Rinzin1 and Walter Roder 2
1Research Officer and 2Research Advisor, Renewable Natural Resources Research Centre, Jakar, Bhutan


Since only about 8% of the land is suitable for agriculture on which over 80% of the population are directly or indirectly dependent on, Bhutan has a highly diverse farming systems. The steep topography and market accessibility favour livestock production, especially in regions above 2000 m. However, livestock production is constrained by fodder shortage especially in winter period. To make ends meet, Bhutanese farmers have adopted a mixed farming system whereby livestock farming systems are well integrated with that of the agriculture farming systems. It is foreseen that the existing farming systems may also be the only answer to the escalating farm labour shortage in the rural areas. Therefore, during the coming 8 th Five Year Plan, fodder development will be the main leverage to achieve higher production levels.

This paper presents a review of fodder resources in Bhutan with the object to throw light on the fodder sources from the existing integrated livestock and agriculture farming systems in the country.


Bhutan’s economy is strongly influenced by its historical and geographical isolation and remains largely agrarian. Over 80% of its population are involved in agriculture-related activities, and contribute about 41% towards the GDP (PPD, 1996). Because of the mountainous character, only about 8% of the total land is suitable for agriculture (Roder et al., 2001). The adverse conditions, especially topography and climate, limit opportunities for arable farming particularly in the temperate regions where livestock becomes the main component of the production system.

Bhutanese had always raised livestock side by side with arable farming. Maize (Zea mays), rice (Oriza sativa), millet (Eleusine coracana), wheat (Triticum aestivum), buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum and F. tataricum), potato (Solanum tuberosum), mustard (Brassica nigra) and barley (Hordeum vulgare) are the main crops cultivated. Livestock production is important across all farming systems in the country, and about 90% of the households in the farming community own livestock (Roder et al, 2001). The annual contribution of livestock to the GDP is estimated to be about 8% (PPD, 1996). The large variations in environmental conditions have resulted in a wide range of livestock production systems, ranging from the high altitude transhumance yak system to systems where animals are only used for draught and manure purposes.

Early on it was recognised that any improvement in livestock production depended on improving the quantity and quality of fodder resources. Yet today, nutritional limitations of the available livestock feed and fodder still remains to be the single most important constraint that need to be addressed to enhance animal production. Therefore, to address this constraint and other major issues, like shortage of farm labour, loss of agriculture land to urbanisation, escalating demands for livestock products from an increasing urban population, and the need for a sustainable and judicious use of resources, it is crucial to understand the existing integrated livestock and agriculture farming systems of the country, and improve on them.        

Land use

As of 1996, Bhutan had about 65,000 farming households with an average household size of seven persons (PPD, 1996) and a total population of approximately 600,000. The average land holding size was 1.5 ha with 10% of the households having more than 5 ha. Rice is cultivated on small terraces on slopes with gradients of up to 80%. The steep topography and market accessibility favour livestock production, especially in regions above 2000 m (Roder et al., 2001).

Table 1: Land use and livestock statistics


Land use1

Area (‘000 ha)

% of country




Lowland rice



Upland agriculture (maize, wheat, barley, buckwheat)



Shifting cultivation (‘tsheri’ and ‘pangshing’)



Horticulture (apples, oranges, cardamom)



Natural grassland



Improved pasture



Total land area



Livestock (1995 data) 2

Heads (1000s)











Equine (horse, mules, donkeys)









Source: 1MoA, 1997a; 2MoA, 1997b

Fodder from integrated systems

Climate, farming systems and seasons determine fodder resources used by livestock. Although no reliable nation-wide data is available on the relative contribution of individual fodder resources, estimates agree that natural grasslands, including forests, provide the highest proportion (Table 2 and Figure 1). Besides, grazing of post-harvest crop fields, pangshing (grass fallow shifting cultivation land) and tsheri (bush fallow shifting cultivation land) areas, and common pastures are the next most important fodder resources. In fact, fodder from agriculture production and integrated systems are estimated to contribute between 30-55% to the total national fodder requirements. Farmers also grow introduced fodder species. Although the area under introduced fodder species may be relatively low, the contribution to the overall fodder requirement is significant as demonstrated in the two recent surveys (Roder et al., 2001).

Table 2. Contribution of different types of fodder resources to Bhutan’s national fodder requirements

Fodder source

Relative contribution (%)

Forest grazing



Natural grassland



Improved pasture



Shifting cultivation and fallow land



Fodder trees



Crop residues






Source: Roder 1990 and RGOB 1994

Figure 1. Main fodder resources during the summer period 

(1Fodder from cut and carry systems or weed collected in crop fields)

These systems of grazing (grazing in the forest, on natural grasslands and crop-land fallow) are labour efficient as only limited labour is required in herding the animals, collecting plant material for composting or applying manure to the crop fields, conveying and or conserving fodder to/for the animals, and clearing the fields of crop residues.

