TCP/CPR/3104 (D)


Capacity building in improved management of alfalfa in the southern
mountainous areas of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region


Contributions toward a medium term plan to sustain and enhance alfalfa production in Ningxia

[Output from the Final Workshop “Development of a Medium Term Plan” held Saturday 24th October 2009,
Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Peoples Republic of China]


The southern mountainous region of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (“Ningxia”) is confronted with numerous sociological, economical and ecological issues. An area of eight counties in southern Ningxia is one of the poorest regions in China; 75% of the population is engaged with agriculture and per capita incomes are 52% lower than the national average. Rainfed crop farming and livestock herding are the principle sources of livelihood. The hilly loess areas in the southern end of Ningxia receive 300 to 500 mm of annual precipitation, and farming has proceeded on terraces for many centuries. Immediately north of the loess hills, the soils are sandy or gravelly, in an area that receives less than 300 mm of annual precipitation. With population growth, vast areas of grasslands in Ningxia and western China have been converted to grain production for food. This in turn led to overgrazing of the remaining grasslands, and severe erosion particularly in the hilly loess zone.

Implementation of the Western Development Program has had major impacts in reversing environmental degradation in Ningxia. The major policies enacted were the restriction of open livestock grazing and conversion of cropland back to grassland and forage production. Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) was widely planted in southern Ningxia from 2000 through 2002, due to its recognition as a very productive, high-quality crop with very good soil stabilization and soil-building features. Specifically, rainfed alfalfa produces 4 times to 8 times the level of forage grown on native grasslands. Alfalfa is a perennial legume that fixes biological nitrogen, and it is superior to annual crop cultivation on fragile soils or steep slopes.

It is anticipated that by 2010, up to 300 000 hectares of alfalfa would be established on about 35% of the arable land area. In short, alfalfa has great potential to improve feedstuff levels for confined livestock production, sale as a cash crop, and to capitalize on rotational benefits with other crops. Despite the high expectations, there are numerous challenges to alfalfa production in southern Ningxia. Grain farmers and herders lack knowledge of agronomic techniques or management of the numerous disease, insect and rodent pests of alfalfa.

The FAO/Peoples Republic of China project TCP/CPR/3104(D) was initiated in 2007 with the overall objectives to: i. increase awareness of the benefits of alfalfa as a livestock forage and in sustainable crop rotations, ii. identify suitable alfalfa varieties and ensure their adequate availability, iii. extend improved alfalfa management practices (crop rotation, variety choice, sowing method, soil fertility, weed control, harvest timing, proper haymaking and storage, etc.) and pest and disease management by integrated pest management (IPM) methods, iv. engage local practitioners and farmers in participatory demonstrations of improved alfalfa agronomy and IPM methods and v. develop a medium-term strategy to sustain future alfalfa production in Ningxia. The duration of the project was from September 2007 through December 2009. Funding from the Food and Agriculture Organization supported the fielding of alfalfa and pest management experts from Ningxia bureaus (2), national (2) and international (4) agencies. The primary project outputs were intensive training courses, applied field demonstrations, and publications.


A. The current alfalfa situation and production practices in Ningxia have been thoroughly assessed by local, national and international experts. There is a wealth of information available in existing Ningxia publications, research stations, and the pest monitoring system. Two in-depth surveys during the project provided very relevant data on farmer demographics, practices and needs.

B. Alfalfa has been grown in Ningxia for over 1000 years, however many grain farmers and livestock herders lack basic cultural methods for raising alfalfa.

C. Alfalfa stands sown in 2000 – 2002 have declined to low levels of productivity.

D. Ningxia must prepare for large-scale alfalfa planting immediately. This will include high demand for published information on alfalfa agronomy, IPM and large quantities of high-quality seed.

E. There are many damaging pests of alfalfa prevalent in Ningxia, including rodents, insects and diseases. Newer alfalfa varieties have genetic resistance to several diseases and insects, but more aggressive control measures are needed for control of rodents and other pests.

F. A good alfalfa variety testing system is in place in Ningxia, and nine varieties are now recommended for forage production. However, the infrastructure for seedstock production must be developed. Suitable environments for large-scale alfalfa seed production are in irrigated sites in central and northern Ningxia.

