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Chapter 10

Joseph G. Boonman and Sergey S. Mikhalev


The steppe crosses the Russian plain, south of the taiga, penetrating deep into Siberia. It comprises three main types, which run in roughly parallel bands from east to west: forest steppe in the north, through steppe, to semi -desert steppe in the south. Within these belts, zones of temporary inundation on floodplains or in zones of internal drainage provide valuable hay land. The steppe was increasingly ploughed for crops during the twentieth century; initially crops were rotated with naturally regenerated grassland, but from mid-century cultivation was increasingly intensive. During the collective period, the emphasis was on industrial stock rearing, with housed cattle and high inputs; since decollectivization, intensive enterprises are closing for economic reasons, and systems have yet to stabilize. If ploughed land is left undisturbed it will return naturally to steppe vegetation in six to fifteen years. Hay is very important for winter feed, and much is made from seasonally flooded meadows. Many marginal, semi-arid areas of the steppe have been put under crops, but are not economically viable; much of the cereals so produced are fed to livestock, but grain yields are very low and yield no more livestock products than would natural grassland, but at far higher cost. Marginal cropland should return to grass.


North of the Black and Caspian Seas, straddling both Don and Volga catchments, lies a stretch of steppe that saw some of the last horse-mounted nomadic tribes of Europe in action as late as the end of the fifteenth century. These were the Tatar of the Golden Horde. Then an equally heroic force, now of self-proclaimed free farmer-soldiers, whose mixed -farming with crop and livestock was community- and family-based, later called Cossacks, emerged to hold the newly acquired frontiers of Tsarist Russia.

Throughout history, the Russian steppe had been a natural boundary that deterred major civilizations or migrations from entering through its southern gateways. Not physical obstacles - in fact both Don and Volga are major navigable rivers and run from north to south - but the sheer size and emptiness of country that had to be traversed effectively separated the north from the south. Although in search of new granaries, ancient Greek colonization did not extend much further than the coastal rims of the Black Sea. In a similar fashion, the empires of Rome and even nearby Byzantium made very few inroads into what would develop, at the start of this millennium, into the Russian heartland. The only, yet major, exceptions were invasions by the Huns in the fourth and by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, but these emerged from the same long stretch of steppe, near its far eastern fringe.

Figure 10.1
Extent of grasslands in the Russian Federation.

This vast Eurasian plain - with taiga in the north, forest in the middle and the steppe as its southern flank - stretches over 10 000 km from west to (south)east, from the Baltic Sea and crosses the Dnepr, Don and Volga rivers, deep into Siberia across the Urals, which convention has designated as the border between Europe and Asia (Figure 10.1). Most of the country’s farm land is in the so-called "fertile triangle", with its base along the western border from the Baltic to the Black Sea and that tapers eastward to the southern Urals, where it narrows to a strip about 400 km wide extending across the southwestern fringes of Siberia.

This chapter discusses the steppe; an overall description of Russian pastures and ruminant production systems is given in the Country Pasture Profile for the Russian Federation (Blagoveshchenskii et al., 2002), to be found on the FAO Grassland Web site <>.

The steppe in perspective

Truly virgin steppe has become a rarity, especially west of the Urals. The last major onslaught took place in the 1950s, when huge campaigns to raise agricultural production led to 43 million hectares of steppe being sacrificed to the plough, seemingly for ever (Maslov, 1999). It virtually meant the end of the virgin steppe in the Volga region, in Kazakhstan and western Siberia. The land put to the plough rivalled in size the whole of Canada’s agricultural area.

As part of the collateral damage, interest in and knowledge of the steppe as a natural resource became rare in the eyes of the authorities, and faded as the experts themselves passed from the scene. Should active extensification and steppe rehabilitation, of which there is little sign at present, appear at some stage again on the agendas, it will have to draw on the old literature records, such as are being recalled in this chapter. These records are of further importance as they developed independently from scientific and managerial thinking in the West, especially in the USA, where similar vegetation types seem to have given rise to quite different approaches, both in science and in management. Recent literature from the Russian Federation on the subject is mostly related to satellite imagery and ecological modelling (Gilmanov, Parton and Ojima, 1997). To avoid confusion, and because of the reliance here on older literature, the botanical names will be quoted as originally reported. Consequently, we use Euagrypyron and Agropyron repens rather than Elytrigia repens.

Current tendencies in Russian agriculture are that the large-style arable units of the former Kolkhozy and Sovkhozy collective production units are retained as the central and collective core, mainly for cereal production, with only a little livestock held centrally. Livestock will be divorced further from the collective by the kolkhozniki themselves and become more family-based. Sooner or later, family herds will have to rely on family-run pastures, hayfields and by-products of their own arable operations. At present, communal and public grazing resource s are used by privately owned livestock.

Is history repeating itself? Grazing rights shared out by or among the village community (mir) were typical of the pre-revolution era. While the grazing land - and often the grazing itself - was communal, livestock were family-owned. Fenced-off grazing blocks and "ranches " were rare. Although large landholdings in the more prosperous agricultural regions were the rule, landlords invariably had to cope with large resident communities of peasants and with their demands for cropland, pasture and hay for their cattle in return for labour. Does the present-style Kolkhoze fulfil the role of the pre-revolution landlord? Do peasants continue to expect to be provided for as before? Is a Russia with family-based autonomous farms still a long way off?

The Russian steppe, like many of the major natural grasslands of the world, is a formidable natural resource. With the present land-reform programmes following a new, often uncharted, course it may well be that the natural grassland and, in particular, the steppe will resume a large part of its old significance as a primary grazing resource. The Former Soviet Union (FSU)-industrial-style Kolkhozy and Sovkhozy, with livestock housed throughout the year, have proved uneconomic and unsustainable. Family-based mixed farming with paddock grazing may develop in parallel with the current tendency of grazing the kolkhozniki herds on natural grassland and steppe. Permanent or temporary pasture as a resource of grazing and fodder may regain prominence at the expense of annual fodder and grain crop. Half of the cereal crop, it was claimed, was fed to livestock. Maize used to be grown for silage on more than 10 million hectares, often in areas either too cold or too dry, whether aided or not with supplementary irrigation. The agronomic, economic and environmental implications of these new developments for outdoor grazing, though largely positive on balance, provide a formidable challenge.


Luga, senokosy i pastbishcha [meadows, hay meadows and pastures] and Lugovodstvo [meadow cultivation ] are Russian terminology to emphasize the distinction commonly drawn between land for hay or for grazing, respectively, where the English language would simply refer to grassland. Russian terminology tends to distinguish between "meadows" as dominated by hay-type grasses and "pastures" as utilized through grazing, whereas this distinction has little meaning in contemporary English. However, in Russian terminology, the term "meadows" (composed of mesophytes) is often used in contrast to "steppe" (xerophytes), and assumes significance in dry steppe land crossed by rivers, which are bordered by extensive floodplains that harbour the meadows. Meadows have a more temperate and humid climate resonance (Shennikov, 1950). Meadow and steppe are used as descriptive terms away from the landscape or geographical zones they represent. The continued usage in Russian of terms such as meadow steppe, desert steppe and mountain steppe add to the confusion (Gilmanov, 1995). In this chapter, grassland is used in the general sense, including steppe, whereas pasture refers to a particular field or application. Maize silage is a fodder and so are Sudan grass and alfalfa, but the latter are called forages when grazed.

Emphasis on hay as the principal source of fodder to see cattle through the winter has been typical of Russian "grassland " terminology. Early mention of haymaking by the northern Slavs date back to the birth of their civilization, around 1000 A.D. Numerous are the references in the arts to "village hay-festivals" as the entire peasant community was engaged in the process of mowing and bringing in the hay. Hay, rather than fodder crops, was the rule. A high ratio of meadow to arable land was essential to sustain farming (Chayanov, 1926). Fodder beet, rape and turnips were much less grown than in more Atlantic climates further west. One reason was that most of the hay was derived from low-lying meadow land that had no other economic use. Second, the growing season for fodder crops is either too short, in the north, or too dry, in the east and south, or both. Even alfalfa is a late arrival; it is believed to have been grown in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan before the Greco-Persian wars of the sixth and fifth centuries BC; it is, however, unlikely to have reached the Volga region earlier than it did Western Europe because of the geographic north-south isolation mentioned above.

Climate, vegetation and soils

Somewhat Atlantic in climate at its start near the Baltic Sea, on its way east the Eurasian plain is met by an increasing severity and length of continental winters, precluding arable cropping at the eastern extreme. High latitudes and absence of moderating maritime influences determine the harsh continental climate prevalent in Russia. Huge mountain ranges along the southern borders and Central Asia preclude penetration of maritime tropical air masses. The Arctic Ocean acts as a snow-covered, frozen mass rather than a relatively warm ocean influence. As the territory lies in a westerly wind belt, warm influences from the Pacific Oceans do not reach far inland. In winter a large cold high-pressure cell, centred in Mongolia, spreads over much of Siberia.

