Kazak herders, winter feed and transhumant systems in Altai Prefecture, Xinjiang, China

S. G. Reynolds
Senior Officer, Grassland and Pasture Crops Group, AGPC, FAO Rome

Presented at the third meeting of the Temperate Asia Pasture and Fodder Working Group, 9-13 March 1998, Pokhara, Nepal.  Session V. Integrating Fodder Improvement and Pasture Improvement in Mountain Range.

Slide Show


One of the major constraints to improving livestock production and family incomes in the traditional transhumant systems found in large areas of the arid and semi-arid temperate zones of Asia is the lack of feed during winter and early spring which reduces the number of animals that can be carried through the winter. This paper briefly describes a project undertaken in Altai Prefecture, located in the northern part of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China near the border with Kazakstan and Mongolia, where Kazak herders were provided with small irrigated farms as settled bases. Fodder such as lucerne (Medicago sativa) is produced and stored as hay for the winter period and education and social facilities for the herders' households are provided but for the major part of the year the traditional transhumant system is followed and for 8 months livestock are away on the spring , summer and autumn pastures. 


The rearing of livestock using transhumant production systems is the main land use and livelihood in large areas of the arid and semi-arid temperate zones of Asia. As indicated by Li-Menglin et al (1996) this is probably the only way of exploiting these seasonal pastures economically. 

One of the major constraints to improving livestock production and family incomes is the lack of feed during winter and early spring which reduces the number of animals that can be carried through the winter and also means that pregnant breeding stock may be at their most vulnerable in the period of lowest feed availability. 

Attempts have been made in a number of countries to settle nomadic people often with less than desirable social consequences. This paper briefly describes an attempt to provide settled bases where fodder for the winter period is produced and where education and social facilities for the herders' households are provided but where for the major part of the year the traditional transhumant system is followed. 

The Area

Altai Prefecture is located in the northern part of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China near the border with Kazakstan and Mongolia. Bounded on the north by high mountains and cut off from southern Xinjiang by a large expanse of desert and semi-desert this is an area with a markedly continental climate, hot summers, very cold winters, snow and low rainfall. The mean minimum temperature for January is -26 degrees C and the mean maximum for July is 30 degrees C. Precipitation, which mainly falls as snow ranges from less than 100 mm per year on the plains to more than 600 mm per year on the high pastures where the problem of high winds, snow and spells of extreme cold, with temperatures of less than -40 degrees C, means that many areas of high pasture are open for less than 3 months each year. 

Of the total area of 11.8 M ha more than 9.8 M ha are pastoral and over half of the population is engaged in livestock farming (which is dominated by transhumant systems) which contributes nearly 60% of the value of agricultural production in Altai.

Livestock Rearing in Altai

The main livestock are cattle, sheep, goats, horses and camels, with sheep and cattle being the most important. Altai Fat Rump, a meat type animal famous for its fast lamb production, is the main sheep breed. It can store 15 to 20 kg of fat in its rump and thus withstand the harsh winters. Also kept are some Xinjiang fine wool sheep and the multipurpose Kazak breed of cattle. Most Kazak herders follow a transhumant way of life with good summer grazing for their stock on lands above 1, 300 m limited to only 2.5 to 3 months per year, spring and autumn grazing on the heavily grazed transition routes and winter grazing on the desert plains.

The Grazing Cycle

Li-Menglin et al. (1996) describe the grazing cycle as a classical montane cycle depending on four main pastoral zones:

- a zone of alpine snow and rock above the summer pastures, little used for grazing (with the snow line at about 3,500m);

- summer grazing lands above 1,300 m which provide rich grazing for 75 to 95 days per year; these are the fattening pastures and are generally in good condition;

- spring and autumn pastures are the transition routes which are heavily grazed twice per year and largely because of a lack of winter feed herds linger long on these pastures in the autumn and go on to them too early in spring;

- winter pastures consist of desert plains, low meadows and marshland, which are totally inadequate for the number of stock carried. 

The transhumance route is long: 180 to 200 km from the desert plains to the high summer pastures. The approximate grazing periods are: spring - about 90 days (early April to the end of June); summer - about 83 days (end of June to late September); autumn - about 71 days (mid-September to end of November) and winter - some 121 days (from December to the end of March).

The Problem

One of the major constraints to improving livestock production and family incomes in Altai is the lack of feed during winter and early spring.

The Solution

The provision of conserved winter feed through irrigated hay production was identified as the most effective way of improving the overall animal production system and of reducing the pressure on the winter and transition (spring and autumn) pastures. 

Fodder Production for Winter Feed

Although many of the soils in the area are poor, rather shallow, somewhat stony and highly permeable, with a high pH and a tendency to salinity there is a plentiful supply of good quality water from the snow-fed Ulungur and Irtysch Rivers. The best fodder production sites are all within the drier southern fringe of the spring and autumn pastures zone mentioned above. 