G. Ningxia bureaus should assist private companies’ efforts to develop commercial seed production of the nine alfalfa varieties recommended for forage production. Strategies for agronomic (seeding rate, planting in wide rows, pollinators), weed and pest management are specifically needed for alfalfa seed production.

H. Due to dry conditions in 2008 and 2009, alfalfa prices are very high. This has resulted in alfalfa being the most valuable cash crop in southern Ningxia, but concerns exist for affordable feed supplies for livestock.

I. With high forage values and declining alfalfa stands, there is significant interest by farmers and county staff in southern Ningxia for the project’s field demonstration trials, the training program and the website and publication – the Alfalfa Management Guide for Ningxia.

J. The TCP project installed several relevant on-farm demonstration trials of “best-bet” varieties, pre-plant fertilizer, alfalfa sown with or without buckwheat or millet, and a cutting method trial in Pengyang County. Most of the trials are fairly well established, but due to the dry conditions have yielded limited data to date. County staff are encouraged to follow through with these field trials; hands-on demonstrations are widely needed to move farmers to advanced methods.

K. In 2008 and 2009, 51 technical staff in Pengyang and Yanchi Counties completed an intensive 55 to 60-day training course, called “training of trainers” (TOT). Curricula included all agronomic topics of crop rotation, site preparation, variety selection, fertilization, sowing method, weed control, harvest timing, haymaking, storage and utilization, and seed production. Major pests and their lifecycles were taught, as well as control strategies, beneficial agents and integrated pest management (IPM) strategies. The course was taught by the participatory learning process, which involved classroom and field investigations, data collection and group discussions. In 2009, four facilitators were trained in each county for future TOT and farmer training.

L. Twelve county staff participated in two in-country tours to Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Liaoning and Shandong Provinces to view alfalfa production systems and research efforts.

M. In 2009, farmer field schools (FFS) were provided for 258 farmers in 10 Yanchi County villages. The schools consisted of one-day sessions offered for seven consecutive weeks. The FFS curriculum topics and participatory learning were similar to the training course for trainers.

N. The TOT and FFS curricula and participatory training process were well-received by technicians and farmers. The TCP project provided significant staff resources (national and Ningxia experts) that likely cannot be replicated at the same level. Therefore, counties and bureaus should adapt the participatory learning process for alfalfa agronomy, IPM and other agriculture issues. Two manuals to be published – Alfalfa Management Guide for Ningxia and the Training Manual for Participatory Learning in Alfalfa Agronomy and IPM – are relevant documents for future education and extension.

O. Based on the current alfalfa situation in Ningxia, the project’s timeliness and the successful implementation of this medium term plan are very critical to sustain alfalfa production.


Baseline surveys of 96 farmers in Pengyang and Yanchi Counties were conducted in 2008 and 2009. The surveys were performed by county staff who were trained to interview farmers by a standard method without biasing the responses. The questionnaire consisted of 72 questions regarding current alfalfa production conditions, and knowledge and attitudes of alfalfa crop management and pest prevention and control. Some highlights of the survey are shown below (note that some data do not sum to 100% due to the format of the question).

A. Household structure and farm enterprises

• Education: illiterate or below primary school 22%, intermediate 69%, secondary 9%
• Primary family member involved with alfalfa production: male 67%, female 33%
• Family annual income: ¥RMB 17,263
• Family income sources: sale of crops and livestock 43%, off-farm labour service 57%
• Livestock - % of families that raise: sheep 56% (7.5 head), cattle 28% (1.7 head), swine 44% (1.3 head), poultry 66% (10.4 head), donkey 66% (1.8 head)
• Cultivated land per household: 26 mu (1.7 ha)

B. Current alfalfa production

• Area of alfalfa per household: 12 mu
• Age of alfalfa stands: under 6 years 48%, over 6 years 52%
• Variety of alfalfa sown: “old local variety” 47%, from outside the area or unknown 53%
• Alfalfa seed source: technology sector 62%, self-grown 11%, other or unknown 27%
• Application of fertilizer to alfalfa: never 76%, sub-soil manure before sowing 7%
• Used a specified crop rotation prior to sowing alfalfa: 0%
• Alfalfa is sown with a companion crop (millet, buckwheat, oat): 47%, none 53%
• Alfalfa harvest by: hand tool 95%, a machine 5%
• Alfalfa cutting height: at or just below soil surface 98%, 3 to 5 cm 2%
• Alfalfa is used for: household livestock feed 87%, cash sale 30%