In the low-pressure system of summer, warm and moist air pushes from the Atlantic Ocean well into Siberia. In many areas, however, the summer rainfall distribution is not always advantageous for agriculture. June and July are often dry, while rain may interfere with cereal harvest in August. Annual precipitation decreases from over 800 mm in western Russia to below 400 mm along the Caspian Sea.

Climate and vegetation fuse in zones that extend across the country in eastern-western belts. The tundra of the Arctic coast, with its permafrost and vegetation of mosses, lichens and low shrubs, is too cold for trees. The next (sub-Arctic) zone is the boreal (coniferous) forest, the taiga, occupying two-fifths of European Russia and most of Siberia. Much of this region also has permafrost. Large areas are devoid of trees, primarily because of poor local drainage, and the vegetation is marshy. The soils of the taiga are podsolic and infertile.

Further south stretches a belt of mixed forest from Saint Petersburg in the north to the border with Ukraine in the south. The mixed-forest grades through a narrow zone of forest-steppe before passing into the true steppe.

True steppe, as distinct from the forest -steppe further north, is predominantly a grass vegetation with a few stunted trees only in sheltered valleys. The true steppe belt begins along the Black Sea coast, encompasses the western half of the northern Caucasian plain, and extends northeast across the lower Volga, the southern Urals and the southern parts of western Siberia.

Together with the forest -steppe, the steppes form the chernozem belt, the agricultural heartland of Russia. The forest-steppe is black chernozem soil, high in organic matter (OM) and minerals, and better watered than the steppe. Steppe soils are somewhat lower in OM, but high in minerals, and many are also classified as brown-steppe (chestnut).

Ecological classification

In the Russian Federation with its vast uninterrupted plains, zones delineating the major vegetation types agree conveniently with climatic zones and, in a way, also with major soil types. Typically, these zones tend to run in semi parallel belts in a slightly northwesterly to southeasterly direction.

Topography, watercourses and variation in soil conditions become relevant at the rayon [a small territorial administrative division] or rather at the (former) Kolkhoz or Sovkhoz level. It was at this unit level that grassland description was to be refined and effected for land management and, ultimately, grassland improvement. Both the objective and framework of the approach were prescribed. However, more than elsewhere in the world, classification in the country lost itself in attempts to be all-USSR in compass, ending up with hundreds of codes and numbers. Colloquial terms could have summed it all up in one word (e.g. mochazina - non-peaty swamp; liman - flooded steppe in the lower reaches of rivers). Impeded drainage means swamp in the northern forest country, but lush pasture in the steppe. Conversely, overgrazing can lead to bareness to an extent that the vegetation assumes the appearance of a drier climate than rainfall data suggest. Grasslands - and steppe are no exception - are an integration of climate, soil, animal and man-made conditions. Vegetation may often provide a better guide to the agricultural environment than the instruments of meteorologist or geologist (Whyte, 1974). "What are the main species and what do they tell us?" is often a most relevant question.

Grasslands are subject to fluctuations in composition, but recurring patterns are recognized. The major features, physiognomy (the aspect in terms of height, density and cover) and species, are fairly constant or they oscillate around a certain equilibrium, both between and within woody and herbaceous species. Major changes are usually a long-term affair. Only when grassland is artificially drained permanently of excess water, or altered dramatically by repeated ploughing and cropping, can changes in the vegetation become irreversible. As we will see, steppe is relatively quick to restore.

Ecological (site) potential

Much as early classifications were based on botanical composition, awareness was growing that ecological potential could be related to a recognizable vegetation group. To many observers, however, current vegetation is a very poor indicator of ecological potential and possible land use. The problem is then how to reconcile current vegetation with ecological potential. Classification means one thing to the specialist in phytogeography, but quite another to the planner concerned with grassland improvement. Site potential - that is, the vegetation that ecological factors indicate should dominate - is the guiding factor. A climax vegetation can be reconstructed based on natural succession towards an equilibrium with the environment. This process may be interrupted and vegetation may then be described as, say, a "fire subclimax " or a "grazing subclimax". The concept of climax should relate to site potential as determined by physical factors of the environment: climate, soil and topography. Tundra, steppe and semi -desert are then ecoclimatic zones, which can be characterized further by plant species and associations to delineate recognizable types of vegetation.

The term grassland or steppe is here used to denote a vegetation that is dominated by grasses and occasionally herbs, whatever the plant succession. The grasses used in cultivation today are those found growing in the wild yesterday (e.g. Poa pratensis). Natural and cultivated grasses are still close (Boonman, 1993). "Natural" should not be taken to mean either primitive or unproductive, nor should "natural " be equated with climax or static. In current colloquial use, "natural grass " has come to mean any of the following: 1. Grass, unsown; 2. Grass sown, but long ago and now run-down, in contrast to recently sown; 3. Local, as opposed to exotic grass species; or 4. Primitive, as opposed to improved and sown grass. It has become customary to equate natural grassland with anything that can be grazed, but that is not (known to be) sown. Often it is also meant to denote the grazing land as it was assumed to have been since time immemorial, or "as it ought to be".

TABLE 10.1
Important species of the Russian steppe.

Maturity group(1)

Typical species and their characteristics

Very early (April/May)

Poa bulbosa L. Tufted <20 cm, bulb-like thickening at the base. Principal plant in semi- arid and fallow vegetations on chernozem and chestnut soils, dries off in summer but highly productive and nutritious in spring and autumn.


Festuca sulcata Beck. Tufted <35 cm, greyish leaves. Prevalent and predominant in virgin steppe and old fallows on chernozem and chestnut soils. Highly productive; also sown.

Stipa lessingiana Trin. & Rupr. Tufted <50 cm, prevalent on virgin steppe and old fallow, also in forest- steppe and mountain steppe belts, the best of the Stipagenus, comparable with

Festuca sulcata but unpalatable after heading.

Koeleria gracilis Pers. Tufted <25 cm, virgin steppe and old fallows, productive.


Agropyron pectiniforme Roem. et Schult. Tufted <90 cm (Plate 10.1); typical of clayey and loamy dark chestnut soils in semi- arid conditions and dominant in limans (near rivers); productive; also sown.

Agropyron sibiricum (Willd.) P.B. Tufted <100 cm, typical of and predominant on light soils in steppe.

Agropyron racemosum (Trin.) Richt. Rhizomatous <50 cm; common in steppe on old fallow and chestnut soils; more drought resistant and halophytic and coarser than A. repens.

Bromus inermis Leyss. Rhizomatous <100 cm; typical of chernozem fallow soils in steppe and forest- steppe and in floodplains, often in pure stands; broad adaptation; also sown.


Agropyron repens (L.) P.B. (syn Elytrigia repens). Rhizomatous, <80 cm (dryland), <170 cm (floodplains); predominant on old fallow chernozem and dark chestnut soils; tolerates flooding and salinity; sown on saline soils.

Stipa capillata L. Tufted <60 cm, most prevalent after S. lessingiana but late, common in steppe, forest- steppe, semi- arid zone; palatable and desirable only prior to heading. Awned seed sticks to the wool and penetrates the skin, which can be fatal.

NOTES: (1) Based on heading dates in the steppe (beginning of growth ca mid-April).

Some notes on important steppe species are shown in Table 10.1.

Ramenskii’s grassland classification

In Russian literature on grassland classification, little direct reference can be found to discussions that have prevailed in the West, that is, to Clementsian succession with its climax terminology or to the more recently proposed transition-state models, nor to the Braun-Blanquet approach of characterizing vegetation. The "Markovian model" is at times referred to, but is hard to distinguish from that of Clements. By contrast, note was taken in the West of the work done in Russia by L.G. Ramenskii (Sorokina, 1955). In his standard work, Ramenskii (1938) emphasized the need to judge land in the most comprehensive manner and that all factors, biotic and abiotic, be taken into account to explain why certain variations ("modifications") in the vegetation occur. Ramenskii’s classifications are known as "phytotopological" with major emphasis on the habitat. First, all natural grassland is divided into dryland or floodplain. Second, subdivisions are based on topography and moisture conditions. No less than 50 categories were formulated, each with 22 subdivisions based on moisture conditions. Within similar habitats, several plant associations occur.

Plate 10.1
Agropyron pectiniforme.

For instance, on dark-chestnut loamy soil of the dry steppe plains, Ramenskii found the following associations as grazing intensity increases:

This is typical succession-regression (see also Table 10.2). Ramenskii’s analysis of the constituents of the vegetation itself was not quantitative, but estimated by so-called vertical "projection", by simply estimating the degree of cover at one particular date. No mechanical devices for ranking constituent species or for weighing samples were employed. Potential yields were estimated from empirically established standard graphs (see also section below on Botanical condition).

