A SHIP that left Fremantle this week for China could provide some relief to WA dairy farmers desperately seeking a lifeline.
The Brahman Express was loaded with 690 heifers that will introduce WA genetics to the Chinese milking herd.
The Chinese market for Australian dairy cattle has exploded, from nothing three years ago to an expected 50,000 cattle in 2004.
The bulk of these will leave eastern Australia but several WA operators are looking to increase Fremantle shipments.
The Brahman Express consignment was the second for Halleen Australasian Livestock Traders.
Austrex sent the first WA order in November 2003 and Elders International is set to start buying in March.
Halleen chief executive Ian Halleen said its next ship, leaving in April, was likely to be filled by producers struggling to make a profit milking cows.
"WA certainly has the ability to lift it's capacity for this market and with the milk price farmers are getting at the moment, it may be something that more of them will look at," he said.
Halleen pays from $900 to $1100 for heifers depending on size and quality and Mr Halleen said Chinese demand could never be met.
The Holstein-Friesian Association of Australia (HFAA) signed a deal with the Dairy Association of China last year to improve and assure the quality of those cattle shipped.
It also introduces Chinese delegates to suitable exporters.
HFAA executive director Grant Monro said the Chinese Government had a five-year plan to expand its national dairy industry, which included lifting farm infrastructure to the level common in Australia.
He said the Australian dairy herd could sustain the continual loss of breeders.
"The Australian dairy breeding herd is about 2.2 million cattle with 1.8 million Holsteins, so 50,000 is significant," he said.
"But it's a valuable source of income and with farmers realising that, they will work to expand and replace their breeding stock."
He said increasing China's milk production would not harm the export of Australian product into the country, such as that from WA's Challenge Dairy Cooperative.
"With nearly 1.2 billion people and with the industry in its infancy, I think the market is large enough for there to be no effect," he said.