C. Current knowledge/attitudes about alfalfa crop management, and pest and disease control

• When I next plant alfalfa, I will update the variety: yes 46%, no 27%, unsure 27%
• An alfalfa variety should be chosen based on its: high yield 63%, pest resistance 28%, high forage quality 19%, drought tolerance 19%
• Forage yield of alfalfa each year depends on: weather 84%, rodent, insect or disease pests 37%, harvest methods 20%
• Necessity of crop rotation prior to sowing alfalfa: no 56%, yes 23%, unsure 21%
• Necessity of a companion crop with alfalfa: no 39%, yes 34%, unsure 27%
• Necessity of fertilizer or sub-soil manure before sowing: no 53%, yes 31%, unsure 16%
• When told that “experts recommend a cutting height of 3 to 5 cm”, 74% disagree, 26% agree or were unsure
• Rodents - % of farmers who can identify damage or signs of: zokor 58%, squirrel 10%, mouse 8%. Believe zokor is worst rodent pest 41%.
• Cause of serious rodent damage: poor prevention 38%, lack of natural enemies 28%, no cultivation during alfalfa 22%
• Rodent control by: trap 54%, toxic baits 22%, other 24%
• Confident in rodent control: yes 58%, no 30%, unsure 12%
• Insect identification: can identify aphid 49%; it is the most serious insect pest 32%
• Relate foliar or leaf damage to diseases: 4%
• Can identify major weeds or know potential risks: 5% but with local common names

D. Expectations and reception of new alfalfa knowledge or technology

• Have a great desire to receive new information: yes 78%, no or unsure 22%
• The technologies most needed are: pest prevention and control 38%, seeding protection 18%, harvest and haymaking technology 14%, forage processing and utilization 12%, sowing methods 4%
• Previous alfalfa technical training: none 61%, village school, radio, etc. 31%, other 8%
• Basic alfalfa production techniques received from: neighbors 48%, technical sector or seed companies 20%, relatives or friends 19%, book, newspaper, television, internet 0%
• If new knowledge or skills are gained, I will share it with others: yes 95%, no, unsure 5%


At the Final Workshop of TCP/CPR/3104(D), 21 workshop participants conducted a plenary session to draft strategies for the medium term. The group consisted of 12 members of the FAO team from the NPC office, consultants and backstopping officers, and nine county officers or technicians from four counties. After a thorough review of the project activities and achievements, a participatory group process was used to itemize existing conditions in Ningxia relative to the needs of farmers. The large group was subdivided into smaller discussion groups which conducted SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities) analyses. One group considered research and technology packages needed by farmers in the medium term (next 5 years), and the other group addressed training and education assistance needed by farmers in the medium term. The small groups reconvened to discuss and refine the responses shown in Table 1. Most workshop participants have taught or been trained by group participatory learning methods, so the discussion was dynamic and energetic.

Several major themes arose from the SWOT analyses:

A. One important point is that alfalfa production has been documented to have occurred in Ningxia for over 1000 years – which is identified as both a strength and a weakness. The implications for medium- and long-term research and extension are that detailed on-farm demonstrations must be successfully conducted and widely publicized in order to convince farmers to adapt new methods or technology. Specific examples include the trials installed during the TCP project to demonstrate varying levels of pre-plant fertilizer, companion crops (buckwheat, millet, oat) sown with alfalfa, and alfalfa cutting height in Pengyang County. The participatory learning process of demonstration, data collection and dissemination of results utilized in the TCP project is a very effective process to assist Ningxia alfalfa producers.

B. There was a uniform opinion among the group that Ningxia has good environmental resources for alfalfa production under both irrigated and rainfed conditions. There is vast room for improvement in alfalfa management for both small-scale household production for livestock forage or cash sales, and large-scale production to supply dairies or to export out of the province. Seed production in central and northern Ningxia is also very promising.

