New Zealand's live heifer trade to China is a finely tuned operation.
Cool heads are needed to manage the people, big numbers of cattle, their welfare and shipping deadlines. Things can go wrong quickly and there is no room for error with the Chinese bureaucracy.
Even so, it's a reliable income for farmers paid a premium for heifers otherwise unsuited to conventional dairying and for the South Canterbury businesses who support the trade.
Around 34,000 heifers were shipped to China last year from Port Timaru. Putting a figure on the economic boost the trade brings to South Canterbury communities is difficult. Premiums paid for the animals amount to $100 to $200 for a $1300 heifer last season and costs averaged between the various companies involved add another $500 to $600 to the value of each heifer.
All up, it makes them valuable cargo for Bruce and Chris Nowell, Waitaki high country farmers who have managed the logistics of the trade for 30 years.
Mr Nowell is the New Zealand manager of livestock shipping for Austrex, an Australian company that specialises in the trade. This makes him accountable for every animal's welfare until Chinese veterinarians approve it to disembark. He also carries the costs until their client pays for the consignment.
"There is no wiggle room for compromise on quality," Mr Nowell says, "because Austrex pride themselves on getting it 100 per cent right."
Yet the couple know that at any minute they could receive an email cancelling future exports to China.
As a business it has to be soundly financed to be able to absorb the potential of "mega risks". "This is why we work very hard with our tight team to ensure each heifer arrives safe and sound.
"We take it very personally if one dies, though mostly it is through misadventure when a heifer might slip and break a leg."
When a consignment is at sea Mr Nowell receives daily progress reports on his valuable cargo. Three stockman tend the cattle and a veterinarian is on standby.
"We wash and change their bedding at least three times during the voyage and one last time before disembarking because we want to present them in as good a condition as when we put them on board. The biggest problem we have is keeping the weight off them because they are inactive."
During their 30 days in quarantine pre-departure, 4000 heifers will eat 3000 large bales of hay and 450 tonnes of feed pellets. They are thoroughly vetted to comply with China's import regulations and bed down in 72 tonnes of sawdust and wood shavings. Contracts to supply heifers in November are signed in February and the Nowells immediately start looking for the animals.
They can't ship heifers under 200kgs or ones that are spring-mated as they would be in their second trimester.
Animals have to be in superb condition and health or they are rejected at the other end.
But rejection can come before that, in October when they are examined before entering quarantine. However, by then it is too late to find replacements to make up the numbers.
"Because we paid a premium for them it is hard to get the money back so we have to factor these things into the costings," Mr Nowell says.
- Straight Furrow