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China trip gives Cornell dairy students fresh insight

Students from the Cornell University Dairy Science Club at the Great Wall of China.

Cornell animal science students traveled to China in January for a two-week immersive journey to a country still developing the capacity to meet a growing appetite for dairy products.

Forty-two juniors and seniors from the Cornell University Dairy Science Club took part in the biennial trip, which for the past 20 years has taken students to different countries during winter breaks to gain exposure to international dairy and agriculture industries.

The students were led by Mike Van Amburgh, professor in the Department of Animal Science, and a team of subject-matter experts in veterinary science, economics and finance, human resource management, agronomy and environmental regulations.

“For our students, getting out of the classrooms and away from familiar farms provides a profound opportunity to grow, both personally and academically,” said Van Amburgh, who has coordinated the trips since they began in 1996.

Van Amburgh said the trips provide experiential learning while allowing students to connect with a unique culture. What started as informal club activities has grown since 2010 into a two-credit international study course focused on dairy production and processing.

By visiting China, students were able to sightsee and witness firsthand the development of a dairy market in flux. Much like the rest of the Chinese economy, the dairy industry has undergone rapid growth over the past decades. That growth has been achieved without strong farm-level infrastructure to support dairy production and management, according to Van Amburgh.

With about 38 million tons of milk expected to be produced in China in 2016, the industry is dwarfed by the estimated 96 million tons that will be produced by U.S. farms this year. But Chinese dairy farmers have been catching up, largely by building modern facilities at huge scale and improving their production efficiency.

China Modern Dairy Holdings, in Bengbu, Anhui Province, for example, is a 22-farm collective using modern farming techniques. The Cornell contingent toured two of the farms, including a 16,300-acre crop farm that supplies forage for a nearby 22,000-cow dairy facility. The dairy farm, with eight 80-stall rotary milking parlors, can pump raw milk directly from the parlors to a centralized processing site and packaging facility. Within just two hours, milk goes from the cow to a truck for delivery to market.

Along with farm visits, the Cornell group also connected with faculty and students from China Agricultural University. Zhijun Cao, a professor at the university, spent a year at Cornell working with Van Amburgh and the Cornell Dairy Fellows Program. When Cao returned to China, he set up a similar initiative called the Elite Cattle Program. That sister program provided a natural fit for Cornell students to engage with Chinese students to conduct dairy farm business evaluations together, Van Amburgh said.

“The modern world puts a premium on interconnectedness, and that’s no different for the dairy industry,” he said. “A farmer in upstate New York faces different challenges than a farmer in Heilongjiang Province, but there is overlap in critical concerns, like how to manage a complex farm and best care for our animals. Our students take from these experiences a new outlook as they venture out to become leaders in a rapidly changing and increasingly global marketplace.”

Along with Van Amburgh, several others participated in the trip as mentors and industry specialists to facilitate discussion and assist with the farm evaluations. They included: Betsey Howland, dairy farm business specialist in PRO-DAIRY; Karl Czymmek, senior extension associate in PRO-DAIRY; Tom Maloney, senior extension associate in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management; Bill Prokop, director of operations at the Cornell Research Dairy; and John Fessenden of Farm Credit East.

The trips are supported through fundraising activities by the Dairy Club, the Dairy Fellows Endowment and students.

Matt Hayes is managing editor and social media manager for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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Melissa Osgood