The abundance of water and areas of relatively flat land provided the base for an irrigation-based solution to the winter feed problem. Over the last ten years a development programme has been implemented to produce and conserve fodder by cultivating over 20,000 ha of irrigated land for hay. The production of lucerne (Medicago sativa) on the irrigated land for hay production was assisted by WFP Project 2817 (Development of Feed Production in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region) with additional assistance from FAO/UNDP project CPR/88/042 (Technical Assistance to WFP Projects). Project 2817 (which lasted from January 1988 to 30 June 1994) was implemented with a total cost to WFP of US$21.8 M (and to Government of about US$14 M).

Starting in 1988 work was begun at Burjin, Fuhai and Altai to produce "through irrigation by gravity of 34, 425 ha of land, large quantities of hay, expected to reach 130, 000 tonnes per year at full development, and to settle 8, 650 families through the allocation of irrigated land". By 1997 some 6, 100 Kazak households had been settled, and 32, 000 ha have been developed, providing 20, 000 ha of alfalfa (Medicago sativa) pasture. The average farm size is 3.68 to 4.3 ha, producing annually about 18, 000 kg of hay from 3 ha (with the remaining land utilized for wheat, maize, beet or sunflower) with a house for winter quarters for the family and for those who remain on the plains for haymaking in summer while the livestock are away on the summer pastures.

Early trials have demonstrated the need for phosphate fertilizer both at establishment and for maintenance. Well managed lucerne fields have remained in good condition for about four to six years and thereafter one cereal or cash crop is taken before resowing to lucerne, generally under a nurse crop of wheat, sunflower or beet. All fodder is supposed to be mown for hay (although some grazing is generally done after the final harvest) and two cuts of hay are taken (in June and August) while the herds are in the mountains. In the past many of the agricultural activities were carried out by hand or by horse drawn equipment, but with the introduction of a loan system the Kazak farmers are increasingly investing in small tractors and farm machines.

With 26,700 ha of existing alfalfa land and the newly established 20, 000 ha, the present area in Altai Prefecture is some 46, 700 ha and there are plans to establish another 20, 000 ha under the Ninth Five Year Plan.

Impacts on the Kazak Herders and Their Families

Undoubtedly the project has had a dramatic impact on most of the herders involved. During informal interviews with the author (Reynolds, 1997) all farmers visited expressed satisfaction with the new way of life which was much easier than their former way of life as traditional transhumant herders with no winter farm base. On the small sample of six farms visited family size varied but area was usually around 60 - 70 Mu per family unit (original land allocation was on the basis of 4 ha (or 60 Mu) for a 5-member family); most had settled in 1990 or 1991; most grew wheat, maize, lucerne, soybean and sunflower and some had good vegetable gardens. Usually a proportion of the wheat, soybean and sometimes lucerne are sold. In most cases good crops of lucerne were being produced (and as well as using as winter feed for their own animals some farmers were producing sufficient to sell a proportion to the new pelleting factory for export to S. China). A number of farmers were growing maize solely for making into silage (several silage pits were visited). Most farmers have more than doubled the numbers of livestock owned since settling on their farms; the number of sheep and goats owned per family unit ranges from 50 - 130 (mean of 85) and the number of cattle and horses ranges from 5 - 30 (with a mean of 16). The increase in numbers of livestock per farmer has come about largely because of the ability to overwinter many more (because of feed, shelter and no predators like wolves) and by lambing in January instead of March/April the liveweights had been increased by sale time in October.

Livestock usually leave the farm area (except for a few kept back for household needs) for summer pastures in early to mid April returning again from mid October to early November. Usually livestock are taken to the summer pastures by family members (sons, brothers or parents) but occasionally the farmer contracts with a non-family member to care for the stock during the summer period.

For the settled families the big change in their lives is that with the farm base life has become easier, especially for the women upon whom many of the hard tasks fall in the traditional transhumant way of life. There is better access to medical facilities, the children can attend school, entertainment such as television is available and family incomes have increased. Of the families interviewed it was significant that most of the sons preferred to become farmers rather than herders; in one family the young son wanted to be a tractor driver/farmer and the daughter a teacher. Although there is increased focus on crop growing, maize and lucerne are grown mainly to feed the animals and the income from livestock remains for most families the major source of income.

Kazak Herders Following the Traditional Transhumant System

The author also visited a summer pasture area some 200 km from Altai City and met with several herders and their families. The yurts were pitched on a pasture area near wooded slopes at an altitude of around 2,300m and flocks of sheep, goats, cattle and horses were being grazed. The township (No. 1 Farm) visited consisted of traditional transhumant herders with no winter (settled) base such as those established under project 2817, and the herders moved all year round although in winter they would be on the lower steppe areas some 100 km from Burjin County. 

A typical yurt visited had a family unit of 8 persons and 180 sheep and goats as well as 45 cattle and horses. The family had left their wintering area in mid-December and reached the present area on 15 June. They would start back around mid September and reach the winter pastures in mid-November. They make no hay and rely entirely on natural pasture. They moved the yurt to a new pasture area approximately every 15 days (over a distance of some 15-20 km) and followed a set route to the areas which they had been allocated by Government. Their income comes from selling the fat animals starting in early September and they sell about 40 sheep/goats and cattle each year (the number depending on how severe the previous winter has been). 

