One year ago in April, I was invited to give a lecture to a delegation visiting the University of Maryland from Taiwan on dairying in Maryland. This was followed with a farm visit to Glamourview Farm to observe new precision dairy technology. As a result of those interactions, I received an invitation in December of 2018 to visit Taiwan and to lecture on precision dairy farming. Subsequently, my visit included two days of travel and eight days in Taiwan from March 12 to 22.
Not having visited this country previously, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The most arduous part was traveling five hours from Baltimore to San Francisco, and then 14 more hours to Taipei. Once I arrived that evening, Anna Wang, who would be my guide and escort for the trip, along with a colleague, had a friendly wave and sign to greet me. Soon we were checked in to a hotel for a good night’s rest. The Taiwanese were excellent hosts including a detail I had not anticipated at most meals, eating utensils. Chop sticks were standard and I had no skill at using them. But Anna was prepared and provided me with a fork and knife each time when needed.
For reference, Taiwan is located approximately 100 miles from the southeastern coast of China. It is an island country, 245 miles long and 90 miles across at its widest point. Two thirds of the country’s surface consists of mountains with the western part of the country having the flatlands that allow for agriculture and where most of its 23 million people live as well. The climate is subtropical except for the southern tip which is tropical. While I was there, daytime temperature reached the low 70 degrees and thus, it was a perfect time to visit as hot humid summers start in April or May and last until September or October.
The largest animal agricultural industries in Taiwan are swine and chickens with dairy being a smaller segment. Nevertheless, there are 62,000 dairy cows on 550 dairy farms, with an average farm size of only 2.8 acres. The primary breed is Holstein. Over 70% of the domestic production is for fluid milk and surprisingly, the U.S. is the largest exporter of milk to the country followed by New Zealand and France. In visiting the dairy section of grocery stores it was interesting to see “Real California Milk” labels clearly displayed among the selections for fluid milk.
Raw milk prices are much higher in Taiwan as compared to the U.S. According to an October 2018 USDA Foreign Ag Service report, the price per hundredweight ranges from $31.81 in winter to $43.18 in summer. The excellent milk price most likely explains producer interest in new technology for improving management.
The invitation for visiting Taiwan came from the Council of Agriculture of Agriculture which is similar to the USDA. Dairy research is conducted at Livestock Research Institutes. Anna Wang had informed me before I arrived that the country has two Lely robotic milkers. One had been recently installed at the Hsin-Chu Research Branch in January and another at a commercial farm approximately two years ago.
My assignment was to bring three lectures. One was on University of Maryland research on a case study of four dairy producers transitioning to robotic milkers and a second talk was one that Mat Haan, Penn State Extension, graciously shared with me on robots and milk quality. A third talk was on the experience from three years of using the SCR system to monitor rumination and activity at the University of Maryland dairy farm. Most often the audiences wanted to hear about robotic milkers
My lecture circuit started at northern part of the country at the Livestock Research Institute, Hsin-Chu Branch, and then proceeded to the far southern part of the country to the next Livestock Research Institute near Tainan City. The audience at each of these talks consisted of approximately 100 researchers, students, farmers, and allied industry professionals. From Tainan City we continued northward to the National Chung Hsing University which was located in the middle of the country, and ended at the northern tip of the country, National Taiwan University in Taipei. At the universities, the audiences were classes of 60 to 80 students taking a course in dairy management.
In the course of my tour, I was able to visit seven dairy herds: two at research station dairies, three on commercial farms, and two university dairy herds. As I went through these herds I observed both similarities and differences in the facilities and the management practices compared to what I was used to seeing in the U.S. The things that were similar were confinement herds with milking parlors and in most cases management software to track milk production and basic management information. In addition, heat abatement with fans and water sprinklers was universally used. The research herds and one university herd had free-stall housing whereas the commercial herds had open housing with rubber mats for the cows to lay on. The mats were cleaned using high pressure water hoses. According to my escorts, it was common in Taiwan to have open housing with mats.
When I was asked at various times if robotic milking would work in Taiwan, the challenges that I was generally concerned with were the housing conditions. One concern was the sanitation as the cows could lay anywhere and often in manure laden areas. Milk quality, mastitis and lameness were three of my major concerns. Lameness, in particular, was noticeable in these facilities. This was likely due to the hardness of the surface, both in open housing and free stalls. The herds with free stalls had little to no cushion or bedding and very hard surfaces. With robotic milking, cows and udders need to be very clean for the system to perform adequately, and harvest quality milk. In addition, to avoid excessive fetching, the cows need to be healthy and motivated to walk without pain to the robot.
A huge obvious difference in the housing was in the structural integrity of the buildings. Taiwan suffers from cyclones and extremely hot, windy conditions. The posts, girders, and joists of the building were made out of industrial strength steel. No wood was used for support in these buildings.
Forage production is limited in the country and this was reflected in the large volumes of hay stacks that were imported from the U.S. Every farm I was on had a barn full of hay of usually of large square bales. Corn has been slowly introduced to replace rice production but as a rule, corn silage is a small proportion of the forages being fed to the cattle.
I found several other observations intriguing and interesting about the country. One was the vast amount of rice planted throughout the country. Nearly every open field both large and small was planted with rice in neat rows. For transportation, scooters were used widely. At every intersection and street corner, scores of scooters were parked and while traveling scooters with one, two, and sometimes, three people would be riding down the road. Food was interesting as well. Every day, vendors sell food in the street in what are called traditional markets. These usually stretched for a long city block or two. All food stables and many others items were for sale. In some of the smaller cities, I found that sidewalks are not open or non-existent. One had to be careful about walking too close to traffic on the main road. The people, however, were very accommodating and courteous, and I felt safe during my entire visit.