After ploughing and cropping steppe for several years, the following appear in the fallow:

Plate 10.2
Stipa lessingiana

TABLE 10.2
The effect of grazing intensity on grassland changes

Grazing intensity

Oka floodplain meadows

Northern Caucasus Common Chernozem

Western Kazakhstan Dark chestnut


Stipa spp., Festuca
sulcata; herbs;
spp. and
spp. frequent


Phleum pratense, Agrostis
alba, Geranium pratense

Stipa, Festuca sulcata;
fewer herbs; Agropyron
spp. and Bromus spp.

Stipa lessingiana, Festuca sulcata, Stipa capillata, Artemisia austriaca


Festuca rubra, Carum carvi,
Bromus inermis, Alopecurus
pratensis, Agrostis alba

Festuca sulcata

Festuca sulcata, Koeleria gracilis, Stipa capillata, Artemisia austriaca


Poa pratensis, Achillea millefolium, Leontodon spp., Medicago falcata, Carex schreberi, Trifolium repens, Alopecurus pratensis

Poa bulbosa, much Carex schreberi, Artemisia austriaca and Euphorbia seguieriana

Artemisia austriaca,
Poa bulbosa, Euphorbia


Polygonum aviculare and a few of the above

Polygonum aviculare and Ceratocarpus arenarius

Polygonum aviculare, Agropyron spp., Ceratocarpus arenarius, Bassia spp.

SOURCE: Larin, 1956.

Plate 10.3
Festuca sulcata

Thus, at least five distinct associations are found. Depending on the manage ment of the fallow and on the previous cropping history of the land, several tens of associations may be distinguished. Although each modification has significance for current utilization, habitat potential remains very much the same. Shennikov, therefore, preferred to allocate Ramenskii’s virgin low-sward grass stage to "herbaceous steppe"; the Agropyron fallow to "(mesophilic) meadow type" and the Polygonum association to "herbaceous annual vegetation ", all forming part of the Herbosa basic type of vegetation (see below). Shennikov’s was a commendable effort of amalgamating the elements that unite rather than divide.

The emphasis at the time on terminology such as "phytocoenosis " and "zoocoenosis ", together forming the biocoenosis and interrelating with the biogeocoenosis, is worth noting (Sukachev, 1945). Another emphasis was the division into four vegetation types: 1. Lignosa - tree-shrub; 2. Herbosa - herbaceous plants (see above); 3. Deserta - desert plants; and 4. Errantia - various.

Shennikov’s hierarchy for a particular situation might be: 1. Vegetation -type group: Herbosa. 2. Type of vegetation: meadow (humid-grassland mainly used for hay). 3. Class of formations: true meadow (as against steppe or swamp). 4. Formation group: coarse grass, coarse sedge. 5. Formation: Alopecurus pratensis dominant. 6. Association group: various admixtures of Alopecurus pratensis. 7. Associations.

Sukachev’s classification is "phytocoenological", whereas Ramenskii’s is "phytotopological", and the latter’s example was followed by Dmitriev (1948) and Chugunov (1951). However, the distinction is often blurred. Ramenskii’s seral stages of plant succession, although not coined as such by him or his successors, are classical examples of linear Clementsian succession.

Conversely, bare ground is colonized by ruderals, which give place to seral grassland stages as organic matter accumulates and these are eventually replaced by taller bunch grasses. Clements (1916) ideas proved applicable not only in USA, but also in Canada (Coupland, 1979, whose work used to be quoted in Russia) and in East and South Africa (Phillips, 1929). It is doubtful if it ever was Clements’ aim to apply the succession model to all situations liable to transition, or to claim that climax vegetation was the most desirable or most productive from the agricultural point of view in all situations. Plant succession can be studied with the aim of identifying the preferred seral stages with desirable composition. As we will see in Russia, many instances can also be found in which some of the seral stages (fallow land) are considerably more diverse and productive in herbage than the climax vegetation itself. It goes too far, however, to regard this as counter-evidence for the succession model. As in the Great Plains of USA, the climax grasses of the Russian steppe are productive and acceptable to livestock; they provide ground cover to protect soil and are effective plants in utilizing environmental growth factors to fix carbon and to cycle nutrients.

The interplay of biotic, climatic and edaphic components of the environment is relevant, as these modify the dynamics of grassland communities. Efforts at grassland improvement are directed at manipulating the botanical composition to encourage the more desirable species and suppress those less desirable. A basic thrust in current grassland improvement has been the comparison of the current site condition with what it ought to be, i.e. site potential. Acknowledgement of various stable vegetation states at a particular site widens the scope for opportunistic management that is responsive to abiotic events and that is not bound under all circumstances by doctrines that abhor fire or that only value stocking rates that are moderate.

Botanical condition (ecological monitoring)

Few are the instances where ecological techniques can have such an impact on practical management decisions in agriculture as those developed in grassland science. Botanical assessment has proved a more reliable and efficient criterion of condition, and, therefore, of productivity of grassland, than yield measurements themselves. Given the enormous tasks of natural resource management ahead, it is appropriate here to draw attention to new techniques of botanical grassland surveys.

The FSU had "State Institutes for Land Control" in each republic, which carried out surveys about every ten years on the same (grass)land. Surveys were and are applied with strict adherence to FSU-wide methodology that has seen little change over the decades. The emphasis was primarily on maximizing production, that is, on setting animal production levels and, ultimately, the levels of grants and credits extended to the agricultural enterprises to meet these production levels regularly. For their part, Kolkhozy and Sovkhozy were required to produce grassland inventories, with a denomination of vegetation, soil type, other physical conditions as well as details of current utilization and proposed improvements for each area on the map.

The methodology in use for the measurement of yield-on-offer in quadrats (rope-frames) is quite complex and labour intensive. Components are separated by hand and analysed. The chemical analysis estimates feed units and protein of the edible portion, which is equated with the green material present in the sample. To achieve this, the technique uses a variable height of cutting, giving that portion of growth that is most likely to be grazed. Conversion of these data to animal production is not, however, flawless. True growth - not just yield-on-offer - can only be assessed by placing protective cages and moving them around at each sampling. Without reference data, carrying capacity cannot be assessed instantaneously.

Botanical analysis using the current methodology provides relative proportions, on an air-dry basis, of the species present in the quadrat, but the data are not used to full ecological potential. Since the emphasis is on measuring for setting animal production, botanical data are not applied to monitor composition or succession-regression compared with the preferred composition. In fact, the said proportions could provide more valuable information on the successional status of a pasture than any other observations made. Botanical data are more powerful predictors of pasture condition than yield data and can be assessed in a meaningful and less laborious way, e.g. by the dry weight rank (DWR) technique (‘t Mannetje and Jones, 2000).

Production measurement used to be the approach in the FSU surveys. With the shift from being a part of the centrally planned production administration to agencies responsible for the resource management of the country, there has to be a reassessment of what technology is now relevant. The ultimate objective of the new-style monitoring is to rehabilitate the grasslands to acceptable preferred composition and to keep them at the preferred composition.

Decentralized development and devolved management of grazing rights - at the level of rayon, village, if not of the individual - call for a change in methodology and its ultimate application, in keeping with the requirement for natural resource management at the national level. New technologies proposed for monitoring and measurement that are accurate and cost efficient are the DWR technique for botanical composition and, when required but not essential, the comparative yield estimate (CYE) technique for yield-on-offer. Additional information to determine condition is also needed (plant size, sward density, soil condition).

Monitoring involves checking changes in the condition of grassland through monitoring the changes in composition and the changes in soil condition. With the data acquired, management and stocking rates can be adjusted to prevent or reverse degradation. Conversely, measuring involves assessing the productivity of grassland through measurement of true growth rather than of yield-on-offer. With the data acquired, stocking rates can be adjusted to maintain livestock productivity. Rather than production-oriented measurement, ecological parameters have been found to be the most valuable and cost-effective approach to monitor grassland condition. An up-to-date description of grassland monitoring methods, approaches and tools can be found in ‘t Mannetje and Jones (2000).

Husbandry should be directed towards maintaining a dynamic equilibrium around the preferred botanical composition that is the target pasture composition for sustainable development. The preferred composition differs from earlier, more orthodox, interpretations of Clementsian succession, which hold that the most desirable and only stable or sustainable composition is the climax. Numerous are the examples whereby climax grasses are found to be less productive than those at an intermediate position in the succession.