C. The technology packages introduced during the TCP project – crop rotation, land preparation, fertilization, variety selection, sowing, weed control, pest management and IPM strategies, timing of harvest, mechanical harvest, haymaking, storage and feeding – were very relevant and timely. Similar information will be required for alfalfa seed production.

D. The timing for a new medium term (five-year) plan and its successful implementation is very critical. This is due to the simultaneous need for extensive alfalfa re-establishment, increasing demand for large supplies of high-quality forage, demand for alfalfa information, and ongoing or new PRC and Ningxia government policies that are favourable to alfalfa production.

TABLE 1. TCP analyses of farmer needs in research/technology packages and training/ education to sustain and improve alfalfa production in the medium term.
Research and Technology Package Needs
Training and Education Needs
•Over 1000 years of farmer experience in alfalfa cultivation
•Rich land resources
•Rapid development in livestock and alfalfa forage industries
•Suitable climate
•Widespread pest monitoring system with 71 sites in Ningxia
•Existing system of Extension for training
•Technicians in 2 counties are trained by participatory learning process (TOT)
•Farmers desire new knowledge for their benefit
•Low rainfall limits alfalfa and crop production in rainfed areas
•Several good alfalfa varieties are available, however limited local data to make informed variety choices
•Unreliable seed sources of the local varieties – no verification of seed purity or quality
•When implementing new field management practices (weed control, fertilizer, harvest time, cutting height, crop rotation, haymaking, etc.) – it is difficult to predict and monitor how changing one factor impacts the entire system
•Financial support to local governments and farmers is limiting; farmers need assistance by both subsidies and through credit
•Lack of machinery
•After 1000 years of alfalfa cultivation, farmers are reluctant to change practices; requires more investment in field demonstration by Extension
•Labour force has emigrated for work elsewhere – limit of remaining farmers and their time to participate in training
•Limited funding for Extension
•Slow delivery and implementation of new knowledge/technology
•Status of present industry and inputs are low or poorly distributed
•Level of mechanization is low
•Alfalfa forage values are very high at present – this drives interest in new alfalfa technology
•Demand for increased alfalfa tonnage
•Demand for high-quality alfalfa is rising due to increase in dairy production
•New mechanization for alfalfa production is rapidly being adapted in Ningxia
•New development of the Yellow River will increase land available for irrigated alfalfa
•High potential for large-scale alfalfa seed production and development of a commercial seed industry in Ningxia
•Governmental policies of rearing livestock in confinement (grazing land restrictions) and conversion of cropland to grasslands are favorable to alfalfa
•Currently there is significant international and national funding support for land conservation practices – favorable to alfalfa
•National government is aggressively funding projects to introduce new technology
•New PRC policies are particularly favorable for agricultural development in Ningxia and western China
•Provincial/regional level support for technical Extension is presently high
•The alfalfa crop management and IPM materials delivered in the current TCP project can now be delivered to technicians (by TOT) and farmers (by FFS) in additional counties.
•The participatory learning process utilized for TOT and FFS can be used for other Extension programs of livestock and crops
•Rainy season during harvest is disruptive to the production of high-quality alfalfa forage and seed
•Many rodent and pest problems are difficult and expensive to control
•Farm labor force is emigrating – particularly the young who might otherwise have been convinced to produce alfalfa by newer methods and technology
•Large-scale alfalfa production could lead to over-production, which could in turn cause low alfalfa prices and higher food prices (a long-term threat)
•Over-development of water could lead to siltation and salinization in some areas, as well as national water problems in the future (a long-term concern)
•Farmers are often skeptical or do not believe new technology is useful or valuable to them
•Farmers’ incomes are subject to market, climate and policy changes
•Limited time or accessibility by farmers to attend training courses
•Alfalfa forage is not considered to be as important as other cash crops



At the completion of the plenary session during the TCP workshop, the 21 participants proposed a set of recommended actions that should occur in the next five years toward developing a medium term plan. The group exercises progressed under the assumption that the medium term plan should both “sustain” and “improve” alfalfa productivity. The planning exercise immediately followed the SWOT analyses in Item 4 (above). Participants were asked to propose actions by farmers, counties and the Ningxia government (“province”) that should occur to address the weaknesses and threats (identified in Table 1) for meeting the needs of farmers relative to research/technology packages and training/education in the next five years. Participants submitted anonymous cards, and a spokesman led a discussion to categorize the responses (by responsible party – farmer/village, county or province level) and to refine and record the responses. This activity resulted in a consensus document of 23 recommendations that should be undertaken for the medium term plan (Table 2). Due to time constraints, the entire group was unable to prioritize all recommendations, and the ranking of the actions shown in Table 2 was provided by three FAO team members.

