Niu Niu pays the ultimate price for family's desperate plight
It was only a few minutes after 4am, but Beiya abattoir in the suburbs of Hohhot was already heaving.
Cattle dealers lined up outside, ready to sell their cows to the abattoir. With the sale price of 24 yuan (HK$27) per kilogram - about 2 yuan more than the purchase price - and the average cow weighing about 400kg, that is a handsome profit.
While most chatted cheerily and smoked cigarettes, Wu Guofu cut a lonely figure on that late August morning, standing apart from the crowd by his truck.
'I'm not a meat dealer. I've come to sell my own cow,' he said sadly.
Wu, from Wuchuan county near Hohhot in the south-central part of the region, bought five cows in 2003 for about 70,000 yuan, of which 40,000 yuan was from a bank loan.
For five years he was able to make a small profit and pay off 10,000 yuan of the loan, but then widespread use of melamine was discovered in dairy products, sending a tsunami through the industry.
Milk demand plummeted, and dairy companies and local governments introduced tough new safety standards and financial punishments for suppliers, making it impossible for the likes of Wu to make money.
'You make less than 1,000 yuan per cow per year, but one failed quality test could cost you 5,000 yuan. There is no way I can survive the system,' Wu said.
He sold three cows in good health to a ranch this year, and sold a fourth to a cattle dealer as a 'meat cow'. But he kept one cow at home, because his family was fond of her.
The cow, named Niu Niu, was a steady producer of quality milk, and she would lick the hands and faces of Wu and his two children to show her affection.
But in May, one of Niu Niu's udders became infected and they did not dare send any more milk to the local milk station for fear of failing a quality test. Without this income, Niu Niu was a financial burden on a poor rural family that simply couldn't afford it.
'If I had a choice I would have kept her,' Wu said. 'But as a farmer, you have to face reality.'
Wu borrowed his cousin's truck to take Niu Niu to the abattoir on August 27. They arrived early to try to avoid pressure from cattle dealers.
At 5.20am, Wu's number was called, but Niu Niu, obviously aware something was up, refused to step out of the truck. Wu, his cousin and two abattoir workers pulled Niu Niu out but she refused to stand up, lying stubbornly on the ground.
With the help of two more people, they managed to get her up and on to the slaughter machine, which would later turn her upside down, cut her throat and drain away the blood.
A person watching the sorry sight shouted, 'She's crying!', and everybody turned their eyes to Niu Niu. Sure enough, it looked as if tears were coming out of her eyes as she struggled in vain to free herself.
'It's not tears, just water,' said an abattoir worker, who urged Wu and his helpers to get Niu Niu closer to the slaughter machine.
With Niu Niu in place and the slaughter about to begin, Wu could not watch. He ran out of the abattoir.
Zhao Yong, a manager at the abattoir, said more than 200 cattle were slaughtered that day, about the average during the summer.
'Our peak was in late September, right after the melamine scandal, and earlier this year,' Zhao said. 'We slaughtered around 700 cattle a day during those periods, and we had to hire temporary workers because demand for our service was so high.'