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A survey of cattle production in China

Dairy cattle and dual-purpose breeds
Yellow cattle

Qiu Huai, Ju Zhiyong and Chang Zhijie

Prof. Qiu Huai is Vice-Director of the BCCSYC and Director of postgraduate Ph.D. students and Professor of the Animal Science Department, Northwestern Agricultural University, Hangli (712100) Shaanxi, China, where he may be contacted; Dr Ju Zhiyong is Assistant Professor of the Animal Science Department, Southern Agricultural University; and Dr Chang Zhijie is Assistant Professor of the Animal Science Department, Northwestern Agricultural University.

Resources of the Bovidae family abound in China. They include Bos taurus, Bos indicus, water buffalo and yak. All Bovidae are called cattle in China for some unknown traditional reason. In 1991, there were 119 136 million head of cattle in the country (see Table 1).

In order to develop breeding work in a planned way, supported and coordinated by the Ministry of Agriculture, China has established many breed organizations, including the Coordinating Group of Breeding of Chinese White and Black Dairy Cattle (CGBCWBDC). Since 1982, other organizations that have been set up include the Chinese Dairy Cattle Association (CDCA), the Breeding Committee of Chinese Superior Yellow Cattle (BCCSYC), the National Coordinating Group of Beef Cattle Breeding and Reproduction, China's Simmental Breeding Committee, the Red Steppe Breeding Coordination Group, the Chinese Water Buffalo Association and the National Coordinating Group of Yak Improvement. Every province and autonomous region has founded corresponding branches of these organizations, each of which has: developed its own breeding programme, strategies, identification standards, methods and performance record; planned to cooperate in breeding work, scientific research, progeny testing and in formulating state breeding standards; drawn up provincial enterprise and feeding standards; conducted cattle breeding training courses; developed artificial insemination using frozen semen; and published a magazine on cattle farming. These measures were intended to emphasize improved breeding and resulted in a significant improvement in the quality of the cattle population.

Dairy cattle and dual-purpose breeds

Dairy cattle

Over the past 40 or so years, the dairy cattle population has made its biggest achievement since the People's Republic of China was established. In 1949, there were only about 100 000 head of dairy cattle; by 1991, this number had increased to 2.945 million.

Most Chinese dairy cattle (Chinese Black and White) are derived from cross-breeding between the local yellow cattle and Holstein. According to data collected by the CDCA in 1981, in 28 provinces and the autonomous regions of China, adult have a height of 133 cm and weigh 550 kg, while bulls are 150 cm high and weigh 1 020 kg, entirely meeting the breeding programme requirements. On average, 80 000 cows produce more than 5 000 kg of milk each per lactation (305 days). Of these, 22 000 are registered a yield of 6 400 kg. On major breeding farms, the average annual milk production for the herd reached 7 000 kg/cow. For example, the 7 000 cows of the Shanghai Dairy Company produced 7 393 kg/cow during 1984 while, among them, a specially reared group produced an average of 8 169 kg in the same year. In 1985, 326 cows produced 10 000 kg of milk in Beijing, which doubled the figure of 1982. One cow even produced 14 081 kg of milk on its third lactation. The average milk fat content of the Chinese Black and White is 3.5 to 3.6 percent.

With government encouragement and support, especially for private initiatives in the industry, dairy production in China has developed steadily since 1979. Dairy farmers are emerging in large numbers: according to statistics collated by the CGBCWBDC, dairy cows in Heilongjiang Province in 1991 amounted to 618 000, an increase of 261 percent over 1983 and almost four times more than in 1982. Between 1983 and 1991, the Chinese Black and White cattle population in Beijing and Shanghai increased to 66 000 and 74 000, respectively, representing an increase of 100 and 180 percent. The Autonomous Region of Ningxia Hui had only two dairy cows in 1951. In 1991, their numbers had increased to 21 000. In Qinghai Province, Holstein bulls were crossed with the local yellow cattle and yak to improve milk production of the local breeds. By 1984, there were 20 000 head of improved cattle, resulting in an annual average of 32.5 kg of milk per caput in the province.