Fallow Land

Cattle are allowed to graze freely in the crop fields right after the crops are harvested. The quantity and quality of available fodder varies substantially depending on the crop, the weed flora, and the harvesting systems used (Roder et al., 2001)(Table 3). The type of crops cultivated and the type of cropping system used determines the grazing period. Nevertheless, Roder (1998) concluded from a survey that grazing of crop fields was extensive especially during the winter periods.

Amongst the fallow systems, the seasonal fallow in maize systems, that extend from 2 to 8 months, and the long-term fallow of 2 to 20 years in the pangshing and tsheri shifting cultivation systems provide substantial quantities of fodder (Roder et al., 2001). However, limited quantitative data is available on the dry matter production and quality. Qualitative descriptions of some of the most important systems are given in Table 3.

Table 3: Fodder from fallow land and selected characteristics of the major crop and fallow systems


Maize system



Area (ha)






Maize, millets, rice, buckwheat

Buckwheat, wheat

Altitude range (m)




Major fallow vegetation

Annual weeds

Shrubs, trees

Grasses, blue pine

Fallow period

4-8 months

2-8 years

6-20 years

Main feed

Annual weeds,

Crop residues

Annual weeds,

Shrubby species


Dry matter (t/ha)




Source: LUPP (1995) and Roder et al. (1992)

Ø      Maize systems: Maize is the most important cereal in terms of both area and production (LUPP 1995). It is cultivated mostly on dry land at elevations up to 2600 m. Maize growing areas are concentrated basically in eastern and southern Bhutan. Maize is usually grown in combination with other crops, mainly soybeans (Glycine max), wheat (Triticum aestivum), barley (Hordeum vulgare), beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), potatoes (Solanum tuberosum), pumpkins (Cucurbita maxima) and Vigna species in inter-cropping and sequential cropping systems (Roder and Gurung, 1990). The choice of associated crop species grown with maize depends on the elevation, rainfall and levels of soil fertility (Roder et al., 2001). The same factors together with the type of other crops grown as intercrops with maize or in rotation with maize determine the length of the fallow period and the amount of fodder available. The large extent of maize cultivation means that a substantial quantity of crop residue is available for fodder. Livestock are generally allowed to graze in the fields right after the maize cobs are harvested. This practice contributes to a fast recycling of nutrients via livestock manure. The maize stems are often harvested and stored as winter-feed. 

Table 4: Typical maize growing systems in Bhutan


(% of total maize area)


Maize-maize (often inter-cropped with beans, soybeans, or Vigna sp.)






Maize-wheat or barley






Maize (often inter-cropped with beans, soybeans, or Vigna sp.)



Maize inter-cropped with potato



Source: Roder and Gurung 1990

Ø      Slash and burn bush fallow (tsheri) system: In this system the vegetation, consisting of trees, shrubs, other perennials and annuals, is cut during the dry season, allowed to dry, and burned shortly before sowing the crop seed (Roder et al., 1992). Seeds are either dibbled or broadcast (without incorporation). The crops are mainly maize, millet, rice, and buckwheat. This system is gradually declining as the government is making efforts to replace this method of cultivation. 

Ø      Grass fallow (pangshing) system: Here the fallow vegetation evolves after abandonment of cropping, and persists under grazing. It consists of short grasses, sedges, and forbes, and is often interspersed with blue pine trees (Pinus wallichiana) in the cool temperate zone. It is vital to mention here that over the last two decades, many farmers have sown legume-grass mixtures on pangshing as recommended by the Ministry of Agriculture. 

Soils in northern Bhutan are extremely low in available phosphorus (Roder et al., 1993). Burning the top soil to increase the availability of P and burning manure to reduce the bulk and speed up the release of P (Norbu et al., 1996; Roder, 1990) are ingenious practices devised by the Bhutanese farmers to optimise the use of the limited P pools.

Ø      Other cropping systems: The contribution of fallow land from other kinds of cropping systems to the overall production of fodder, although locally important, is minimal (Roder et al., 2001).  Wheat and barley are grown only on a limited area, and these and other cropping systems have shorter fallow periods. Fallow fields of wheat, barley and buckwheat are important at higher elevations, while rice fallow provides some grazing at elevations below 2500 m.

Crop Residues

The estimates of the contribution of crop residues to Bhutan’s total livestock feed requirements vary from 13-43% (RGOB, 1984 and Verma, 1984) depending on authors. Verma’s estimates of Bhutan’s annual straw production at 378,000 t of which 232,000t is used as livestock feed is believed to be an overestimation (Roder et al, 2001). The quantity and quality of major crop residues are given in Table 5.

