Many countries throughout Asia and Africa are hungry for modern agricultural knowledge. This was perhaps most evident in China and India where the governments and farmers alike are on a constant quest to update production standards. This also happens to be where Rob Rippchen, a Wisconsin dairy farm native, spent nearly two-thirds of his travel time for John Deere over the past four years. Recently, we caught up with Rippchen to gain more insight from his business experiences.
"Both countries were very undermechanized," said Rippchen. "Both governments have been very focused on improving mechanization over the long term. But China and India took different approaches to reach government-set mechanization targets," he noted.
"In China, many farmers received a subsidy on the purchase of new equipment," he said. "In order to justify the purchase, many customers had to farm their ground and their neighbors, as well. In the U.S., this system would look like a relationship with a custom operator," noted Rippchen.
"The arrangement in India was slightly different as each state within the former British colony has its own rules," explained Rippchen. "The government support in India was more focused on input cost and crop price support programs."
Mechanization varied by country but generally followed the same theme. "Tillage was the first area to be mechanized, then came harvesting," he said. "For those making the first step in equipment, it often was a purchase of a walk-behind tractor, which most Americans would have called a walk-behind rotary tiller that was used in our garden growing up," explained Rippchen. "Despite this movement, there still is a lot of hand labor and work carried out with oxen."
As for the next step, midsized tractors are often on the next purchase list. It is one of the reasons John Deere manufactures mid-size 80 and below horsepower tractors in India. Those tractors are for both domestic and export sales. In China, most products John Deere manufactures within its borders are sold in the country.
As for crops grown, it varies by region just like in the U.S. In southeast China, there is a great deal of rice grown; in the northeast, some rice, but a great deal more corn; in central eastern China, wheat, double-cropped with corn, dominates the landscape, while cotton is the staple in the northwest.
Many of the same crops are grown in India. Rice is the primary crop, and it is more prevalent in southern India. In the north central region, wheat is grown while cotton is the mainstay in the northeast. Likewise, sugar cane fields can be found in both Asian countries.
"It's a fairly diverse mix. China has over 90 percent of the corn acreage of the U.S.," stated Rippchen. "The big difference is that yields are much lower." The countries are not only interested in equipment but crop and animal genetics and soil science, as well.
Animal ag is a mix of old and new
"You will find the entire spectrum traveling the rural landscapes found in Asia and Africa," said Rippchen. "While there are operations that look like those found in America 100 years ago, you will also find large-scale American and New Zealand-style dairy farms. The same goes for pigs and chickens.
"In India, water buffalo dominate the landscape," recalled Rippchen. "Most farmers who milk water buffalo also use them to pull equipment to till their fields."
As for the future of animal agriculture, "there will be a strong and growing demand for animal protein of all types, especially in China," said the son of a southwest Wisconsin dairy farmer. "While dairy is a valued food, the situation is somewhat different in India because there are many vegetarians among its ranks due to religious beliefs.
"Exactly what defines vegetarian varies greatly within India. Some people will not eat meat from animals with hooves while individuals in that same group will still eat fish. Others don't eat meat at all," said Rippchen. "The approach to eating meat is the big difference between the two countries."
Large-scale dairies exist
Even so, dairying is a valued enterprise.
"What surprised me the most was the size and scale of large dairies in Asia," said Rippchen. "The modernization effort is growing much faster than I perceived," noting this was the case in China and other Asian countries outside of India.
"As consumers have desired more fresh milk, farmers, with the aid of governments and outside expertise, are meeting that demand by building 1,000-cow dairies that look very similar to those found stateside," he said.
"As an equipment manufacturer, you can verify this in the spike of sales for self-propelled forage harvesters. That was the case in China and Vietnam," said Rippchen.
Another big difference is infrastructure. China is well ahead of the curve when compared to India. "With its emphasis on roads, China has made a big commitment to getting crops and produce to the market," said Rippchen, who traveled extensively throughout both countries from 2009 to 2013.
"Even though India is one country, each state within India operates somewhat independently and the state tax structures inhibit the flow of goods between states," he said.
What the future may hold
"Forecasts are dangerous," noted Rippchen. But when pressed, Rippchen had this to say about a dairy-based future in Asia. "There is more upside for the American dairy farmer because of the growing demand for protein by consumers in the region.
"I would expect that agriculture, both dairy and crops, will look more like the U.S. model going forward. In doing so, farmers in Asia will skip a generation of trial and error that we went through," said Rippchen. "For example, they are not building 80-stall tie stall barns, they have gone straight to freestalls and milking parlors in modernization projects.
"However, it's not that simple. It's one thing to look at dairies in the U.S. for three weeks to a month. It's another situation to implement all the management strategies on those dairies," said Rippchen, whose family's Ripvalley Dairy Farm once hosted tours from across the globe on a routine basis.
"This is especially true for management practices surrounding growing and harvesting corn and alfalfa for silage," he noted. "While they adapt equipment and building styles quickly, they still have a steep learning curve on management, especially on nutrition," he said. "Fertilization, timely harvests and properly-stored feed all play roles in feeding healthy, high-producing cows.
"Looking forward, American farmers have a bright future to supply quality food globally because not all these countries will meet their growing protein needs," Rippchen concluded.