Donbeitang in Jiangsu Province has been named "dairy cattle town", since 702 families of the town rear dairy cattle. In 1984, the town's two farms raised 1 605 head of dairy cattle, with yields of 5 300 kg/cow on one farm and 6 273 on the other.

The total dairy cattle population of the Province of Fujian was 15 000 dairy cows.

Over the past 40 years, China has achieved significant progress in improving the performance of the local yellow breeds by changing them into dairy cattle and by breeding dual-purpose breeds. For example, in order to increase its cattle population, Gansu Province introduced 127 head of Qinchuan cows from the middle region of Shaanxi Province and crossed them with Holstein bulls. The results are presented in Table 2. It is clear that the milk yield was improved greatly, but not so the fat content. In addition, cross-breeds of Qinchuan cattle can endure unfavourable feeding conditions and are well adapted to the severe local ecological conditions.

Dual-purpose cattle

Sanhe cattle were the first dual-purpose cattle to be bred in China. This breed existed mainly in the Sanhe Region of Energulayou Banner. However, Sanhe cattle were originally produced in great Hulunbier pastures and were the product of Mongolian cattle cross-bred with a few outside breeds. When tsarist Russia built the railway in the northeast of China in 1898, Russian workers brought in many head of dairy cattle and a large number of dual-purpose and dairy cattle were also introduced to this region between 1912 and 1917. The outside breeds mainly included Simmental, Yaroslav, Huormedanr and Siberia. They were crossed at random with local Mongolian cattle. Since 1945, animal breeders have selected and bred cattle systematically. Sanhe cows could produce 4 000 kg of milk annually, with a fat content of 4 percent. They also had good carcass quality and lean meat. The dressing and meat percentages of steers were between 50 and 55 percent and 44 and 48 percent, respectively, under normal feeding conditions without fattening. Breeding standards for Sanhe cattle were formulated in 1982.

1. Distribution of Bovidae in China, 1991

Effectifs de bovidés en Chine, 1991

Distribución de los bóvidos en China, 1991


Number (106)

Percentage of total

Yellow cattle



Water buffalo






Dairy cattle



2. Milk production of Qinchuan x Holstein cows

Production laitière de vaches croisées Qinchuan x Holstein

Producción de leche de vacas Quinchuan x Holstein


Milk yield (kg)

Fat (percentage)

Qinchuan x Holstein (QH)

2 076


QH x Holstein (QH2)

4 307


QH2 x Holstein (QH3)

3 718


QH3 x Holstein (QH4)

5 110


1. Northern yellow breed - Yanbian adult bull - Bovin jaune du nord - taureau adulte Yanbian - Raza amarilla del norte: toro Yanbian adulto

2. Central plain yellow breed - two-year-old adult Qinchuan bull - Bovin jaune de la plaine centrale - taureau adulte Qinchuan âgé de 2 ans - Raza amarilla de la llanura central: novillo Quinchuan de dos años

Chinese Red Steppe and Xinjiang Brown cattle are being bred as dual-purpose animals. In 1930, China imported dual-purpose Shorthorn, Brown Swiss and Anatayckas breeds to improve the local breeds in Mongolia. Jilin, Liaoning and Hebei provinces. To the north, on the southern slopes of the Tianshan mountains in Xinjiang Autonomous Region, the imported animals were crossed with local yellow cattle. The results were good for both breeds. According to reports from various areas, the imported breeds were well adapted to weather and ecological conditions in the regions.

In 1949, Mongolia started cross-breeding Mongolian cattle and Shorthorn and, in 1973, founded the Red Steppe Breeding Coordination Group. The group has disseminated frozen semen insemination techniques, thereby enhancing selection and programme mating, which has played an important role in the improvement of the Chinese Red Steppe's herd quality. Crossed adult cows produced an annual 1 800 to 2 000 kg milk/cow, which is three to five times more than Mongolian cows. Meat production of the cross-bred animals increased to 40 to 60 percent in body weight. According to a test performed in Mongolia in 1983, the Chinese Red Steppe's dressing percentage was 53.8, while its meat percentage was 45.2 when left to graze all year round and subjected to fattening for only a short period. Jilin Province reported that the dressing and meat percentages of the Chinese Red Steppe were 58.1 and 49.5, respectively. Therefore, the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries in China identified and formally approved the cattle breed in 1985, officially naming it the Chinese Red Steppe.