Steppe dynamics in relation to botanical composition


A few examples should suffice. Poa pratensis in the forest zone as well as Festuca sulcata and Agropyron sibiricum in the steppe preserve their green shoots under the snow until spring and some growth may occur, even under the snow. Assimilation and growth begin in spring at temperatures of 3-5°C. Ephemerals and "ephemeroids" (Russian term denoting perennials whose vegetative parts die down annually, e.g. Poa bulbosa) flower in spring, the rest in early summer. Plants dry off as summer peaks, dormancy sets in, and tillering is not resumed until the rains return in autumn. Weather conditions of the preceding season have a marked effect. Without snow cover, a whole range of plants perish, including clovers and ryegrass. When the soil is not frozen but has a thick cover of 30 cm of snow for more than three months, these and other plants will die off (vyprevanie), probably because of continued respiration. A snowless winter followed by a cold spring and drought may prevent seed set in the surviving grasses.

From fallow to steppe

The following transitional stages from fallow onto virgin steppe used to be considered characteristic: 1. Annual weeds. 2. Perennial weeds. 3. Rhizomatous plants. 4. Bunch grasses. 5. Secondary virgin steppe. However, in more modern thinking, the earlier of these stages are not necessarily hierarchical but often run parallel, with the rhizomatous stage at times little in evidence.

Russia’s foremost early grassland improvement pioneer, V.R. Vil’yams, had repeatedly pointed out, circa 1920, that the interrelationships between plant and environment are such that one soil-plant complex is replaced by another. He even took this to the extreme that, in the sod-formation process, forests thin out naturally and finally give way to grassland. Shennikov (1941) repudiated this part of Vil’yams concept and argued that a forest -to-grassland conversion is not observed in nature, unless man-assisted by clearing and burning and, occasionally, under the influence of mass destruction by insects active in the forest floor.

Vil’yams had, however, rightly drawn attention to the phenomenon of organic matter accumulation in grassland soil, as well as to the ageing and subsequent decline ("depression") in productivity of (new) grassland (Mid-term depression; Soil-chemical effects of grasses). In his view, grassland that has reached the "densely-tufted phase" is degenerate, beyond rehabilitation and should be ploughed and re-sown, fertilizer at this stage not being worthwhile. However, as we will see below, attempts aimed at arresting and encouraging the fallow grass phases dominated by more desirable plants can bring about the improvement wanted.

The Steppe and its types

In 1954, of the whole territory of Russia (1 690 million hectares), some 144 million hectares were under natural grassland (hay meadow and pasture) before the crop expansion campaigns (Table 10.3). If tundra were included, another 206 million hectares should be added. Kazakhstan had a relatively small area under meadows (12 million hectares against 176 million hectares) while Ukraine, in contrast, had relatively little grassland as a whole. Fallow is usually included under arable and not under grassland.

Data for 1998, from the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences (RASHN), put the total for Russia at 83.6 million hectares of grassland (37 percent of agricultural land), with 21.6 million hectares and 62.0 million hectares for hay meadows and pastures, respectively. The difference from 1954, 60 million hectares, is estimated to be 17 million hectares, representing steppe that was ploughed in the 1950s (Maslov, 1999).

TABLE 10.3
Area under natural grass (millions of hectares), not including tundra, 1954.


Hay meadows









Russian Federation

1 690





















2 227






NOTES: (1) Excluding fallow land.
SOURCE: Administrativno territorialnoe delenie soyznykh respublik, 1954.

Forest steppe

Between the forest zone in the north and the semi -desert in the south stretches the steppe belt. Characteristic of forest steppe is the alternation of forest islands and large areas of more herbaceous vegetation. The European part is considerably more humid (460-560 mm) than the Asian part (315-400 mm), and warmer. Whereas, in the forest-steppe zone, the relief is hilly on the western side of the Urals, lowland plains prevail in western Siberia, with many depressions occupied by lakes and marshes.

In the European forest steppe, practically all catchment areas occupied by chernozems are under cultivation. Small areas of forests consist of birch, aspen and oak. Grasslands have remained on steep slopes and near the riverbeds (flood meadow s). Because of intensive grazing, Poa angustifolia and Festuca sulcata predominate. On better preserved hayfields (Plate 10.4), a wide variety of grasses (Calamagrostis epigeios and species of Agropyron, Bromus, Festuca, Phleum and Poa) and legumes (Trifolium pratense, T. repens and Medicago, Vicia and Lathyrus spp.) and herbs are found. Hay yields of 1 000-1 500 kg/ha used to be recorded, and were considered good. In overgrazed areas, yields are only a third of that.

In the Asian part of the forest steppe, forests used to occupy up to 15 percent of the territory and consisted of birch, aspen and willow, but no oak. Groundwater levels are high, so swamps are common. Much less of the land has been ploughed than on the western side of the Urals, and then mostly on the ridges. On the plains, solonetzic soils and typical chernozems (mainly solonetzic) predominate. The predominant plant is Calamagrostis epigeios, which is very typical of western Siberia. Other species are Poa pratensis, Galatella punctata and Peucedanum ruthenicum. Hay yields are 600-800 kg/ha.

Plate 10.4
Haymaking in a forest -steppe floodplain.


TABLE 10.4
Climate data of the chernozem-steppe.

Sum of mean temperatures over 10°C

Precipitation mm/year

January, mean temperature (°C)

Northern Caucasus

3 000-3 500


0 to -7

Central Chernozem

2 600-3 200


-5 to -12

Volga Territory

2 200-2 800


-12 to -16


2 000-2 900


-15 to -17

Western Siberia

1 800-2 100


-16 to -19

Eastern Siberia

1 600-2 000


down to -30

SOURCE: Chibilev, 1998.


The steppe zone covers an area of 143 million hectares. The climate (Table 10.4) is more continental but becomes more humid towards the foothills of the mountain ranges (Caucasus, Urals and Altai foothills).

The principal soils of the steppe are chernozems and dark chestnut soils. However, in the Rostov (Salsk and Primanchy steppe) and Volgograd regions, as well as in Kazakhstan, solonetz and solonchaks are numerous.

Characteristic of the steppe are treeless plains with a dominance of Stipa spp. and Festuca sulcata. Trees and shrubs are confined to depressions and ravines and include Caragana frutex, Spiraea spp., Amygdalus nana, and Cytisus spp. Steppe grasses, including the xerophytic types, cease activity in summer and dry up entirely. With new rains in late August and early September, tillering recommences. In sharp contrast to the forest and forest-steppe zones, ephemerals and ephemeroids appear in spring and conclude their cycle of development in 60-70 days. From the husbandry point of view, the following subdivision seems useful: 1. Virgin steppe and old fallows. 2. Mid-term fallows of 2-3 to 7-10 years. 3. Young fallows.

Virgin steppe

Only small isolated islands of steppe were preserved in the European part of the FSU: Askaniya, Starobelsk, Khrenovskaya, Streletskaya (Olikova and Sycheva, 1996). Larger areas used to occur in Russia in the Salsk and Primanchy steppe in Rostov Oblast [region], in Volgograd Oblast and in Stavropol Kray. Closer to the Caspian Sea, in the northern parts of the Dagestan Republic, stretches the sandy, semi -arid Nogayskaya steppe. The largest areas are in Kazakhstan, but, apart from the solononetz and solonetzic soils, millions of hectares were sacrificed to cropping in the 1950s and 1960s.

As pointed out earlier, the distinguishing lines between the vegetation of virgin steppe and old abandoned fallows are blurred, so that much of the uncropped land may soon return to steppe and not bear much sign of having been cropped for so long. The underlying processes that help to facilitate this return are emphasized here, with a focus on the work done in the period when virgin steppe still formed a formidable grazing and hay resource.

In fact, the grass swards of the steppe are - also when still green and in active growth - low (<10 cm) and rich in herbs in the northern areas, and rich in xerophytic species in the southern areas. Reported hay yields are no more than 700 kg/ha in the north and 450 kg/ha in the south. In view of the inherently high soil fertility and total precipitation, a somewhat more productive sward would be expected, especially when at the same time a huge mass of vegetation (>1 m high) is found in nearby flood -meadows. This contrast, which is especially evident in early summer, is simply too large to be explained away by limitations posed by nitrogen availability (immobilization versus silt deposition), drought versus flooding, or by early grazing versus late haymaking. The hypothesis formulated here is that the lack of vigorous growth in steppe vegetation is largely because - by the time of stem elongation in April/May - insufficient moisture (in the form of rain) is available or can be drawn upon to make mineralized nitrogen available. In addition, because of severe winters, very little of the soil organic matter has decomposed by that time. Crop nutrition studies have shown that, on arable land in chernozem soils, some 75 kg/ha nitrogen is mineralized and another 75 kg P2O5 is made available each year. Steppe vegetation was mainly used for extensive grazing in spring and autumn. Where Festuca sulcata is plentiful and snow not too heavy, winter grazing can be satisfactory in southern regions.


