Companies & Industries

How an Alberta alfalfa producer made big money selling to Chinese ‘cow hotels’

China’s ‘forage revolution’

(Photo: Barr-Ag)

(Photo: Barr-Ag Ltd.)

Barry Schmitt is a hay man to the world. His company, Barr-Ag Ltd., based in Olds, Alta., grows alfalfa and other forage crops, exporting them to markets sprawling from Korea to the U.S. In the past year, sales of his non-genetically modified hay hit $26 million, thanks in part to an “insatiable” demand in China for Canadian alfalfa, Schmitt says.

Some 600,000 imported Holstein cattle live in Chinese factory farms—or “cow hotels,” as Schmitt calls them. These big, top-producing animals munch away on their feed all day and night, with each eating roughly 28 kilograms of hay every day.

“One of our customers has 30,000 Holsteins,” Schmitt says, “and he wants Canadian alfalfa to feed them. I say, ‘This is how many tonnes we have,’ and he says, ‘OK, we’ll take it all.’”

Alfalfa has proven lucrative, but Schmitt sees a full-blown “forage revolution” coming soon. Canadian producers currently aren’t allowed to ship timothy, a type of grass, to China. That might change as early as this summer, creating a whole new opportunity. Feeding timothy to young cattle increases stomach capacity, which means increased milk production upon maturity. “You grow them up eating lots and they will eat lots when they are older,” says Schmitt. More food, more milk, more money: hay days all around.