After local yellow cattle in Xinjiang had been crossed with the Brown Swiss (Anatayckas Xnopota which contains Brown Swiss blood) for three generations, intermating and selection were carried out for a long period on the basis of breeding programmes. Three groups of pure Brown Swiss were imported from Germany and Austria in 1977 and 1988, respectively. They played an important role in improving performance and genetic characteristics under ordinary feeding conditions. Xinjiang Brown cattle produced on average 2 897.6 kg of milk/cow in 305 days, with a fat percentage of 4.08 and dry matter percentage of 13.45. When the cattle grazed on natural pastures in Yi Li and Tachong areas and were slaughtered between September and November, it was found that the dressing percentage for 18-month-old steers was 47.4,50.5 for 30-month-old and 53.1 for adult steers, with respective meat percentages of 36.3, 38.4 and 39.3. Bone: meat ratios, on the other hand, were 1:3.5 and 1:3.3, while eye muscle areas were 47.1, 73.4 and 76.6 cm², respectively.

Beef cattle

China does not have special-purpose beef cattle. In general, old and maimed draught animals are slaughtered. Sixteen beef breeds, including dual-purpose ones, were imported from other countries before and after the People's Republic of China was established. In addition to being pure-bred, these breeds have been used to improve the local Chinese yellow cattle. Their meat production has improved significantly in various areas. In Inner Mongolia, Mongolian cows were crossed with Limousine bulls. Cross-bred bulls were fattened in 82 days. Their average gain was 117 kg/bull, with a daily gain of 1.429 kg, a dressing percentage of 56.7, with a meat percentage of 47.3. The exported meat of this cattle was well accepted by consumers in Hong Kong.

In the past, China exported about 100 000 live cattle every year. These were mostly old, maimed or small in size. Exports of improved beef to Hong Kong began in 1978 and, by 1982,214 000 carcasses were exported.

This earned the country 64 million yuan (YRMB). The highest record of cattle exports was in 1985, when their revenue reached YRMB 100 million.

Yellow cattle

For traditional reasons, the Chinese called Bos taurus and B. indicus "yellow cattle". Chinese yellow cattle can be divided into three categories: northern, central plain and southern yellow, based on their natural distribution and ecological conditions.

Northern yellow cattle

This group contains the largest number of yellow cattle. Widely distributed in Inner Mongolia and northeastern and northwestern China, famous breeds include Mongolia, Yanbian Yazakh and Fuzhou Yellow. Their body conformation is less than that of the central plain yellow cattle. Northern yellow cattle are generally yellow-brown or white and black, with long thin horns, a small dewlap, a low hump, a sloping rump, strong legs and a well-developed udder. They have been used to produce meat and milk and also as work animals. Grazing all year round in the severe local weather conditions has resulted in thicker skins, coarser hair, sturdier bones, broader chests and a better constitution, and they are well adapted to poor feeding and management conditions.

Yanbian yellow cattle, with a big body conformation (Figure 1), are produced on the Jilin Plain. Their appearance is similar to the central plain yellow cattle and farmers rear them for draught purposes.

Central plain yellow cattle

Cattle of the central plain are the best type of Chinese yellow. They are distributed in the wide plains along the banks of the Huang-p'u River, which includes southeastern Gansu, Shaanxi, Henan, Shandong, Shanxi and Hebei provinces. The outstanding breeds are Qinchuan, Nanyang, Luxi and Jinnan yellow cattle. Of these, the Qinchuan is the best-known breed at home and abroad because of its meat quality and appearance. For this reason, this breed is focused on here.

