Sheep, and specifically meat sheep production, is one of the livestock branches identified by the Chinese government as a means to alleviate poverty in China. This context formed the basis of the International Mutton Sheep Symposium recently hosted in the city Tianjin in the southern parts of China.

Lees dit in Afrikaans.

The symposium took place in a five-star hotel in the city of Tianjin, and was attended by the country’s leading sheep farmers, scientists and input suppliers.

Manie and Dr Karin Wessels of Mamre Intensive Sheep Production near Frankfort were invited as South African speakers, and I was privileged to accompany them as journalist. The fourth member of our group was Phillip Oosthuizen of the Sernick Group, who wanted to investigate export possibilities to China.

Manie and Dr Karin Wessels in action during the symposium.

Curbing poverty

According to Dr CJ Lin, one of the organisers of the symposium and CEO of Tianjin Aoqun Animal Husbandry, an enormous sheep production farm just outside the city, the rural areas of China are extremely poor.

He says the objective of the Chinese government is to eradicate poverty by 2020, and sheep production is one of the vehicles identified to reach this goal. The Chinese government is therefore throwing its full weight behind the initiative through state enterprise involvement and the granting of bigger subsidies.

CJ says the symposium served as a dialogue starter in order to answer the question of how lamb production can be sustainably increased to feed the Chinese population.

“The sheep industry is disorganised, with everyone scrambling to get a foothold in the supply chain. It would make much more sense if the industry could launch a joint initiative as well as collaborate, from genetics and breeding through to meat distribution.”

The mega farm evolution

Interestingly, CJ refers to a revolution in sheep production, a term also used in South Africa at the Intensive Sheep Production School.

Pregnant F1 ewes in one of the sheep houses.

“Although there are several mega sheep units in China, with as many as 60 000 sheep housed indoors on one farm, it isn’t representative of the entire industry. Approximately 70% of the sheep farms in China own 100 or fewer sheep. Only 5% are mega farms.

“Yet it is encouraging to see those mega farms growing. It is true that the industry is experiencing a revolution in which small, non-sustainable units are disappearing, and larger farms are becoming bigger and more,” says CJ.

Sheep meat consumption

Last year China had 301 million sheep and goats of which approximately 170 million were sheep. In addition, 260 000 tons of sheep meat were imported, mainly from Australia and New Zealand. Per capita consumption of sheep meat in China is only 3,1kg.

“The perception among the Chinese regarding the value of red meat as a high-quality protein source, is on the rise and demand is growing drastically. It is projected that per capita consumption may reach 5kg by 2025.”

Female Hu/Australian White crosses used as F1 animals.

Although there are few natural challenges that can impede extensive sheep production in China, the main factor restraining production efficiency is of a cultural nature. For instance, people living in the remote rural areas of a province, such as Inner Mongolia, are still very traditional and survival oriented. They are extremely loyal to the local sheep breed of their area, which contributes little to the development of production traits.

The expectation is therefore that these subsistence farmers will not become part of the sheep revolution in large numbers. The main drivers of the revolution are situated outside the traditional sheep industry; the industry is therefore viewed from a purely business perspective.

“Structures such as a national genetic evaluation system are currently not available in China, which means that each person is following his/her own path. National structures that link the various evaluation systems are urgently needed. This will allow for the creation of a national database. The government is giving attention to the matter,” says CJ.

Higher production per sheep

John McEwan of AgResearch in New Zealand was one of the international speakers at the symposium. He was previously involved in the Chinese sheep industry. According to him, China does not produce nearly enough mutton to meet domestic demand.

His observation is that higher sheep production will not be driven by higher sheep numbers in the country, but through the more efficient management of the existing sheep population.

The inside of a sheep house at Teng Yuan Animal Husbandry.

“There are two very different production systems in the country. Firstly, we have the high-lying, vast extensive areas, where sheep graze outside in summer but need to be kept inside in winter; then we have the total mixed ration (TMR) system where sheep are kept inside for twelve months of the year and managed in an accelerated lambing system.

“The production costs are high in both systems since feed must be brought to the sheep for at least part of the year. By implication, these producers need to earn high prices for their products and implement efficient management systems. In the indoor, intensive production systems, very high reproduction rates is an important condition for profitability. In addition, the ability to get the ewes pregnant throughout the year is also vital,” he says.

The indigenous Hu breed

According to John, one of the indigenous sheep breeds, the Hu, has an outstanding maternal line in this regard, with an average of 2,6 lambs each time the ewe lambs. From a meat production perspective though, the Hu is not ideal, and a lot is being done to create the ideal F1 ewe line by crossing the Hu with other mutton breeds.

Due to its exceptional maternal traits and fertility, the indigenous Hu sheep is used in cross-breeding programmes to create the ideal F1 maternal line.

Two breeds currently receiving a great deal of attention as terminal sire lines, but also as combination lines to create the ideal maternal line, are the Australian White, a composite breed developed in Australia, and the South African White Dorper. Interestingly, the White Dorper and the Van Rooy breed both played a role in the development of the Australian White.

