Animal performance data to drive the future of export hay in China and beyond


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A study to better understand the role of oaten hay in dairy cattle’s diet could underpin an expansion of the Australian export fodder market, according to a University of Melbourne researcher.

The project – started this year – could also deliver animal health, production, and environmental benefits for the dairy industry.

University of Melbourne Livestock Nutrition and Grazing Management Lecturer Dr (Paul) Long Cheng is leading the AgriFutures Australia and University of Melbourne research into the use of oaten hay to support the sustainable development of dairy production in China.

There has been little international research into this topic and Dr Cheng said it was well overdue, given the increasing use of this roughage source in dairy systems.

“The feedback I’ve had from initial conversations with representatives from the dairy industry in China and those in the Australian industry, such as farmers, is they don’t really know how good is good, or how bad is bad,” he said. “Oaten hay is perceived mostly as a hay – a fibre source.”

Dr Cheng added: “Anecdotally we know oaten hay is much more than a fibre source – it has the potential to improve animal health and overall production. We’re in a unique position, through this project, to be able to demonstrate the quality of the product and to educate the Chinese dairy industry of how, when and why oaten hay can be used in different dairy production systems.”

China is one of Australia’s largest export hay markets, by volume and value, and with the rapid growth of the Chinese dairy industry Australia’s export fodder industry is well positioned to capitalise on this growth.

AgriFutures Export Fodder Advisory Panel member, Balco Australia Procurement and Technical Lead and Australian Exporters Company (AEXCO) board member Pat Guerin said research, generating commercially relevant data would benefit the entire hay supply chain. Developing this technical knowledge would also bolster the industry’s marketing to better compete with countries such as the USA, while assisting customers to get the best value from their hay.

“If we can successfully develop an animal performance model – a Total Mixed Ration (TMR)  model – this project has the potential to be ‘cut and paste’ for Australian exporters into any market,” Mr Guerin said.

Continual industry development was also crucial to market sustainability, according to Mr Guerin.

The project will survey Chinese dairy farmers and agricultural academics this year to determine their attitudes towards, and experience with, oaten hay. For example, when, how and what they use oaten hay for.

These surveys will also collect the parameters for rumen fermentation and production studies in Australia, including a common Chinese dairy cow diet and production management.

Using this information, researchers will replicate a Chinese TMR for the dairy herd at the University of Melbourne’s Dookie campus in Northern Victoria.

China’s on-farm milking frequency of two-to-three times a day would also be replicated at Dookie campus farm, through the University’s robotic milking system. But Dr Cheng said the most important part of the replica study was to ensure cows received feed with the same nutrient value as they would in China.

“Using this base, the study will then incorporate different levels of oaten hay to determine the optimal inclusion rate to positively affect milk production, animal health and pollution mitigation. Cow weight gain, milk production and urinary nitrogen excretion will all be recorded,” he added.

Dr Cheng was optimistic that feeding Australian oaten hay – because it is lower in protein than the more popular lucerne hay – could reduce a cow’s nitrogen excretion.

The study will also calculate the economics of feeding Australian oaten hay and will include the training of a University of Melbourne PhD student. Dr Cheng hopes this student will contribute to further research and links between the Australian hay and Chinese dairy industries.

The field trial at Dookie campus is expected to start next year.

For more information on the project and AgriFutures Export Fodder Program visit

Fast facts

  • Australia exported 1.24 million tonnes of hay in 2020, valued at about $563 million, according to ABARES.
  • Oaten hay makes up the bulk of Australia’s export hay.
  • China had 5.7 million cows in 2019, Australia had 1.5 million.
  • Chinese milk production has been forecast to grow by 4.5 per cent this year to 34.5 million tonnes, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

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