The Qinchuan is produced on the Qinchuan Plain, which occupies 800 li² (1 li² = 0.5 km) of Shaanxi, Province. It is a local draught/meat cattle breed that performs well and exists mainly in Zingpin, Qianxian, Liquan, Xianyoung, Weinan and Pucheng counties. There are 700 000 spread over the Weibei Plateau of Shaanxi Province and in the Chingyang Prefecture of Gansu Province.

Cattle development has had a long history in Qinchuan. It is recorded that Selecting good cattle to present to the master was written in 800 BC. Cattle were mainly used as draught animals between 770 and 476 BC, before iron farm tools came into being. Changqian brought back alfalfa seeds from the western regions in 126 BC on returning from one of his official business trips. From then on, people began to plant alfalfa for cattle feed on the Guanzhong Plain. This resulted in tremendous advancements in the improvement of the Qinchuan, particularly its body size, workability and meat production. The people at the time explained that "feeding alfalfa and taking improvement seriously improve the cattle's quality. The farm implement was drawn by two cattle in the past, but now only by one". There were also quotations such as "cattle's meat is made tender with grain", "pie and soup with beef broth smell delicious".

The Guanzhong Plain had and still has favourable natural conditions because of its smooth terrain, with an altitude of 360 to 370 m, a temperate climate (12 to 14°C), suitable precipitation (annual average of 500 to 700 mm), long frost-free periods (190 to 210 days) and fertile soil. Throughout China's history going back to ancient times, Guanzhong Plain has been famous as a grain-producing area and referred to as "thousand li rich land"; "land of abundance" and "the earth of plenty". The plain produces various crops and grasses that provide the material basis for cattle development. Under such advantageous natural and ecological conditions, careful selection and feeding management, the Qinchuan breed has become what it looks like today.

The characteristics of Qinchuan cattle (Figure 2) are a purplish red or red coat, yellowish pink eyes and muzzle, short and full horns, a higher and wider hump for bulls, a short, thick neck and well-developed dewlap. The average height of bulls at the wither is 141.7 cm, with a body weight of 590 kg. The cow stands 124.5 cm high and weighs 380 kg. On national farms, bulls weigh between 800 and 1 000 kg and their height is 145 to 150 cm. The cows have a height of 130 cm and weigh 450 kg. The Qinchuan represents the main source of animal draught power on the Guanzhong Plain, with-the male's maximum drawing ability being 475 kg and the female's 281 kg.

The meat production of the Qinchuan is also good. At a moderate nutrient level and feeding up to 18 to 24 months, its dressing and meat percentages are 58 to 61 and 50 to 52, respectively, its meat: bone ratio 1:6. 13 to 1:6.5 1, with 75 to 76 percent lean meat and an eye muscle area of 87 to 97 cm² (Figure 3). These qualities put the Qinchuan on par with other well-known beef breeds in the world. Its tender, distinct marble-textured meat has been well received by consumers at home and abroad. A chemical analysis has shown Qinchuan carcasses to contain 50 to 54 percent moisture, 28 to 35 percent fat, 14 to 18 percent protein and 0.6 to 0.7 percent ash. The total amino acids of rump and longissimus of 13-month-old Qinchuan are 92.37 and 93.44 percent, respectively, while essential amino acids are 43.22 and 42.33 percent and lysine content 9.59 and 9.50 percent, respectively.

The Qinchuan's milk yield is low, however, because of its small udder. The average milk yield is 715.8 kg for one lactation of 210 days. The milk contains 4.7 percent fat, 4 percent protein, 6.55 percent sugar, 0.8 percent ash and 83.95 percent water. Cross-breeding is being experimented with, and dual-purpose Red Shorthorn and Danish Red have been introduced in order to increase milk and meat production, as well as the Qinchuan's underdeveloped hindquarters and wizened thigh.

Southern yellow cattle

The small southern yellow cattle are widely distributed in the southern provinces, Taiwan Province and southern Shaanxi Province. Most southern yellow breeds originated in mountainous areas. Rough feeding and management have kept them small, but with a firm and compact constitution and strong legs. Their characteristics are a yellow or brown, lustrous coat, a tall and erect hump and a long and big dewlap. Most of them have black muzzles, hooves and horns (Figure 4). They are gentle, have an obedient temperament and can endure high temperatures and rough feed as well as resist ticks and babesiosis.