Table 5: The quantity and quality of major crop residues







 Area (1000 ha, of particular crop)





 DM produced (1000 t)





 DM used as fodder (1000 t)





Relative importance in area of production:

Households (%)





Quality of feed:

Crude protein





Crude fibre





The use of crop residues varies with the season, livestock type, and region. Recent studies have shown that depending on elevation and cropping systems, the most important winter feeds were paddy, sweet buckwheat and maize straws  (Roder et al, 2001). Rice straw is used as winter-feed by almost all the farmers who grow rice. Maize residues are the main winter feed in the major maize growing areas. At higher elevations sweet buckwheat (F. esculentum) is often cultivated primarily for winter-feed production. In a survey of 206 households in Bumthang Dzongkhag, 24% of households had indicated production of winter feed from stems as the primary reason and 59% as the secondary reason for growing sweet buckwheat (RNR-RC Jakar, 1996). Other important crop residues include inferior and broken grain, husks and other chaff, residues from ara and bangchang making, and by-products from grain milling.

Arable annual fodder species grown on crop land

Bhutanese farmers traditionally produce small quantities of arable fodder for use during the dry season (Roder et al., 2001). These are mainly fed to draft animals whilst they undertake field preparation work at the beginning of the rainy season. With a gradual increase in the milk production potential of crossbred cows, these fodder crops are also becoming an important source of feed for lactating cows. The most important species are turnip (Brassica rapa var. rapifera), radish (Raphanus sativus), pumpkin (Cucurbita maxima), maize (Zea mays), wheat (Triticum aestivum), barley (Hordeum vulgare) and oat (Avena sativa).

Turnip, radish, and pumpkin, besides their uses as vegetables, are the most important arable fodder at elevations between 2500 m and 4000 m. They are fed to milking cows, growing animals, draft animals and pigs throughout the winter season, especially when the grasslands are covered with snow. At higher elevations individual households may cultivate up to 0.3 ha of turnip annually (Roder, 1998). Maize is cultivated to feed draft animals in May and June in lower areas such as Zhemgang and Sarpang. Wheat and barley are cultivated over a wide range of production systems including the rice systems of Paro and Thimphu and the wheat/barley systems found at higher elevations in Wangdue and Trongsa Dzongkhags. Oat has partly replaced wheat and barley as winter fodder in the rice growing areas of Paro, Thimphu, Wangdue, and Trongsa (Roder et al, 2001).

Fodder under fruit and nut trees

During the recent years, Bhutanese farmers have also started fodder production in integration with horticulture crops. In the temperate regions, exotic species of fodder crops like Cocksfoot (Dactylis glomerata), Italian rye grass (Lolium multiflorum) and white clover (Trifolium repens) are grown under apple trees, while in the subtropical regions fodder peanut (Arachis pintoi) is grown under orange and areca nut (Areca catechu).

Importance of livestock for soil fertility

Fertiliser consumption for arable agriculture is negligible in Bhutan Considering the good crop yields of the Bhutanese farmers and the low soil fertility in general, it can be concluded that farmers get good crop yield only due to the input of plant nutrients collected by the cattle.  The animals grazing in the forest or on the natural grasslands during the day are confined in sheds in crop fields during the night.  This practice results in a continuos export of plant nutrients from the grazed areas. Although the plant materials consumed by cattle are relatively low in P, since they grow on low P soils (soils in Bhutan are low in P), the P quantities transferred by the grazing animals are in the rage of 3-6 kg per grazing animal (depending on the number of days, and hours per day grazed). With about 120-400,000 animals depending on grazing in forest and on grasslands the amount of P transferred from these systems to agriculture systems is in the range of 300-900 t per year corresponding to 900-2000 t of Single Superphosphate fertiliser (Source). Hence, it can rightly be said that the existing systems of livestock farming contributes enormously in maintaining the soil fertility, and thereby enhancing the productivity of arable crops.   


Although Bhutan enjoys vast variations in its agro-ecological zones with elevation as low as 200 m to as high as 8000 m with obviously marked variations in the climatic conditions across the country, Bhutan’s agriculture production is constrained with various adverse conditions. Nevertheless, through the ages Bhutanese farmers have adapted to the demands of the nature and have adopted a mixed farming system whereby livestock farming systems are well integrated with that of the agriculture farming systems. Through such integration, Bhutanese have been able to sustain their livelihood at the rural household level since time immemorial.

Today with a large proportion of livestock population with exotic blood coupled with increasing demands for livestock products and produce from an increasing urban population, it can rightly be said that the Bhutanese farmers are well geared towards optimising production at the farm level through concerted efforts in integrated farming systems. The existing farming systems may also be the only answer to the escalating farm labour shortage in the rural areas. Therefore, it is vital to have an overall understanding of these farming systems, and improve upon them. In this line, it would be viable to explore for integrated farming technologies that allow for maximum production per unit land since only about 8% of the total land areas is suitable for agriculture farming.       

During the coming 8th Five Year Plans, fodder development will be the main leverage to achieve higher production levels. A wide range of different fodder resources will be used. It is anticipated that grazing of permanent swards (grass/legume based) and fodder plots cultivated in rotation with field crops will be the most important tools to enhance both agriculture and livestock production. Synergistic and complementary effects of fodder production in combination with field crops, horticulture or timber systems will become more important and fodder produced in such systems will become an important resource (Roder and Wangdi, 2001).


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