I have visited China on numerous occasions over the past few years, so the current outbreak of coronavirus is alarming and I feel much sympathy for these warm, friendly people. There is also a sizeable Irish community living throughout China and their families here must be very worried about the situation.
My most recent visit to China took place in December. It was for an ongoing project with a company operating a fully integrated system from their suckler beef herd to beef finishing units, livestock markets and beef processing plants.
Beef demand and consumption has grown steadily in China during the past decade, coming from a relatively low base.
Beef consumption per capita stood at approximately 4kg in comparison to approximately 30kg of pork. Obviously, the effect of the African swine fever crisis has impacted upon these figures. The decimation of the Chinese pig herd has resulted in a 40pc drop in pig meat production. The demand for beef has increased sharply due to the price increase and reduced availability of pig meat. Market analysts predict that Chinese demand for beef will continue to rise and peak at some point in the next two to three years.
Aside from the impact of the pork crisis, middle and upper income urban dwellers have driven the demand for beef produce.
A factor that always strikes me when visiting China is the vast scale and pace of urbanisation there.
The first major attempts by the Chinese beef industry to change their production systems occurred in the early 2000s.
Traditionally, the national herd of 98 million cattle (10pc of the world's total) was made up mainly of native breeds run in small herds.
Cattle were mainly found in the north China Plain, north-east and north-west grazing lands. With the introduction of government subsidies, large private companies and investors imported breeding stock, both continental and Angus/ Hereford from Australia, New Zealand and South America.
Simmental bred animals were and continue to be the most common animal imported. Wagyu has risen in popularity to now become the third most common imported breed.
However, problems with animal husbandry, early weaning (one to two months), infertility, grazing management and nutrition for both cows and finishing animals were common.
The average size of these units ran approximately 4,000 breeding cows and were run as enclosed units (housed all year, similar to how the large scale dairy herds were managed). A huge lack of experience in dealing with these new breeds, new management and feeding systems, and scale resulted in high mortality rates and poor overall performance and profitability.
Recently, beef industry leaders have started to advocate a rowback to smaller scale, family-farm type herds, using high quality genetics and employing good efficiencies in all aspects of production. Ironically, the Irish model of suckler beef production is what many Chinese experts see as the best model for them.
All continental bred male animals are finished as bulls at 18-20 months of age. They can achieve carcass weights of 450kg-480kg. Wagyu bred animals are castrated and go through standard Wagyu production systems, finishing at 24-30 months of age. The majority of heifers are retained for breeding to make up for the shortfall due to high mortality and poor breeding efficiency.
Feedlot finishing, both indoor and outdoor, is the most common system for finishing cattle. Pasture finishing is confined to the poorer quality native breeds. There is an abundance of fodder and grain (mostly maize) in most regions.
My best estimate as to the beef price during my visit was €6.10/kg for Simmental type bulls, with no carcass weight limit. Wagyu-bred animals varied hugely in price depending on the degree of marbling - I calculated prices ranging from €7/kg to €20/kg.
A Galway man very well placed to commentate on the Chinese beef industry is Ian Lahiffe. He has lived in the country and worked in Chinese agriculture for almost a decade and speaks fluent Chinese. Ian maintains that Ireland's beef opportunity in China is two-fold.
Targeting the high quality end of the market over volume, the Irish production story of suckler bred beef from family farms will resonate highly with discerning Chinese consumers.
Secondly, there is an opportunity for the Irish agriculture industry to transfer its know-how and technology around beef breeding, grazing technology, animal husbandry and nutrition.
Gerry Giggins is an animal nutritionist based in Co Louth