Kevin Harrison, a sheep farmer from Bath in England and chairperson of the country’s National Sheep Association, represented the British sheep industry and was also a speaker at the symposium. The visit was also not his first, and his impressions were quite different than expected, he says.

“The Chinese sheep industry I came to know is well organised, has clear future goals, and is very professional. A lot of money is being invested in the industry to reduce poverty. Seasoned business people manage these large sheep farms.”

Government involvement

Manie and Karin say the first aspect one notices when studying the Chinese sheep industry is government involvement.

“I specifically identified three focus areas in which government involvement is central,” says Manie. “The first is poverty alleviation, second job creation and third food security. I also think the issue of food security should not be underestimated. China feels vulnerable because it is a net importer of food, and the country is serious about reducing this vulnerability. This is why their focus is on Africa – to develop Africa as a food partner.”

The CEO of Tianjin Aoqun Animal Husbandry, Dr CJ Lin, explains the ram selection programme to visitors. From the left are Kevin Harrison from England, Dr Aduli Malau-Aduli from Australia, Dr Karin Wessels, Phillip Oosthuizen, and Manie Wessels.

He emphasises that there are many opportunities for African farmers. “While visiting the Chinese sheep farms our attention was immediately drawn to the remarkable condition of the sheep. The high level of care and their excellent condition was striking. Their emphasis on biosecurity also impressed us.”

Waste management

Manie says another point that must be mentioned is China’s waste management. “The smell of waste was not evident at all, and everything was spotless. The manure and urine in the sheep housing are collected with scrapers and removed daily, after which it is processed and spread on the fields.”

It is clear that China’s sheep industry is at the forefront of technology. To manage 60 000 sheep in an indoor system speaks of outstanding management systems and staff.

The 60 000 sheep housed indoors on the one farm, were accommodated in 81 houses, each 100m long and 12m wide. The space was divided into pens of around 4m x 6m, with a passage in the centre that allows the feeder to deposit feed on both sides.

The floor consists of slatted flooring made from plastic or bamboo. Manure and urine fall through but is scraped daily from beneath the floors. The scrapers are attached to cables on a pulley system and the waste is gathered in a pit, from where it is taken away.

The use of silage

Manie says the Chinese are serious about breeding, genetics, health, nutrition and cropping. “They buy what they don’t have.

“The nutrition in the large sheep houses is silage-based. In addition, there is very little variation in the rations given during the different biological phases of the sheep, with only the amount fed changing. They produce multi-species silage to obtain a specific quality and composition. The way in which they utilise silage for small stock is relatively foreign to us in South Africa.

“Their dedicated research is remarkable. It is clear that everything is focused on generating dedicated expertise and poverty alleviation.

“There are two main focus points with regard to meat production. On the one hand they focus on feeding the masses; on the other, there is an indisputable focus on the connoisseur market. In this market, research relating to meat quality and tenderness is very important.”

What we can learn

If you want to apply the observations made in China to South Africa, says Manie, it is clear that the sheep industry can play a noteworthy role in our own search for poverty alleviation. Then again, it implies that our own research with regard to meat quality and small stock must be accelerated. We also have to accept that intensive systems are the future of sheep farming. Research must be aimed at nutrition as well as breeding to identify and develop the ideal maternal and paternal lines.

The South African group at the entrance to the second farm, Teng Yuan Animal Husbandry, where a total of 60 000 sheep, of which 25 000 are breeding ewes, are accommodated indoors. From the left are Dr Karin and Manie Wessels of Mamre Intensive Sheep Production and Phillip Oosthuizen from Sernick Group.

However, Phillip Oosthuizen, research manager of the Sernick Group, says there is still plenty of room for improvement. “Production-wise the Chinese have still not fully optimised their nutrition and accelerated production systems. Nutrition for the ewes’ nutritional requirements in the different reproduction stages is still based on a general nutritional concept.

“Daylight length is used in the accelerated lambing system to allow ewes to come in heat naturally, while the use of synchronisation can eliminate that challenge. The government provides a large amount of money and invests a lot of time and effort in the sheep industry to realise food security and poverty alleviation, although the basic principles may be forgotten in the process.”

Subsidies ensure profitability

Profitable production on these mega farms is subsidised by the government through tax benefits and direct subsidies. These impressive facilities are very productive. However, without government aid, as is the case in South Africa, profit margins will be under severe pressure.

“The government’s drive to increase food security and reduce poverty is impressive and will be noteworthy. Yet the reality is that the demand for food is far higher than what this industry ‘revolution’ can supply, and the demand will increase with the growing population. As a result, imports remain important.

“From a South African viewpoint, it is predicted that our sheep and cattle production will exceed demand, with more emphasis placed on export opportunities. Export channels are important in order to utilise favourable exchange rates and to spread risks.

“Production costs in China are relatively high due to the housing required during the extremely cold winters, as well as the lack of grazing and land to farm on. Less costly production in South Africa can therefore benefit exports if it is based on price competition,” he says. – Izak Hofmeyr, Stockfarm