Demand for New Zealand dairy livestock in China appears to be booming, with more than 38,000 live animals leaving our shores for Chinese pastures last year.
And one of the major buyers in China is our own - the New Zealand dairy co-operative Fonterra.
One of the largest-ever shipments of live dairy cattle will head off on a three-week journey from Timaru to China in the next week, part of a growing trend of New Zealand cattle heading to Asia.
Brokered through South Island livestock company Peter Walsh and Associates, 7200 heifers worth upwards of $12 million are being exported by Australian-based Landmark Global Exports.
Eric Broad, Landmark's national manager, said his company is one of several exporters operating out of NZ.
But Statistics New Zealand data shows 43,517 live cattle worth $112 million were exported from New Zealand in the year to November 2012.
Far and away the biggest recipient was China, which bought 38,232 dairy animals at a value of more than $100 million.
That's a big increase on the year before; 25,000 animals worth $63 million were exported to China in the year to November 2011.
China has a clear goal to build its dairy industry to meet growing demand from an expanding middle-class.
Waikato dairy farmer Roger Blunt said exporting dairy cattle was "a big business".
"The market's very strong and it's been a lucrative enterprise for farmers involved."
Blunt sold about two-thirds (150) of his replacement heifers last year for offshore markets, predominantly China, and is looking to sell in excess of 100 this year.
He decided to start exporting his yearlings about 18 months ago, spurred by a looming forecast drop in the dairy payout.
Exported cattle have to meet strict criteria, which involves passing a number of disease tests, proving the animals' breeding, and allowing exporters to inspect stock on the farm.
"You can't just run any bull with your herd, and the cattle have to pass multiple disease tests. It's quite a rigorous programme," Blunt said.
Federated Farmers dairy chairperson Willy Leferink said New Zealand cattle are highly regarded by Chinese farmers because of their breeding and ability to produce higher quantities of milk.
"Our cattle have a long history and we know what's successful. New Zealand has a tremendous name as being a source of safe food."
Exported dairy cattle are typically rising yearlings (between one and two-years old) and are put in calf only once they reach their destination.
Although Fonterra is not involved in the allotment being exported from Timaru, it does export a large number of cattle each year.
Spokesperson Kobus Retief said Fonterra has its own supply chain of dairy cattle for its farms in China.
Fonterra's goal is to be producing one billion litres of milk every year in China by 2018. It processes around 15 billion litres of milk each year from its New Zealand farmers - 95 per cent of which is for export.
It has two farms in the Hebei Province and another three under development.
"When complete these farms will milk about 15,000 cows and produce 150 million litres of top quality fresh milk every year," the co-operative says on its website.
Each of these farms is stocked with a combination of China-born cows bred on Fonterra's other farms and cows shipped from New Zealand.
In November, Fonterra said 4,300 cows were being shipped from New Zealand for two new dairy farms in Hebei Province.
The exporting of live animals has met strong opposition from the Green Party.
Last week, in response to reports of the Timaru shipment, MP Julie Anne Genter labelled the practice "cruel" and one which needs to be more tightly controlled.
"The Government seems content to put thousands of animals through suffering by allowing their shipping overseas.
"We can sell our good stock to other countries through exporting genetic material. We shouldn't be sending the animals themselves."
Genter said the Animal Welfare Act must include stronger restrictions and a focus on minimising exports of live animals.By Ben Chapman-Smith Email Ben