The semi -desert stretches in a crescent along the northern shores of the Caspian Sea in European Russia and then covers large parts of Kazakhstan. Western Siberia has no typical semi-desert. The crescent begins with the Nogaskaya steppe in northern Dagestan, crosses Kalmykia and south of Volgograd towards Astrakhan, on the Volga estuary, and past Guryev, into Kazakhstan. In the FSU, semi-desert totalled 127 million hectares. Snow in winter is light enough to permit winter grazing. The climate of the semi-desert is, however, more continental than that of the steppe. Low moisture and high temperatures in summer are conducive to the development of solonchaks and, especially, of solonetz, although the soils are mainly light chestnut and brown. Small variations in microrelief, with very shallow depressions, add to the heterogeneity of the vegetation. Typical of the semi-desert are large sandy stretches ("barkhan " dunes) and "liman " (flood meadow s in lower reaches of semi-desert rivers). Flat areas ("plakor") east of the Volga typically consist of sub-shrub associations: Artemisia pauciflora + Kochia prostrata (Plate 10.5), interspersed with ephemerals and ephemeroids (e.g. Poa bulbosa, Tulipa spp. and Allium spp.). Near shallow depressions, grasses consist of Festuca sulcata, predominantly, followed by Agropyron pectiniforme, Stipa lessingiana and Stipa capillata and a mixture of herbs. Incidentally, Festuca sulcata together with Stipa capillata or Stipa lessingiana are also typical of "mountain steppe" at 1 000-3 000 m altitude.

Plate 10.5
Kochia prostrata

Plate 10.6
Artemisia lercheana

Meadow types


Due to the exceptional flatness of the surrounding area, semi -desert rivers that spread out over enormous areas in spring often never reach the Caspian Sea, and form the meadow areas called limans (Mamin and Savel’eva, 1986). Such areas can be 30-40 km wide, but shallow enough for wheeled transport to pass. Intense evaporation and high watertables promote the development of solonchaks and solonetz, with predominance of halophytes or tolerant plants (Artemisia spp. (Plate 10.6), Puccinellia spp., Atriplex verrucifera and Agropyron repens). Patterns of concentric rings emerge, with water receding from the perimeter towards the centre, a pattern that is reflected in the vegetation. Artemisia monogyna and Atriplex verrucifera are in the outer rings that are rarely flooded and then only for a few days. The area may be hundreds of hectares in size. Further towards the centre, the rings or strips flooded once in two to three months with water in a layer of 30-60 cm until June/July produce stands of almost pure Agropyron spp. that grows up to 150 cm and gives hay yields of 6 000-7 000 kg/ha. The centre and lowest parts of the liman may consist of reed thickets. In the FSU, limans used to occupy over 7 million hectares. Needless to say, limans are of great economic significance in the Saratov and Volgograd region, and may take much of the pressure off the surrounding catchment grazing areas. Only minor ditches need to be constructed to lead water to areas with the most valuable fodder plants (Agropyron repens, Agropyron pectiniforme and Euagropyron spp., with Medicago sativa ssp. falcata, Bromus inermis and Beckmannia spp.).

Typical plants of the favourable parts of the sandy (loam) stretches are Artemisia arenaria, A. astrachanica, Carex colchica, Kochia prostrata, Agropyron sibericum, Stipa capillata and S. joannis. In lower places, the water table may be at 100-200 cm. Agropyron sibericum is the most valuable grass in this environment, yielding up to 1 000 kg DM/ha. Heavy grazing is believed to pulverize the top soil and increase Agropyron sibericum at the expense of Artemisia astrachanica.

Floodplain meadows

The steppe is traversed (Plate 10.7), in a north-south direction, by some of Europe’s largest rivers. When in spate, large areas on either side are inundated. First in early spring, with the snow melting in the region itself; second, in late spring, when the waters of snow melting in the north arrive. Flood meadows are found over the whole length of the river course. The limans, in contrast, are confined to the lower reaches and in flat semi -desert country.

In the FSU, the total area covered by floodplain meadows (Plate 10.8) was over 30 million hectares, divided equally between hay and grazing. Their value is rated higher the drier the nearby catchment. As with the limans described earlier, vegetation is much determined by the frequency, duration and depth of flooding, as well as by the degree and quality of silt sedimentation. All sorts of classifications have been thought out. Prolonged flooding over 40 days or more is withstood by Phalaris spp., Bromus inermis, Stipa pratensis and many Carex spp. (Table 10.5). Prolonged flooding is the rule in the floodplains of the greater steppe rivers (Dnepr, Don, Volga, Ural). Salination (solonchaks) is common in the outer reaches (upper flood meadows).

Plate 10.7
Forest -steppe with a floodplain in the distance.


Plate 10.8
Forest -steppe floodplain.


TABLE 10.5
Distribution of flood meadow vegetation.

Forest Zone

Steppe Zone

Desert Zone

Flooded for no more than 15-20 days

Festuca ovina, Nardus stricta, Phalaris spp.

Festuca sulcata, Euagropyron spp., often solonetzic or solonchakic with Artemisia spp., Glycyrrhizaspp. and Puccinellia spp. Herbs with shrubs.

Poplar and Elaeagnus spp. forests, thorny shrubs, Glycyrrhiza spp., Alhagi spp., Chenopodiaceae.

Flooded annually for 20-40 days

Herbs, Agrostis alba, white clover and other legumes. Tall gramineae with Phleum spp., Alopecurus spp., Festuca pratensis. Moist Deschampsia spp., Agrostis spp.

Tall gramineae with Agropyron repens or Alopecurus spp., with a small quantity of herbs, Vicia craccaand Lathyrus spp. More rarely, Poa pratensis with herbs.

Aeluropus littoralis, Agropyronspp. and Glycyrrhizaspp.

Flooded annually for >40 days

Phalaris spp., with sedges, sedge - Bromusspp., Deschampsia spp. with Carex caespitosa and reeds. Bogged-up alder stands, osier beds, tussocky swamps

Reeds, bulrushes, cattail, Agropyronspp., less often Alopecurus spp., Cirsium spp. and Carex acuta, boggy osier beds, a few sedge marshes.

Reeds. There are almost no sedge marshes.

Woody and shrubby vegetation

Conifers and partially deciduous forests, mainly in the central floodplains. Much willow and alder

Deciduous forests on the floodplain near a river and on the central plain. Much willow and steppe shrubs.

Poplars, tamarisks, oleaster (Elaeagnusspp.) forests. Few willows, many thorny shrubs and shrub-Chenopodiaceae.

Three major zonal strips can be distinguished:

1. Close to the river: Artemisia dracunculus, A. pontica, A. campestris, Glycyrrhiza spp. (liquorice, in floodplains - a very common but high-tannin legume), Calamagrostis epigeios, Bromus inermis and Stipa capillata. Bromus inermis dominates in the lower parts.

2. Central: Festuca sulcata, Euagropyron spp. and Agropyron spp. on the higher parts. Agropyron spp. dominant in the lower parts, with Carex spp. in the depressions.

3. Periphery, close to the watershed: Festuca sulcata, Stipa capillata and Agropyron sibiricum on the more elevated and non-saline sites, together with various herbs and steppe shrubs. In the lower, solonetzic, parts Agropyron pectiniforme predominates, or Glycyrrhiza spp. with Agropyron spp. and Alopecurus spp.

On solonchaks, Puccinellia spp. with Artemisia monogyna is most prevalent. Flood meadows are a principal source of hay. In the steppe itself, hay yields off Euagropyron and Puccinellia meadows are 1 000 kg/ha. Tall-grass associations (species of Bromus, Agropyron, Festuca, Alopecurus and Phleum) give hay yields of 5 000 kg/ha. With Phalaris spp., yields can be even higher. Inevitably, abuse by overexploitation occurs. Grazing hay meadows in early spring or in late fall should be discouraged. Alternative uses for early or late hay on the one hand and for grazing on the other should be encouraged. Swamps with reed, bulrush and sedge are common. When deciduous trees (aspen, poplar, elm, oak) are found in the steppe, it is mostly close to the watercourses.


Mid-term to old fallow

From the tenth to fifteenth years of fallow, Stipa spp. and Festuca sulcata begin to dominate and the land resembles virgin steppe.