TABLE 2. Recommended Actions for a Five-Year Plan to Sustain and Enhance Alfalfa Production in Ningxia. The inputs required could include staff time, financial resources, additional training or other.

Actions by:

Farmers/Villages (individual farmers or collectively at the village level

Action Can proceed
Now, with no inputs
With more inputs
1.Farmers trained in alfalfa crop management and IPM in FFS should teach other farmers
2.Use the participatory learning process to demonstrate new technologies in alfalfa, crop and livestock production
3.Encourage the organization of farmer networks (such as cooperatives) for FFS and to share resources
4.Establish and utilize internet centers at the village level for rapid information receipt and exchange
5.Use college B.S. graduates (one student per village on three-year terms - program currently funded by government) to assist with facilitation of training and computer skills
6.Grow alfalfa on suitable soils by recommended best practices to increase alfalfa sales
7.Adopt best practices for feeding alfalfa to livestock
8.Establish and grow modern county-level Extension training centers for alfalfa production and other agricultural issues
9.Expand alfalfa TOT and FFS using the participatory learning process by qualified staff and farmers. Training should be continuous and year-round
10.Facilitate input supplies and market services for farmers, such as sources of seed, fertilizer, pesticides, arranging custom sowing or harvesting, and identifying possible markets for alfalfa
11.Organize and facilitate on-farm demonstrations at the village level to promote best practices for alfalfa production and IPM and to introduce new technology. Activities should include data collection, analysis, and reporting, hosting field days, etc.
12.Publicize the benefits of alfalfa production as a cash enterprise and to increase sales from livestock production
13.Maintain a balance in service and training for both small- and large-scale farms
14.Provide training for farmers dealing with finances and credit
Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (“Province”) Bureaus
15.Establish a network for training and Extension in all counties. Promote alfalfa production through the participatory learning process and demonstration. A specific activity is to coordinate cross-county training and exchanges
16.Designate one or more permanent provincial-level alfalfa specialist(s) who would be responsible for working across all levels of provincial government, county and the village/farmer level
17.Develop and support expanded applied research programs for alfalfa, including variety testing, agronomic trials, pest management, haymaking, forage utilization and seed production.
18.Establish reliable alfalfa seedstock capacity, and work to promote commercial seed production in coordination with national standards and regulations
19.Support (including financial) the development and adaptation of improved mechanization for alfalfa field production, haymaking, transport and processing, particularly in the rural southern areas
20.Advance the existing pest monitoring system of the Grassland Management Station to improve forecasting capacity. Integrate with Extension IPM recommendations for rapid delivery to County and township levels by internet
21.Prepare and revise the “Blueprint for Alfalfa Forage and Seed Production” and revise it annually (by using the participatory group process)
22.Facilitate funding for counties to support farmers’ alfalfa production through subsidy and credit programs
23.Provide financial support to build and strengthen alfalfa production systems, particularly on small farms. One need is to provide incentives for young, educated people to return to agriculture in the villages


The TCP project installed relevant field demonstrations and delivered an excellent training program for trainers (TOT) and farmers (FFS) in all topics of alfalfa crop and pest management in southern Ningxia. Two manuals – Alfalfa Management Guide for Ningxia and the Training Manual for Participatory Learning in Alfalfa Agronomy and IPM – are being published, and they will also be hosted on a new website.

The 21 workshop members who developed the recommended actions for the Medium Term Plan (Table 2) represent a diverse cross-section of alfalfa, grassland or livestock specialists and managers from four Ningxia counties, three provincial bureaus, and two national and two international organizations. Upon completion of the TCP project in December 2009, this document should be circulated widely for comments by additional county and provincial staff. The participatory group process should be used to adopt a “Medium Term Plan to Sustain and Enhance Alfalfa Production in Ningxia” by consensus of a wide audience.