The country is currently a smaller player in the region’s beef sector. Last year, Chile exported just 2,000 tonnes (t) of beef (valued at US$14 million), a figure dwarfed by imports of almost 148,000t (worth around US$840m), largely from countries like Brazil and Paraguay, according to statistics published by Chile’s Ministry of Agriculture office for agricultural research and policies.
The focus of this initial China-bound shipment of livestock has been on dairy cattle (most of the animals making the crossing are Holstein-type dairy animals), but there has also been "interest in exporting beef cattle to China", noted Andres Duval, regional head of agricultural and livestock service (SAG - Servicio Agricola y Ganadero).
The export was managed by Minerva Foods, Brazil’s second-largest beef exporter, which invested around US$16m in buying and preparing the animals for shipment.
The animals are expected to be the first batch out of a total of 20,000 head of cattle which will make the trip over the next year as the authorities in Beijing seek to boost the Asian country’s beef and milk production capacity.
The decision by China’s agricultural authorities to certify Chile as one of a handful of countries from which the Chinese can import live cattle reflects the efforts made in recent years to improve genetic quality of the country’s herds and improve sanitary standards in the farming sector, said Duval, who predicted shipments would continue over the next decade.
A total of 8,000 heifers were selected from almost 300 farms in the southern regions of Biobio, Araucania, Los Rios and Los Lagos, the heart of Chile’s livestock industry. After examination by veterinarians, vaccination and weighing, the animals were brought together at the San Pedro farm in Los Rios for a 30-day quarantine period, during which they were tested for diseases such as Johne’s disease, bovine viral-diarrhoea and enzootic bovine leukosis leucosis.
Roughly 7,000 selected animals were then loaded in the southern port of Puerto Montt on 26 December for the 30-day crossing of the Pacific Ocean.
Over the past two decades, Chile’s SAG has strived to eradicate livestock diseases, such as bovine tuberculosis, brucellosis and foot-and-mouth disease.
Although such diseases are relatively common in other cattle-producing countries in South America, such as Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, central Chile is a virtual island, protected behind the Andes Mountains, the Atacama Desert and Pacific Ocean.
But the rise of a live export industry could bring new challenges, Duval told GlobalMeatNews, such as the use of sexed insemination to create sufficient numbers of heifer and specialist infrastructure in ports to handle live animals.
Still certifying several thousand animals in such a time frame represented major challenges for SAG, with almost 50 people working full time on the project, in the field and in the service’s laboratories. But after this first testing, but successful attempt, successive exports may run smoother, Duval said.