China’s meat imports surge, live cattle trade slackens

By Mark Godfrey, in Beijing

- Last updated on GMT

Live cattle trade in China drops as meat imports surge
Live cattle trade in China drops as meat imports surge

Related tags Beef imports Livestock Cattle Meat China Beef Lamb Pork Poultry

China’s imports of live cattle appear to have dropped back in 2013, although there has been a surge in cattle for beef breeding and finishing. According to China Customs data, China imported 102,245 cattle (cows, bulls and weanlings) in 2013 – down 26,004 on 2012. The imported animals – the bulk of them Holstein dairy cows – were worth US$26.6m, but 9,370 Angus cattle from Australia and New Zealand appear to be for the beef sector, according to categorisation in the Customs data. A batch of 3,000 Angus, classed as ‘beef cattle’, were imported from Australia in November.

A listing of major feed lots published by China’s agricultural ministry shows the bulk of China’s cattle feed lots are concentrated in Hebei, Liaoning and Shandong provinces. Yet cows and cattle are also being farmed in increasing numbers in the less populous northwesterly regions of Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Gansu and Xinjiang – all of which also have large Muslim populations and a traditional demand for halal-compliant beef products.

Official documents from China’s agricultural ministry regularly stress the need to cultivate a local animal husbandry sector, with dairy cows also marked as key to growing beef cattle numbers. Subsidies are also paid to encourage the growth of beef and sheep farming in low-income rural areas, though feed remains a challenge, judging from a recent circular from the China Animal Husbandry Association, which called for an urgent revival of domestic alfalfa production.

Meanwhile, demand for meat has seen imports of meat continue to surge. Growth in China’s beef and lamb imports in 2013 dwarfed growth in the pig trade – 259,000 tonnes (t) of lamb represents an increase of 108.8% while beef imports totalled 294,000t in 2013, a massive increase of 379.3%. Pork imports totalled 584,000t, up 11.7%, according to China Customs data. The national data is replicated in data from individual cities. The wealthy east coast port city of Ningbo, for instance, reported beef imports of 755.2t, worth $3.06m in 2013 – up 64.2% and 31.6% respectively. China’s agricultural ministry claims to be the biggest market for New Zealand lamb, while Australia remains a key supplier of beef.

Trade in what China Customs termed “livestock products”​ (including beef, lamb, pork and poultry) totalled US$19.51bn, up 30.9%. Exports in this category in 2013 amounted to US$6.52bn, a year-on-year increase of 1.3%, meaning China recorded a trade deficit in livestock products of US$12.99bn, a year-on-year increase of 53.4%. In 2012 China’s imports were worth US$14.9bn, an increase of 11.2%; and exports at US$6.44bn, were up 7.4% on the previous year.

Clearly, Chinese growth in trade of beef and sheep meat products is outstripping growth for other agricultural items: from January-December, China’s import and export trade in agricultural products in general totalled US$186.69bn, an increase of 6.2% on the previous year.

With protein consumption rising alongside Chinese incomes, it is clear that meat and milk are in favour; milk powder imports shot up 49.3% year on year to 864,000t in 2013. Imports of seafood, by contrast, grew more slowly, to US$8.64bn, an increase of 8% year on year.

In a sign of growing demand for feed to fuel an ever-larger livestock industry, total cereal imports of 14.585 million tonnes (mt) rose 4.3% – worth US$5.1bn and increase of 6.6% year on year. Meanwhile, soybean imports rose 8.5% to 63.375mt, while imports of rapeseed – an increasingly important feed ingredient – totalled 3.662mt, up 25% on 2012.

Surprisingly, growth in trade of overall agricultural products halved: at US$175.77bn, trade in 2012 was up by 12.9%, compared to a 6.2% year-on-year increase in 2013 (US$186.69bn total). Likewise, China’s agricultural exports in 2013 grew faster than imports. At US$67.83bn, exports increased 7.2% while imports at US$118.87bn grew 5.7%. China is a key exporter of fruit, vegetables and processed seafood.

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