A vested interest
In China, space is tight.
So if a farm can't expand outward by buying more open land, then why not build upward?
Thus the six-story hog building that Ted Funk came upon earlier this year near Wuhan.
Space is just one of several challenges Chinese farmers face, as agriculture evolves into more of a modern industry, said Funk, a University of Illinois Extension specialist in agricultural engineering.
Consider these statistics.
On hogs: China produces and consumes 400 million pigs a year; that's half of the world's pig population, said Robert Easter, dean of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
On soybeans: China is the largest purchaser of U.S. soybeans. In 2004, the country bought $2.3 billion worth of soybeans, according to the American Soybean Association. Many of those beans go to feed the country's hogs.
Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that the soybean association and faculty with the University of Illinois College of ACES have stepped in to help the Chinese improve swine production there.
"The American Soybean Association asked us to put together a program for several faculty to promote modern swine production in China," Easter said. The notion is "if they modernize the industry, that will increase the need for soybean meal to support the industry," Easter said.
The traditional way of raising hogs in China – and about 80 percent of the country's hogs are raised this way – is called the backyard system, Easter said. A family lives in the country and it has a hog or two in the back yard.
"It's completely different from here in the states," Funk said.
As the Chinese hog farmers make the transition from raising animals in backyard pens and feeding them table scraps to raising hogs in modern facilities and giving them commercial feed, the producers have turned to specialists like Funk and the others for advice on expanding buildings, installing proper ventilation systems and more.
The UI group includes Easter and Funk, plus Mike Ellis, professor of animal sciences, and Larry Firkins, assistant dean for public engagement at the UI College of Veterinary Medicine who works in swine health. They present seminars, hold question-and-answer sessions with producers and tour farms and other agricultural facilities.
Firkins talks with producers about swine health. That includes information about maintaining good diets and the importance of high-protein feed, specifically protein-rich soybean meal.
"They seem to be interested in the information that we can provide. They're very forthcoming whenever I ask them questions. It's a real good exchange," Firkins said.
Conducting the seminars and visiting with China's producers "gives me broader perspective on what the issues are and a better understanding of the global market," Funk said.
Easter, Firkins and Funk have noted advances in recent years, but challenges will be ongoing, they said. Such challenges are availability of water, managing water quality, improving animal health and reducing exposure to viruses and bacteria and improving indoor air quality of the hog facilities.
The group's next trip to China will be in May.