In discussion one of the herders noted that the pasture was more plentiful in past years because only six households grazed this area but now both pasture and wood supply were less as twenty households now utilized the same area and the size of individual herds was larger. The exact reasons for this were not clear but appeared to be linked to an increase in the number of households and in the size of herd needed to maintain a certain family income level, and to greater local government control over grazing areas and transhumant routes. 

The head of one yurt indicated that, given the opportunity, they would also like to settle down (i.e. have a farm with irrigation for pasture and crop production) and only follow the transhumant way of life with some members of the family in the late spring, summer and early autumn period.


While good crop yields are in many cases being obtained and rotational systems (lucerne, wheat, soybean, maize, sunflower etc.) are being introduced there remain many problems and needs especially with some of the poorer herder/farmers (and sometimes with the better herder/farmers) including:

  • poor soils and low use of fertilizers; 
  • poor crop management; 
  • low productivity of crops including lucerne; 
  • diseases of lucerne such as anthracnose and common leaf spot; 
  • problem of a lack of good quality/certified lucerne seed; 
  • the narrow lucerne variety base;
  • the considerable problem of "noodles" or dodder (Cuscuta sp. - a parasitic weed) in lucerne;
  • the need for good management of the irrigation system to prevent vegetation growth in drainage channels and to prevent salinization;
  • the need for continued herder/farmer training. 

Visitors to the area can quickly appreciate the degree of success of the project in transforming former (Gobi) desert areas into productive irrigated farms and herders into farmer/herders.

The project has had a very big impact in Altai and is accepted as a model for further Kazak herder resettlement schemes (Anon, 1992). The findings of the 1995 evaluation mission were that "the project has attained its ambitious targets. An area of 30,218 ha is under irrigation and settlement of 7,550 Kazak herdsmen is proceeding on schedule. Food security for the region as well as household food security of the target population has been dramatically increased without dismantling the traditional socio-economic system upon which livestock transhumance is based. The project's beneficial impact on living conditions is evident and has resulted in a steady increase in family incomes and access to education and health facilities. However, the future of pastoral farming in the region is ecologically fragile because of the constant threat of the "salting-up" phenomenon. Proper drainage maintenance and efficient water management are crucial. Livestock pressure on transitional pastures will also need to be monitored carefully. Therefore sustainability is heavily dependent on a continuous and scrupulous management of the environmentally sensitive components of the project".

The Future

In dealing with herders with no previous experience of growing fodder or crops, the project faced a very demanding undertaking to transform them into farmer/herders with appropriate skills. Although much has been achieved much remains to be done and training must continue to upgrade the basic level of skill and to introduce new packages of appropriate technologies.

One of the most pressing requirements is the need to introduce new cold resistant varieties of lucerne (presently the local North Xinjiang "Beijiang" variety is mainly used) as well as other legume species. FAO is supporting a programme of work with Xinjiang Animal Husbandry Bureau to produce quantities of seed of the legume Lotus corniculatus, which is better suited to the wetter areas near rivers where lucerne does not grow well, for a demonstration programme and seed distribution to the Kazak farmer/herders. 

In spite of the importation of a number of lucerne varieties from various parts of the world none were found to overwinter successfully in Altai. FAO has sponsored a programme of work by Professor Min Ji Chun of Xinjiang Agricultural University in breeding and selection of lucerne varieties with high resistance to coldness. Following the initial selection of a few plants of Spreador 2 from the introduced varieties, the selection 9501 is now in the second year of field tests and is demonstrating high productivity and early maturity, is very tolerant of the severe winter cold and has good disease resistance and salt tolerance. It is hoped that once the new variety is registered rapid seed bulking will ensure its early release.

There is also an urgent need to develop a local seed production base for the production of certified lucerne seeds, otherwise there is a risk that the livelihood of the newly settled Kazak herders will be at risk if yields deteriorate and insufficient hay is produced to carry the herds through the winter period.

Because of the increasing problem of dodder infestation there is an urgent need to increase awareness of proper control measures and appropriate good husbandry practices.

Whether the benefits so far enjoyed by the "settled" Kazak herders (who represent more than 15 percent of the Kazaks who live in Altai Prefecture) can be enjoyed by those who still follow the traditional transhumant way of life year round is likely to depend on funding from the Government of China for an expansion of the irrigated areas.


This paper has drawn heavily on the work reported by Li-Menglin et al. (1996). The kindness and hospitality of Dr. Li-Menglin, who was Deputy Director of Project 2817, during a visit to Altai in 1997, and the earlier work of Mr. J. Suttie, former Senior Officer in the Grassland and Pasture Crops Group, are gratefully acknowledged. Ms. C. Batello of the Grassland Group provided comments on an earlier version of the paper.


Anon. (1992). Jingshan Bright Pearl. China, Xinjiang No. 2817 Project, 88 pp.

Li-Menglin, Yuan Bo-Hua and J.M. Suttie (1996). Winter feed for transhumant livestock in China: the Altai experience. World Animal Review, Number 87 (1996/2), 38-44.

Reynolds, S. (1997). Travel Report Summary of Visit to China, 22 July to 14 August. AGPC, FAO. 17 pp.