In March 2012, Green Prairie International of Lethbridge, Alberta opened up new markets for Canadian farmers with its first Canadian shipment of compressed alfalfa hay to China. The initial shipment was for 20 containers of Canadian alfalfa hay and 40 more containers have been ordered, for a total estimated worth of $600,000.

“We are extremely excited by this new marketing opportunity between Canada and China,” said Mr. John Van Hierden, President and CEO of Green Prairie International.

China’s hay and forage product imports increased significantly in the last five years, going from $119,000 in 2006 to over $103 million in 2011. Alfalfa hay is high-quality forage used in livestock feed, particularly for dairy cattle. China is significantly expanding its dairy industry, aiming to double its milk production by 2015. This growing demand for alfalfa hay on the Chinese market offers new marketing opportunities for Canadian producers.

The Canadian shipments were several years in the making.  The federal government spent about one year working to open up the trade regulations to allow Canadian shipments – the US already had an established presence in alfalfa hay shipments to China.  Green Prairie spent an additional eight months to become qualified with the Canadian and Chinese governments to enable them to ship hay from Canada.

Van Hierden explains that Green Prairie already had an export presence in China through its U.S. facility.  “Once we were approved to export from Canada to China, we were able to dovetail our activities from the US operations to establish the new sales,” he says.

The market potential is very large for Canadian producers. Van Hierden estimates the Chinese market will hit $500 million requiring approximately 200,000 acres of alfalfa in North America, of which approximately 50,000 acres of Canadian alfalfa will be required to meet Canada’s export share.

Green Prairie is contracting 10,000 acres of alfalfa in southern Alberta in 2012. The company is also looking to expand its Alberta infrastructure to accommodate the growth, including the establishment of a new alfalfa dehydration facility. Van Hierden says the company hopes to be able to establish long term contracts with area farmers to provide production and price stability for both producers and purchasers.

The Canadian government is also working to expand Chinese forage exports with other forage types, including timothy hay. During Prime Minister Harper’s March 2012 mission to China, a Cooperative Agreement was signed that included the creation of a joint technical working group to move forward a Canada-China Cooperation Dairy Farm Pilot Project. This project would demonstrate how Canadian feed products, live dairy cattle, and Canadian management practices would contribute to the Chinese goal of doubling milk production.

Canada produces some of the best quality hay and processed by-products in the world, with primary forage exports being timothy and alfalfa. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the total worldwide exports of Canadian alfalfa and timothy hay, meal, and pellets were worth over $85 million in 2011.

Green Prairie also exports to a number of other expanding markets, including India, Japan, Korea, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. The continued expansion into these, and other emerging markets like China will provide additional market opportunities for Canadian farmers.