Young fallow

In the first year, botanical composition is little different from the previous arable weed composition, which reflects preceding crops and their husbandry. The commonest plants are annuals such as Chenopodium album, Salsola kali, Setaria spp., Artemisia absinthium, A. sieversiana, Brassica campestris, Sonchus arvensis, Polygonum aviculare, P. convulvulus, Avena fatua, Camelina spp., Thlaspi arvense, Lappula spp., Sisymbrium spp., Berteroa spp., Lactuca spp., various thistles, Erigeron canadensis, Urtica cannabina, Crepis tectorum, Bromus tectorum, and Cannabis sativa. Perennials develop and begin to predominate: Cirsium arvense, Sonchus arvensis, Artemisia campestris, A. frigida, A. austriaca, Melilotus alba, Gypsophila spp., Achillea millefolium, Falcaria vulgaris, spurge (Euphorbiaceae) and Potentilla argentea, together with rhizomatous grasses such as Agropyron repens, A. racemosum, Calamagrostis epigeios and Bromus inermis.

Much higher herbage yields are obtained in the fallow phase. Larin (1956) speaks of 4 000-8 000 kg/ha of fresh and 1 000-2 000 kg/ha of dry matter, whereas the steppe produces no more than 800 kg/ha of hay! Low productivity of the virgin steppe itself, in comparison with high productivity of (unsown) green fallow on top of intermittent crop yields, has no doubt been a major incentive to plough virgin steppe, at least on the richer and better watered soils.

However, green fallows are heterogeneous and many of the herbaceous weeds are ignored by the grazing animal, such as Chenopodium album, Artemisia spp., Thlaspi spp., Salsola kali and other thistles. Herbs are grazed highly selectively, not least because of the wide range in date of flowering and maturity. This is an advantage in summer, when the virgin steppe itself has dried off. Hay is then a better alternative and many Russian authors claim that when the mixed herbage is turned into silage, the rate of utilization is higher than when grazed. Conversely, Agropyron repens, Avena fatua, Bromus spp. and Setaria spp., together with herbs such as Sonchus arvensis, Polygonum convolvulus, Polygonum aviculare and Brassica campestris provide relatively good pasture, with 2 500-3 500 kg/ha of edible fresh matter.

As the fallow period develops, rhizomatous perennials take over in about the fourth to fifth year: Agropyron repens on chestnut soils, A. racemosum on lighter soils, and Bromus inermis and Calamagrostis spp. This is the most valuable fallow phase from the herbage point of view. Agropyron hay is highly valued. Patches with Achillea spp., Artemisia austriaca and A. frigida may still be much in evidence. In the final stages of return to the virgin steppe, rhizomatous grasses and Artemisia spp. begin to give way to Festuca sulcata and Stipa spp.

Avenues of steppe improvement

Land and grass resources in the steppe zone are grossly underutilized. Most farms are overstocked, yet even on the better farms in favourable areas, yields of both milk and cereals are not high enough. Such farming is prodigal with land, nutrients and labour. In the continuing debate on how to preserve the environmental resource base, it is high time to point out that there can be no excuse for the deterioration of very large areas of land in order to produce crops or livestock at such low efficiency (Boonman, 1993).

Efforts towards intensification need not necessarily imply high costs. Low-input strategies must optimize results from the efforts already made. Correct timing can double the effect of a particular input, e.g. early sowing or fertilizer application. Conversely, cash inputs should not be dismissed too lightly as "uneconomic" or "outside the reach of poor farmers" because it is well known that farmers recognize and adopt an improvement (e.g. using seed of a superior new cultivar) when they see its value. Dairy production is a profitable part of mixed farming since milk, if produced throughout the year, tends to command high prices and bring in regular cash income. Great advances are often made by simple measures, especially in animal nutrition.

As for grass resources, natural grasslands may seen insignificant in their outward appearance and even less so in their response to improved husbandry. In spring their start is slow and growth ceases earlier in autumn, compared with elite sown grasses. However with the same amount of intelligent care, primary (natural or virgin) grassland often needs no replacement at all by sown pasture grasses, let alone by legumes. Secondary grassland (fallow land) is not very static as it passes through its various stages of transition or succession, which differ with different husbandry systems. If the rhizomatous or Agropyron stages are the most productive of all, it is advantageous to extend and maintain that phase for as long as possible. Rotational grazing shows advantage over continuous grazing in situations where the quantity of available herbage is low, and this is the case throughout the year on most of the steppe. The proportion of desirable grasses, legumes or herbs can be manipulated with the aid of the grazing animal. Cutting can be another useful tool. Many hay meadows, in well -watered if not periodically flooded areas, have developed under age-long haymaking. Apart from providing feed for winter, cutting would seem an automatic tool to control many shrubs.

Management interventions


Grazing is the most potent of biotic factors; many palatable, annual herbs disappear forthwith. Russian authors at one time generally held that taller grasses, especially those with sizeable aftermath, maintain themselves well in hay meadows but much less under grazing only and are, consequently grazed out first. In the steppe, Stipa capillata is such an example, compared with Festuca sulcata, Euagropyron spp. and Koeleria gracilis. A note of caution needs to be sounded here. No doubt, some of the less competitive species may have long flowering culms. Between species, however, height of the vegetative sward and eventual height of flowering culms are poorly correlated. Lolium perenne and Festuca rubra are obvious contrasts. Also, it is not entirely clear what the confounding effects in a sward are of growth stage, palatability and residual leaf area of any given species in competition with others. Whether plants with "lower cauline-leaved rather than upper cauline-leaved foliage" are necessarily more competitive under grazing, is therefore doubtful. Competitiveness of a genotype is also poorly related with potential herbage yield in pure stands (Boonman and van Wijk, 1973). See also the sections on Haymaking and on Sown forage, below.

Plate 10.9
Poa bulbosa.

Poa bulbosa (Plate 10.9) heads early in spring and is thereafter not eaten. Artemisia austriaca forms a rosette. As grazing intensity increases, Polygonum spp. and other annuals (Cruciferae, Compositae) remain and take over. The factors responsible are not necessarily the actual grazing itself but associated phenomena, such as compaction due to treading. The effects of grazing on soil compaction and soil moisture retention are recurrent themes. Hoof impact is the cause of disappearance of moss and lichen from grassland. Positive effects of scattered dung and urine are only evident when the pasture is sufficiently moist and stocked by at least 0.5 Livestock Unit (LU) per ha. In the steppe, the effects are minimal, if not negative, because grass on and around dung pats is avoided by the grazing animal. The grazing animal is also believed to assist in plant pollination and in the distribution of seed, although volunteer seedlings contribute little to the productive sward (Rabotnov, 1969), and when they do so it is mostly in the form of annuals to make up for loss of cover.

Grazing (stocking) management

Russian authors generally agree about the advantage of rotational grazing. If the ultimate aim is to match, if not to synchronize, the supply of available forage with the demands of the grazing animals or to maintain the vigour of acceptable pastures, then various scenarios are possible. Haymaking is a strong Russian tradition. A lot of the debate in other countries such as USA and Australia on the pros and cons of rotational versus continuous grazing has ignored the very role and place of grass conservation. Grass conservation is essential to carry productive dairy stock through winter or dry season, but mowing is also a convenient husbandry tool to regulate the supply of fresh grass and put a brake on grass growing too fast in the most favourable parts of the season (Boonman, 1993). It is obvious that no hay can be made under continuous grazing, so direct comparisons with rotational grazing may be meaningless. However, the lines dividing the two allegedly opposite systems are blurred. Are fields, grazed in daytime by animals that are housed elsewhere at night, grazed "continuously", or is this not rather a fixed form of "rotational" grazing of 12 hours on + 12 hours off? Is a field grazed continuously if for the greater part of the dry season it is excluded from grazing? Fields grazed only once every 15 days, however lightly, are also difficult to portray as being grazed continuously. What if animals are tethered and moved daily within the same field? The arguments are often largely academic, but the choice in practice is often one of simple convenience.

In Europe, with emphasis on dairying, which implies daily handling of the animals, rotational grazing within fenced but relatively small areas is the rule. Rotational grazing goes hand in hand with crop-pasture rotation s in mixed farming, as all fields need to be protected from unwanted grazing. On large beef cattle estates, fencing, if any, may be reduced to the perimeter. Still, absence of fencing and the imposition of herding does not imply that grazing is continuous. On the free range, grazing rotations are naturally imposed by the presence or absence of water and by seasonal differences in the vegetation, so that rotation may take the form of a grazing procession rather than of a rotation. Seasonal grazing areas may develop as separate entities (Boonman, 1993).


