Field projects

TCP/CPR/3104 (D)


Developing modern and sustainable alfalfa production systems
in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region

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


Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region is located in the hinterland of the western part of China. Hilly loess areas dominate the southern part, the Yellow River Plain occupies the central and northern parts, while it adjoins the Alashan Plateau in the West and the eastern part is formed by the Ge’erduosi plateau. The total land area is 51 800 square kilometres and the population in 2001 was 5.63 million. The southern mountainous areas include the eight counties of Xiji, Haiyuan, Guyuan, Longde, Pengyang, Jingyuan, Yanchi and Tongxin with a total land area of 39 000 square kilometres and an arable land area of 867 000 hectares. The population of the eight counties is 2.4 million, of which 75 percent is engaged in agriculture. The per capita average income of farmers in 2001 was 1 078 RMB Yuan, which was lower than the national and regional average. It is one of the poorest regions in China. The annual precipitation is < 300 to 500 mm while soil erosion is a serious problem. The vegetation coverage is extremely low and there is a severe problem of water supply. Crop farming and livestock are the traditional industries and the pillar industries of the local economy. Since the infrastructure facilities for agriculture and livestock are little developed, agriculture is completely rainfed and the farmers and herders rely completely on the rainfall. Rapid population growth and demand for grains has caused uncontrolled land reclamation, extensive crop production and overgrazing and general deterioration of the ecological environment and poverty. Under present conditions agricultural development is no longer sustainable.

Ningxia is one of the autonomous regions and provinces to implement the Western Development Programme initiated and supported by the Chinese Government. One of the important measures is to strengthen the healthy development of the ecological environment, to return cropland to pasture and forest in order to improve the ecological environment and the basis for sustainable social and economic development. The Government of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region realized that planting and development of alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is an important strategic measure in improving the ecological environment of the region while raising the living standard of the rural population. It is also an effective measure to adjust agricultural structure, promote the development of livestock and help farmers and herders to shake off poverty. The economic return for alfalfa is significantly higher than that of wheat or corn. Planting alfalfa on slopes can also effectively control soil erosion and improve the ecological environment. Farmers and herders in these areas regard alfalfa as very important for their prosperity. Therefore, the Government of Ningxia lists the development of alfalfa as one of its most important agricultural development programmes. It is planned that, by 2010, the area of alfalfa in the southern mountainous areas of Ningxia will reach 300 000 hectares accounting for 34.6 percent of the total arable land area. By 2002, the acreage of alfalfa in these areas had reached 163 000 hectares while 272 000 households were engaged in the production of alfalfa. The statistics for 2002 indicated that the fresh alfalfa output reached 22 500 kg/hectare while the output value was 3 300 RMB Yuan/hectare. The net profit of each hectare of alfalfa was as much as 2,700 RMB Yuan and it was estimated that over 60 percent of local farmers and herders can increase their income through planting alfalfa.

However, although the large-scale production of alfalfa has brought about certain economic returns and ecological effects, the substantial increase and expansion of the same crop over a large area has also created major problems in terms of various serious outbreaks of pests and diseases of alfalfa. The damage caused by pests has increased year by year. The rapid and severe pest and disease occurrence affecting large areas of alfalfa caught farmers and herders by surprise and since they lacked pest control techniques and means, great losses have been caused. Over 80 percent of the fields lost over 50 percent of the normal production while 10 percent of the land failed to produce any harvest; over 130 000 households were affected.

The main reasons for such rampant disease and pest breakouts are:

  • policy measures which in the past encouraged grain production whereas alfalfa was planted as a minor fodder crop in the rotation. As the area of alfalfa was very limited there were few pests and diseases and no control measures were needed and, consequently, farmers had little technical knowledge in alfalfa management;
  • the area of alfalfa in recent years has expanded considerably following the Government’s western development strategies, while the development of alfalfa varieties has lagged far behind. At present, over 95 percent of the southern mountainous areas in Ningxia use the few traditional local varieties, which are relatively low producers with poor disease resistance;
  • farmers and herders generally lack practical crop management techniques, with little awareness of improved alfalfa varieties, the need for crop rotations, soil fertility management and proper harvesting times;
  • as well as the overall lack of technical knowledge the capacity for pest monitoring and forecasting is weak and there is little timely provision of information on pest control and technicians are unable to guide farmers and herders in adopting good agricultural practices, including appropriate preventative and integrated pest control measures.