In 1956, a systematic investigation was made of the Qinchuan in the Guanzhong region of Shaanxi Province in order to provide some scientific basis for drawing up a selection criterion and breeding strategy. Based on this work, two selection and breeding stations and five Qinchuan farms have been established since 1958. The Shaanxi Province Government also selected 13 counties as the breeding basis. Local enterprise and national standards have been drawn up for Qinchuan cattle. Every year, superior cattle are identified for selection and the poor performers eliminated. With the use of progeny testing and comparisons of breeding animals, comprehensive selection index and Best Linear Unbiased Protection (BLUP) methods to evaluate superior sires, the performance of the Qinchuan has been enhanced by transferring bulls with a higher performance to the local breeding stations. In the 1970s, artificial insemination (AI) stations were established in the prefecture and cities of Shaanxi Province in order to spread superior sires. All these methods have accelerated the selection progress, which has played an important role in changing what was once exclusively a draught animal to one that is now dual-purpose.

3. The eye muscle area of Qinchuan cattle - Coupe transversale du muscle dorsal de bovin Qinchuan - Zona del músculo dorsal de los vacunos Quinchuan

4. Southern yellow breed - Wenlin high hump adult bull in Zhejiang Province - Bovin jaune du sud - taureau adulte de race Wenlin, à large bosse, dans la province de Zhejiang - Raza amarilla del sur: toro adulto Wenlin de joroba alta en la provincia de Zhejiang

Feeding and management of Chinese yellow cattle

Feeding systems depend on local conditions and seasons. Generally speaking, they include housing, feeding, grazing and half-feeding and half-grazing. Southern yellow cattle graze all the year round because of the year-round evergreen season. Only during busy farming periods are concentrates and roughages complemented. Northern yellow cattle graze most of the time. In winter they are stall-fed. Central plain cattle, on the other hand, are stall-fed all year round at fixed times and in fixed quantities. Farmers pay great attention to these aspects of the regime and feed their cattle twice or even three times a day with a mixture of alfalfa, wheat straw and concentrates in the green season. The proportion of concentrate is increased during busy farming periods. Wheat straw and corn are the major winter feeds. In recent years, silage and dry alfalfa have been fed to cattle in winter as well as other seasons. During slack seasons, cattle are taken out to a courtyard to get some sun and be brushed after their morning feed. Special consideration is given to cows nearing the end of their gestation period, when their workload is reduced and more concentrates supplied. Their work is stopped completely one or two months before parturition.


Under the direction of the BCCSYC, every superior yellow cattle breed has had its breeding purpose, methods and programme formulated. With regard to strengthening selection and selected mating, propagating the use of frozen semen, establishing feed bases and improving feeding and management, all breeding branches have been requested to cooperate with teaching, research and production units in order to develop scientific studies and tackle key technical problems. Research has been undertaken on: strain breeding of yellow cattle; identifying breed standards; methods of selecting bulls; establishing genetic parameters of major quantitative characteristics; progeny testing; routine measurements of physiological and biochemical qualities; growth and development; draught and meat performances; early maturity and puberty; processing and treatment of roughage; improvement and utilization of grass-covered mountains and slopes; crossbreeding and improvement testing with external breeds; chromosome banding pattern analysis on the Qinchuan; plasma testosterone and 17b oestradiol levels in bull calves and their relation to other traits; variations in inheritance of the five serum characters and their correlation with growth characteristics of the Qinchuan; biochemical polymorphism of Chinese super yellow cattle breeds; behaviour of the Qinchuan and their comprehensive selection index, as well as the formulation of their national breed standards and that of the Nanyong and the yellow cattle terminology standardization. Some of these studies have received awards from the Chinese Government for their important effects on the improvement of yellow cattle in China. Their application to production has played an important role in the general improvement of herd quality with a resultant economic gain.

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