Like grazing, cutting also has direct and indirect effects. The haymaking season in Russia is relatively late, in hot mid-summer (July). Soil is exposed, topsoil dries out and is compacted by subsequent rain. In mixed vegetation, shade-loving species perish and this is particularly so in secondary grassland following forest clearing. Late-heading species are also at a disadvantage. As we have seen above (in Grazing), species with upper cauline-leaved foliage were believed to be at an advantage under haymaking regimes. It should be repeated that although species differ in their reaction to either grazing or cutting and, as a result, produce a different botanical composition, it is difficult to attribute this to plant stature alone. Red clover and other herbs produced distinct types whether under cutting or grazing regimes with early and late heading types, respectively (Shennikov, 1941). Variation in cutting date also has considerable effect on species composition. Land that is continually used for haymaking becomes more and more impoverished and yields decline. In the forest zone, moss reappears. Floodplains in the Yenisei valley, after being cleared from willows and alders, changed under continuous haymaking, with dominance first by Calamagrostis langsdorffii, five to eight years later by Anthriscus silvestris and finally by Alopecurus pratensis (Vershinin, 1954).


Burning is an additional factor, if not a tool, in the management of steppe and semi -desert. Some even believe that the tree-less steppe is the result of burning, rather than of climate or soil. Burning is necessary to deal with "starika" - dead vegetation or standing hay of previous year(s). Burnt soil covered with ash warms up and dries out more quickly. Soil nitrogen is released. Subsequent herbage yield may not be increased, is rather decreased, but regrowth after burning is more nutritious. On the negative side, absence of cover by the onset of winter adds to reduced snow and moisture retention for subsequent spring regrowth. In Festuca/Stipa/Artemisia steppe, burning increases Stipa spp. (Plate 10.10), Agropyron desertorum (Plate 10.11) and Festuca sulcata, but decreases Artemisia spp.


Of all the husbandry measures, ploughing has the most dramatic effect on botanical composition. The effect is largely temporary, with the steppe returning to its "original" state within ten years. It is not clear whether the length of this moratorium is linearly related to the intensity and kind of cropping. Most of the steppe has seen the plough at some stage, but the last and major onslaught in terms of area came in the 1950s, when millions of hectares of the remaining virgin steppe were sacrificed to cropping. Fortunately, however, the insight that permanent cropping was impossible without disastrous effects on soil quality prevailed. Fallowing was the rule, ideally until the "transition of fallow land into virgin land", as formulated by N.G. Vysotskii in 1915, was completed. Nevertheless in more recent decades, new policies and campaigns of heavy mechanization, combined with fertilizer, herbicides and irrigation, posed as serious a threat to the fallow as the plough had earlier meant to the steppe itself.

Plate 10.10
Stipa species.

Plate 10.11
Agropyrum desertorum.

Uncontrolled tumble-down fallow is a nuisance to subsequent cropping as it encourages rather than suppresses some of the principal weeds. Conversely, bare fallows, however desirable from the weed control and perhaps the water conservation points of view, are not conducive to restoring soil structure.

Physical improvements

The principal step in steppe improvement is to prevent deterioration by inferior or harmful material and species. Dominance of superior constituents cannot, in many instances, be achieved by grazing with a specific or varied kind of livestock alone. Intentional elimination of less desirable species and starika is needed to complement the action of grazing, cutting or even burning. Oversowing (without adequate soil preparation) is rarely worth the effort as seedlings have great difficulty in establishing themselves in an established sward, however sparse, except perhaps in genuinely humid environments. Some effective measures are: 1. removal of tussocks, shrubs and starika; 2. removal of litter and brushwood after floods; 3. regulation of silt deposition on floodplain meadows; and 4. regulation of the water regime (drainage of stagnant surface waters; liman irrigation; temporary flooding of floodplain meadows; construction of ice dykes; protection for snow retention).

A lot of the clearing can be done with appropriate machinery and the same applies to the levelling that is needed to enable a field to be mown for hay. The removal of major deficiencies in moisture and fertility conditions contributes to the prevalence of more desirable grasses and or clovers; the same applies to regimes of alternate grazing and mowing on the one hand and of early and late mowing on the other. By assisting the correct distribution of spring waters, natural limans can be improved without great effort. Solonchaks and boggy places should not receive water.

Snow retention through windbreaks and standing vegetation is another effective measure in the forest steppe, steppe and semi -desert zones. Crop yields are greatly increased. In experiments by N.G. Andreev in the 1930s in Saratov Oblast, yields of Agropyron racemosum on fallow land were raised by 50-75 percent (see also Andreev, 1974a,b). Elsewhere, Stipa-Festuca sulcata pastures increased by 16-31 percent in yield (Larin, 1956). Snow retention can be combined with arrangement of ridges and furrows to block the flow of water from melting snow.

Examples of the effect of management on botanical composition

Stipa capillata, common on virgin steppe and old fallow in the Rostov, Volgograd and Stavropol areas, is troublesome since the seed has awns which, when caught in the wool not only spoil it, but bore through the skin and when in greater numbers can cause death of goats and sheep. Burning has proved useless. Grazing with larger herbivores is recommended. Light grazing, especially when early, and early mowing increases rather than decreases this grass. Pastures should not be grazed earlier than the heading phase of Festuca sulcata and Stipa lessingiana. These grasses will then remain almost uneaten and will go to seed, while the later heading Stipa capillata will be eaten out selectively. Mowing of Stipa spp. must be conducted systematically from early head-emergence right up to the flowering stage and aftermath growth must be grazed or mown in fall. These pastures are best grazed by cattle (and horses) and, when there is little Stipa spp., by sheep. Stocking pressure should be increased for two to three consecutive years.

Medicago polymorpha can be abundant in the steppe of European Russia. Although it is well eaten, M. polymorpha can be a most harmful plant because the pods spoil the wool. It can be suppressed by hard and prolonged grazing. Herbicides are also effective.

Artemisia spp. (A. lercheana, A. pauciflora, A. astrachanica) are reduced by burning, and grasses such as Festuca sulcata, Euagropyron spp. and Stipa spp. are encouraged.


Fertilizing the steppe is only mentioned in passing here. The effects of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium on yield, on quality and on botanical composition are well established (Smurygin, 1974) and differ little from what is found in similar soil conditions in the West. Unlike in steppe, phosphorus and potassium are a pre-condition in lowland marshy conditions and in acid soils in the north. The most spectacular fertilizer is nitrogen. However, land-to-capital ratios in most of Russia are such that nitrogen fertilizer is best reserved to those situations where all the limiting factors mentioned earlier have been removed and where moisture conditions are favourable to enable the grass to benefit fully from the fertilizer applied. Such circumstances are rare. However, most of all, fertilizer should be profitable in terms of the produce from the livestock fed from it. Most of the fertilizer is used on dairy farms in the forest zone in the north near the major cities. Yield increases in dry matter from 2 to 8 t/ha were reported from the Tula and Kaluga regions (Larin, 1956). In the view of the authors, grassland and grazing will soon regain their rightful place in Russia at the expense of arable fodder crops such as maize grown for silage. More and better use will also have to be made of manure and urine, one of the most neglected resources at present, especially from the storage point of view. Night grazing, through mobile camps if necessary, should be the rule, were it only to benefit by the manure and urine dropped on the spot.

Legumes should also fare better under balanced manure and fertilizer regimes. In the view of the authors, clovers should be highly appreciated where their continuous presence can be assured. Inducing clovers by sowing and other measures is often not only costly but also temporary in its effect. Savings on nitrogen fertilizers may be offset by the extra requirements for other fertilizers, especially phosphate.

As far as the steppe zone is concerned, the same development as regards fertilizer is forecast for the better-watered areas, the floodplains. P and K are usually not in short supply. Some botanical effects observed in the steppe vegetation are worth mentioning. At the Baskhir Experimental Station, Mikheev and Musatova (1940) found that Festuca sulcata gave way to Poa pratensis as the result of manure (30 t/ha). The same manure increased hay yield by (only) 1 900 kg/ha. Sedges also tend to be reduced and Agropyron spp. are encouraged.

Mid-term depression

Newly established grasslands tend to go through a depression after a few years, and this was recognized early by Vil’yams. More persistent varieties, together with better N-nutrition, have done much to alleviate this problem. Steppe fallow land with Agropyron repens is highly valued. After a few years, however, it tends to give way to the less valuable Poa angustifolia and Festuca sulcata, and yields may be reduced by half. Re-ploughing the field helps to rejuvenate the Agropyron repens, especially when combined with N-fertilizer and when used first for hay and subsequently for grazing. The same applies to A. racemosum in the Volgograd area, western Siberia and Kazakhstan, where it formerly covered millions of hectares. Hay yields were often doubled. Measures to promote snow retention are essential. The introduction of machinery like the rotovator facilitated destroying the existing sward. A more recent and valuable aid is glyphosate as an effective but very safe herbicide.