In the absence of good agronomic techniques and a wider alfalfa genetic base, the response in many cases has been to control pests with highly toxic pesticides, often applied at the wrong time and which not only failed to control the pest problems, but also caused farmer and herder health problems as well as serious environmental pollution. There is therefore an urgent need to address these issues by focusing firstly on widening the alfalfa genetic base through the introduction, selection, testing and use of disease resistant varieties that are adapted to the harsh rainfed conditions in these semi-arid areas and also through the local, participatory adaptation of improved agronomic techniques. Also important are the role of appropriate agronomic practices such as cutting frequency and calendar, sward renovation, cereal/alfalfa rotations, and nutrient management. To obtain a sustainable intensification of cropping systems a combination of improved management practices and the right genetic base of crops must be adopted. Pest problems arising from large-scale cultivation of one crop (alfalfa) can also be addressed through integrated pest management measures with biological control as a focal point plus monitoring and forecast systems for alfalfa pests to guide the farmers in appropriate and timely control measures.  This project therefore addresses the basic need of crop intensification promoting the introduction of suited alfalfa varieties and improved agronomic techniques to increase production of hay and cereals while minimizing pest and disease losses.

Failure to resolve the problem will not only seriously affect the many farmers and herders and the developing alfalfa industry, but will have grave consequences for the implementation of the state’s western development strategy in the southern mountainous areas of Ningxia – returning cropland to forest and grassland.

The project was implemented in two counties - Yanchi and Pengyang, while the other 6 counties and districts of Xiji, Haiyuan, Longde, Pengyang, Jingyuan, Tongxi and Yuanzhou were expected to indirectly benefit from the project.

Expected benefits of the project were:

  • increased returns to farmers through the introduction of improved agronomic practices;
  • a more sustainable alfalfa industry through the introduction of improved alfalfa varieties;
  • reduced alfalfa losses from pests and diseases and less environmental damage resulting from the local participatory adaptation of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) technologies;
  • acceleration of the programme to return cropland to grassland and forest and so promote sustainable agricultural and livestock development in the southern mountainous areas of Ningxia.


The main objectives of the project were:

  • increased awareness of the benefits of improved agronomic practices for alfalfa production;
  • identification of alfalfa varieties well adapted to the agro-ecological conditions in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region;
  • basic seed production assured of the selected alfalfa varieties and seed multiplication organized to satisfy the needs of the farming industry;
  • improved alfalfa establishment and management practices, including broader varietal choice, soil fertility management, appropriate crop rotations, and IPM approaches, introduced and locally adapted with farmers’ groups to promote sustainable agriculture systems;
  • farmers’ field schools (FFS) established with better alfalfa varieties and crop establishment and management practices;
  • local technicians, researchers and farmers trained in improved alfalfa establishment and management through participatory adaptive research;
  • formulation of a medium-term programme with time-bound objectives for sustainable alfalfa production in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.


The project outputs were expected to be:

  • present status of alfalfa production ascertained and various agronomic, pest and disease problems identified;
  • appropriate alfalfa varieties identified and field tested in the project area;
  • seed production and multiplication facilities of the selected alfalfa varieties in place and seed supplies to farmers assured;
  • technology packages for sustainable alfalfa production developed;
  • at least 50 researchers and technicians trained in improved alfalfa management practices and production, varietal choice, cropping systems, soil fertility, and IPM techniques, using the farmers’ field schools approach;
  • at least 500 farmers trained on appropriate alfalfa establishment and management practices and local community research plots and farmers’ field schools in place;
  • a training manual on improved alfalfa establishment and management practices (in Chinese and English);
  • a medium-term plan developed with participation by farmers’ communities and approved by local authorities for sustainable alfalfa production in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. 

Originally planned for the period December 2006 to November 2008 the project was postponed because of severe drought in Ningxia Hui and was implemented in the period September 2007 to December 2009. First missions were fielded in September 2007 when the detailed workplan was prepared. The lead consultant undertook two further missions in October 2008 and October 2009 while four national consultants undertook a series of missions in the period September 2007 to October 2009. The final visits by consultants coincided with the Final Workshop at which the Alfalfa Management Guide for Ningxia and a Training Manual for Participatory Learning in Alfalfa Agronomy and IPM were presented and discussed and a document entitled Contributions Toward a Medium Term Plan to Sustain and Enhance Alfalfa Production in Ningxia was prepared and discussed.


Alfalfa situation in Ningxia
Alfalfa stands sown in 2000-2002 have declined to low levels of productivity and numerous disease, insect and rodent pests cause severe damage. All levels of government must prepare for large-scale alfalfa re-planting immediately. Due to declining alfalfa stands and high values of forage, the timing is very critical to implement new programs or policies that favour converting cropland to alfalfa. While this project delivered a significant level of understanding of farmer demographics and needs, particularly with the in-depth baseline surveys in two counties in southern Ningxia, bureaus and county staff should now use the participatory process to assure that future training or assistance programs for farmers are formulated based on “grassroots” input rather than “top down” administration.

