Kieffer. “To do that, it needs to dramatically increase the country's number of dairy cows and the amount of milk each produces.”

Kieffer is executive director of the National Hay Association (NHA), which promotes the U.S. hay industry in foreign markets. NHA gets funds from USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) to aid its promotion efforts. Almost 3 million tons of U.S. hay are shipped annually to Pacific Rim countries like Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Malaysia.

“Vietnam offers the U.S. hay industry great potential,” he says. “Korea's gone from no importation of hay in the early 1990s to a little over 500,000 tons/year, and we expect the same results from Vietnam.”

To grow Vietnam's dairy industry, its government began importing 200,000 bred heifers from Australia and New Zealand in 2003. After calving, they entered the milking herds of government-owned dairies and experiment stations. However, their production levels were 50% lower than expected. Vietnamese dairy industry officials turned to NHA for help.

“We did some investigating and learned the cows were eating rations of rice straw and elephant grass,” says Kieffer. “Those forages provide some fiber, but very little protein or other nutrition. We told them alfalfa hay should be fed.”

Working with FAS and Vietnam's Department of Animal Husbandry, NHA arranged to have alfalfa shipped in double compressed bales to six farms for feeding trials. Unfortunately, due to a West Coast dock strike, the hay arrived 10 weeks later than expected.

“Instead of conducting a 120-day trial, the first study lasted only about a month,” he says. “The hay didn't make it in time to feed to cows early in their lactations. We missed our window of opportunity. Plus the farm managers weren't quite as meticulous at running the trials as I would have liked. They kept good records, but sometimes the cows in one group got the feed that was intended for another group.”

Despite those setbacks, milk production increased 20% in the groups that received the U.S. alfalfa vs. homegrown feed.

For the next trial, two of the best-run dairies in the north and two in the south were used. Cows that received alfalfa made 40% more milk than the control groups.

Following those trials, Kieffer, along with other NHA members and Pete Moss, a retired Auburn University dairy nutritionist, conducted workshops to report the results and make feeding recommendations.

“We've made significant strides,” says Kieffer. “Vietnam's dairy industry recognizes that it needs to feed high-quality alfalfa.”

About 440 tons of alfalfa will soon be shipped to 20 Vietnamese farms for a third trial. By October, NHA will have the results and plans another round of seminars to report them.