Sown forage

For many engaged in increased fodder production, all the measures mentioned above are not effective enough. Refuge is sometimes sought in sowing perennial grasses, with or without legumes and with or without intermittent arable cropping. However annual fodders such as maize for silage and oats, lent themselves more easily to the industrial style agriculture sought after in the FSU. A lot of maize is grown in Russia in areas north of latitude 55°N, which are considered too cold in the West (e.g. Scotland, Denmark), and many of the areas are too dry for silage maize. Late springs with late frosts and winter frosts as early as the first half of September shorten the growing season for maize even more radically. Existing, commercial early-maturing hybrids are not early enough for large parts of Russia; the problem has still not been solved, neither agronomically nor economically, let alone from the environmental point of view.

Short of complete ploughing and reseeding, over-sowing has been recommended at times. Perhaps this was inspired by positive results obtained with over-sowing in areas that had been cleared of trees and shrubs in the more northerly forest zone. However doubtful in economic terms such advice might be for steppe conditions, the species recommended are worth mentioning: Bromus inermis, B. erectus, Agropyron pectiniforme, A. sibiricum, A. desertorum, Euagropyron spp., Festuca sulcata, Medicago sativa, M. s. subsp. falcata, Melilotus alba, sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia) and Kochia prostrata (Chenopodiaceae). In regions east of the Urals with abundant late-summer rainfall, annual forages such as oats, rye, Sorghum sudanense, vetches and peas were experimented with for over-sowing but the recommended list is considerably reduced for normal pasture sowing (after proper land cultivation): Medicago sativa, M. s. subsp. falcata, Onobrychis, Bromus inermis, and Agropyron pectiniforme with, in addition, for the dry steppe: Agropyron sibiricum and Festuca sulcata (Larin, 1956). No indications exist as to what extent such sowings have been experimental or commercial, nor to what extent implementation was hindered by the obvious limitations of seed availability of some of these unusual species. Remarkable in this listing is the absence of Festuca arundinacea. More recent experience has shown that Agropyron cristatum is perhaps the best grass for sowing (T. Veenstra, pers. comm.).

As was customary at the time, complex mixtures were considered superior to single-species as a matter of course, on purely theoretical grounds, such as risk aversion. More modern thinking - not shared by biodiversity adherents - has it that less competitive species, however productive, are better left outfrom mixtures from the start because they are doomed to disappear rapidly from the sward anyway. The aim should be the "ecological combining ability" of potential partners, an ability that does not necessarily have much to do with morphological or botanical differences. As long as alleged advantages of complex mixtures cannot be substantiated, simple mixtures are advocated, if only to reduce seed costs. A considerable amount of energy was spent in FSU days on calculating "norms" for sowing of each species in accordance with Goststandart (All-Union State Standards).

The dilemma

Many observers regard virgin steppe as not productive enough as a grazing or fodder resource. Sown pastures have great potential but require a high level of expertise and are often too short-lived. Continuous arable cropping consists mostly of wheat, with yields of grain scarcely higher than that of the old steppe’s hay. The irony is that in FSU over half of the grain was fed back to livestock. The steppe is on the one hand too fertile not to be cropped and to be left to "ranching", but on the other too dry to be cropped intensively and permanently. All three pathways - grazing, cropping and an integration of the two - have in the past been explored, both empirically and experimentally. In the view of the authors, the best alternative land use is one crop of wheat alternated with long spells under grass fallow, or sown pastures of shorter duration. Alfalfa is grown separately on the best and irrigated land. Grass hay is brought in from the floodplains. Marginal land is best returned to steppe.

Crop-pasture rotations

V.R. Vil’yams (1922, 1951) was one of the first scientists to publish research results on the subject ("travopol’naya") and on the special role of grasses in soil fertility. Crop rotation regimes used to be strictly preached, but in FSU practice it was lip service to the "rotation" doctrine rather than consistent application of Vil’yams’ example. Much value was attached to having a fodder crop or a grain legume in the rotation, irrespective of the fact that these covered the soil for no more than six months and were harvested whole, without much residue left or returned to the soil. Maize is often harvested first for grain and in the second pass for the stalks and foliage made into silage. If a crop-rotation effect does appear it is perhaps just as likely to be due to "just another crop" than to the specific effects usually attributed to semi -permanent grasses or legumes. In actual fact, the effect may be simply one of suppression of specific weeds, pests or diseases, and may also be brought about by other arable crops.

Physical effects of grasses on the soil

Soil science used to be highly developed in Russia, not only soil classification. The unique role that grass plays in restoring soil quality lost after cropping was recognized in Russia earlier than in the West. In investigations carried out by N.I. Savvinov at the Saratov Malouzenski Solonetz Station, the length of all roots in the top 40 cm soil layer was, six months after sowing, almost three times greater in Agropyron pectiniforme than in alfalfa of the same age (Larin, 1956). Intensity, rather than depth, of rooting was considered important.

Soil organic matter and methods of increasing it are commonly associated with high soil quality, because a soil rich in organic matter is often productive and can sustain arable cropping for long periods. Such a soil will also trap rainwater rather than let it cause erosion (Klimentyev and Tikhonov, 1995).

Cultivation, in contrast, is accompanied by a decline in organic matter and by subsequent mineralization. Under continuous cropping without inputs, little organic matter is added or returned whereas losses are much greater. In capitalized farming systems in temperate climates, with high input of fertilizers and mechanical or chemical weed control, organic matter is commonly regarded as less critical and organic matter may be left to find its own level and may be maintained by crop residues. High, albeit not the highest, yields have been obtained under continuous cropping without special attention to adding organic matter.

Evidence has been presented to indicate that a grass break in crop rotations preserves soil structure and punctuates the nutrient drain in crop removal. Improved structure may reveal itself in less erosion or in better plant establishment and, finally, in better yields. However, the immediate effects on topsoil structure are the most obvious. Erosion control also applies to conditions of grazing. Overgrazed land is not only more liable to erosion, it suffers more from drought, due to loss of snow cover and of rainwater.

Mixed farming based on crop-grass rotations

In Russia, alternatives to deal effectively with maintaining soil quality and combating soil erosion are not within easy reach of the small-scale farmer and - unless good basic husbandry is guaranteed - often not economically justified. The impression is that continuous cropping cannot be sustained on the majority of soils at the present low levels of fertilizer, biocides and mechanization. In present-day farming practice, however, improved production of grass for feeding cattle is the main motive inducing farmers to plant pastures. If stock that help to improve soil fertility are kept, they should themselves be profitable. In the same fashion it is not profitable to grow legumes for the main purpose of fixing nitrogen.

The large expansion in arable area in the 1950s and 1960s in the FSU was at the expense of the steppe. The first crops after ploughing were good. Most of the remaining grassland was soon broken and converted into arable land. Very little new grass was sown. It was perhaps not appreciated that the fertility encountered had been built up through grassland. Conversely, forage production was promoted primarily as a means of improving animal production. Efforts were directed at separate components, e.g. dairying based on maize silage or on zero-grazing, with little regard for the soil-degrading effect this practice has.

In the 1970s and 1980s in the FSU, direct grazing became rare and was sacrificed to large-scale stall-feeding and to zero-grazing operations based on fodder crops such as maize and oats. Many of these operated on the extreme edges of the mixed -farming scene, and lost sight of the crop-livestock integration perspective.

In the past decade, by contrast, village herds have increasingly began to roam the surrounding countryside. Communal or public grazing resource s are increasingly threatened by livestock privately owned. Workable solutions are needed to come to the aid of vulnerable grasslands, livestock, crops and soils, especially for the small mixed -farm family. Although the former large Kolkhoz-style arable farming units may be retained as the central and collective core, livestock production will continue to become more and more family-based. Sooner or later, family herds will have to be fed from family-run pastures and from by-products of the arable operations. This should provide a sound basis for crop-pasture rotation s.


The political and social changes of the past fifteen years have had a marked effect on grassland and livestock production systems. The great industrial livestock units based on indoor feeding are now few, and many have broken up for economic reasons. Much of the ruminant livestock is now in small family-owned herds, often too small for economic herding. A fresh approach to grazing rights and stock management is needed to ensure that the new grazing situation maintains livestock production while avoiding environmental damage through overuse of nearby grassland while neglecting more distant pastures. This will require interventions in two fields: first, facilitating the development of group herding so that families can collaborate to hire a common herder to manage their joint herds; and, second, by allocating grazing rights and responsibility for pasture maintenance to such groups.

Much marginal land has been ploughed to produce meagre crops of cereals, which has largely been used for stock feed. Such land can be returned to grassland fairly simply: steppe is relatively easy to restore when cropland is abandoned to fallow. If economic conditions are propitious, it can be reseeded - reseeding techniques and adapted ecotypes of suitable grasses are known. Sown grasses may bring temporary relief, but they should be sufficiently persistent and economically justified, compared with spontaneous fallow grasses. Sown pastures require careful husbandry and considerable expertise. Return of large areas of unprofitable cropland to grassland makes sense both environmentally and economically.


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