Alfalfa varieties
Nine alfalfa varieties thoroughly tested at the Guyuan Agriculture Science Institute are recommended for forage production: CW 272, CW 400, WL 325, (three US varieties) Ningmu #1, Ningmu #2, Ningmu #3, “Guyuan purple flower”, Zhongmu #1 and Gannong #3 (from Gansu). Although trial of six “best bet” alfalfa varieties (Ningmu #1, “Guyuan purple flower alfalfa”, Gannong #3 (from Gansu) Zhongmu #1, CW400 and Shaw ) were carried out under the project, dry conditions limited yield data. The province should expand its alfalfa variety testing efforts to include locations representative of southern rainfed areas and irrigated areas in the north that are lower elevation and hotter. Local varieties appear to be suited to the environment of southern Ningxia, however there are likely to be great genetic improvements that could be made for resistance to prevalent foliar diseases, root diseases and several of the insect pests. Establishment of an alfalfa breeding station or cooperation with breeders in nearby provinces could be warranted. Variety trial information should be disseminated widely, including on the new website launched by the project. In addition to the data, sources of seed for sale should be listed to assist county staff and farmers.

Seed production
Seed blocks of a number of varieties were established and suitable environments (hot, dry) and land (irrigated, flat) exist in central and northern Ningxia for medium- and large-scale commercial alfalfa seed production. The alfalfa seed production capacity must be expanded. Provincial-level inputs are needed to improve the availability of reliable Foundation seedstock of local varieties and those from neighbouring provinces. Seed production bases are in place, but infrastructure such as more field equipment, and seed harvest or processing equipment may be required. Technology packages for alfalfa seed production are needed – fertilization, sowing method, seeding rate, wide rows, “zero tolerance” weed control, insect pest monitoring and management, pollinators, irrigation, and seed harvest, conditioning, storage and testing. Ningxia bureaus should collaborate with private seed companies’ efforts to develop commercial alfalfa seed production of current and future recommended varieties.

Technology packages
Although delivery of technology packages was accomplished more work is required. The provincial government is encouraged to develop and support more applied research for alfalfa forage and seed production, including variety testing, agronomic trials, pest monitoring and management using IPM, mechanical haymaking, storage, and utilization. The pest monitoring system should be improved to enhance pest forecasting.

Training of researchers and technicians
Technical staff in Pengyang County (2008) and Yanchi County (2009) completed an intensive 55 to 60-day “training of trainers” (TOT) course with emphasis on participatory learning. This process was very effective and adaptable to many agricultural topics. Training consisted of classroom and field investigations, data collection and summarization, reporting and group discussions. Also in 2009 a number of technicians in each county were trained as “facilitators” and will be capable of training additional technicians (TOT) or farmers to perpetuate the training. Two in-country tours were undertaken to study alfalfa production, research and extension systems in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Liaoning and Shandong Provinces.

Trainers and facilitators trained by the project should train their peers within their counties, as well as farmers who were unable to participate during 2008 and 2009. Ningxia bureaus should coordinate cross-county training and exchanges for the trainers educated by the project. Ningxia and the counties should cooperate to establish modern county-level training centres to train technicians and farmers in alfalfa production and other agricultural topics. Financial and credit training is needed for county staff to assist farmers.

Farmer training
Farmers were enthusiastic about the participatory learning process utilized in the FFS. The trained farmers should be encouraged to teach other farmers the agronomy and IPM principles. Villages and counties should facilitate the formation of farmer networks for FFS and to share resources such as equipment and other inputs. Counties should organize on-farm demonstrations at the village level to promote best practices for alfalfa crop and pest management. Counties and provincial bureaus should provide farmers with training about finance and credit opportunities.

Alfalfa Training Manuals
Two manuals were produced during the project. The Alfalfa Management Guide for Ningxia was drafted to address all of the topics of the “technology packages” developed during the project. A second publication - Training Manual for Participatory Learning in Alfalfa Agronomy and IPM was added to describe the participatory process so it can be adaptable for other agriculture topics in Ningxia.

Both manuals will be available in English and Chinese. The project installed a server and website in the Ningxia Department of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry. All project publications and other relevant information will be posted on this new website for rapid dissemination and interaction with county offices.

Medium Term Plan
In the final workshop in October 2009 recommendations were drafted for the medium term plan. After reviewing the project’s achievements and outcomes, SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analyses were conducted to consider farmers’ needs for research/technology packages or training/education in the next five years. The group then recommended 23 actions to be undertaken in the next five years by farmers, counties or Ningxia bureaus to overcome the weaknesses and threats identified in the SWOT exercise.

These recommended actions consist of nine items which can be initiated immediately, and 14 items that will require additional study, staff time, financial resources or other inputs.

The document “Contributions Toward a Medium Term Plan to Sustain and Enhance Alfalfa Production in Ningxia” will require broader review and discussion and should be distributed widely among the appropriate Ningxia bureaus for wider discussion and input. The participatory process utilized during the project should be used to revise and finalize an official medium term plan which should then be rapidly implemented due to the current situation of alfalfa in Ningxia – the need to replace old alfalfa stands, high value of alfalfa and forages, and the increasing demand by farmers for improved technology to produce alfalfa.