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Case Study 4. Hay development in China - 1. Irrigated hay in Altai Khazak Prefecture, Xinjiang (A fully transhumant system adopting irrigated hay for winter use)[4]

Altai Kazakh Prefecture lies between 44° 59N and 49° 16N, and 86° 25E and 90° 31E, at altitudes from 480 m at Fuhai to over 3 500 m, in the mountains. The fodder sites are below 800 m. The climate is continental; precipitation, mainly as snow, varies from under 100 mm/year in the plains to over 600 mm in the high pastures; winds are a problem. Cold waves, combined with high winds and snow, can cause heavy loss of stock. In the mountains, the weather is much colder and the higher pastures are open for less than three months each year. The animal industry is based on a system of transhumance; the division of grazing periods is shown in Table 18.

Table 18. Grazing periods in the Altai




Early April to end of June - about 90 days


End of June to late September - about 83 days


Mid-September to end of November - about 71 days


Late November to end of March - about 121 days

There are four great vegetation zones:

(i) Alpine snow and rock, of little use for grazing; the snow line is at about 3 500 m.

(ii) The summer grazing lands, which lie above 1 300 m and provide rich grazing for 75 to 95 days per year, these are the fattening pastures and, in season, are probably capable of carrying more stock.

(iii) Spring and autumn pastures, which are also the transition routes, and they show serious signs of overgrazing. Due to lack of winter feed, herds linger on these pastures in autumn and go on to them too early in spring. The irrigated areas are in the drier, southern fringe of this zone.

(iv) Winter pastures in the plains, desert, low meadows and marshland, are totally inadequate for the number of stock carried. The provision of winter feed through irrigated hay production was identified as the most effective way of improving the overall production system and reducing pressure on the winter and transitional pastures. Desert grazing is controlled by snowfall: if there is no snow as a source of drinking water livestock cannot use the zone; sudden thaws or deep snow can be disastrous.

Haymaking is a traditional, albeit small-scale, activity. The very limited meadow hay along riversides is cut, by scythe or horse-drawn mower; some people always stayed behind in the plains in summer to do this work. Some mountain meadows are mown by the few communities that overwinter in the broader mountain valleys. The weakest part of the production system is winter feed.

To improve hay availability, the Animal Husbandry Bureau developed 25 000 ha of irrigated land on sandy-gravelly soils unsuited to arable cropping. Four-hectare units are managed by Kazakh herders' families; the herds follow their usual transhumance but some of the family stay behind during summer to irrigate the crops and make hay. The settlers are provided with loans so that they can have permanent houses as winter quarters. Social services - including medical facilities and schools - have also been made available, something which was inaccessible to families which had no fixed winter base. The rotation is four to six years of lucerne for hay, followed by a cleaning crop, then re-sown to lucerne. The effect of the forage on the following crop is very positive (see Table 19). The Kazakhs have no tradition of cultivation: herding, mostly on horseback, is the way of life for all. The development of the scheme has necessitated a lot of training, from senior technical staff to herders. It will be some time before the herdsmen become as proficient irrigators and agriculturists as the settled peoples of the Region.

Figure 51. Putting hay into cocks by hand (Altai, Xinjiang, China). In these hot, arid conditions the herbage must be cocked rapidly, otherwise there is serious leaf-loss

Figure 52. Temperatures and precipitation in Fuyun, Altai, Xinjiang

Weather during harvest is ideal for rapid haymaking, so simple methods give good results. Pilot areas of lucerne have given excellent yields of around 7 t/ha. Field plantings began long after the pilot areas, so only short-term yield figures are available. In the first three years of full field sowings, second-year crops averaged 4.1, 3.29 and 4.85 t/ha of hay. Only two harvests are taken per year, and the aftermath is grazed off once the herds return in November, once the herbage is killed by frost. With good organization and adequate fertilizer, a third cut could be attained and still leave adequate aftermath before the frosts. These yields are low, but well above the local average, and could be greatly increased by proper husbandry and fertilizer use. Outside the scheme, on old fields, grown mainly for seed production and not fertilized, average yields stabilized at about 2 t/ha of hay: this must be well below the real cost of providing water.

Table 19. Effect of lucerne on subsequent crop


Before (kg/ha)

Following four years of lucerne (kg/ha)


2 250

4 500


1 050

1 800 - 2 250


22 500

33 750

The machinery hire service - with four-disc rotary mowers, tedders and pick-up balers - provided by the local authorities proved to be too costly. Mowing is now done either by contractors with small equipment - two-disc mowers or reciprocating blades - or by horse-drawn mowers. These tractors are privately owned by local farmers and, in addition to working their own areas, cut and windrow on contract (¥ 98/ha in 1994). The stubble height on the tractor-mown fields is more regular than in horse-mown fields. Trip-rakes are used for windrowing. The hay is windrowed after a few hours, made into small cocks, and carted about one day after mowing. The rapid curing followed by early, loose stacking gives good hay with little leaf-loss. The hay dries very quickly in the desert climate, and, at Fuhai, is often windrowed at mowing with mower and trip-rake in tandem behind a tractor; the hay is then put into small cocks with a fork and later hand-loaded onto horse carts. The hay is stored in low, loose stacks, and, because of the aridity of the climate, no thatching is required. Apart from the very outside of the stack, which is soon sun-bleached, the hay remains crisp and green for at least two years. The stacks are made within house compounds or earth-walled windbreaks to protect them from the very strong winds which periodically sweep the plains.

A local ecotype of lucerne, Beijiang, probably a hybrid between M. sativa and M. falcata (the latter is wild locally) is the main crop, with Laojiang broad-leaf as a second. This very limited genetic base caused a lot of worry, and a wide range of "cold-tolerant" cultivars were introduced after a search of the world literature. Their early growth was most impressive compared to local controls, but none of the introductions survived the first winter. Winter conditions in Altai are very harsh and there is little or no snow in the irrigated areas to provide any protection. The Region must rely on its own genetic material and breeding skills to develop high-yielding, disease-resistant lucernes. The Department of Grassland Science of the Xinjiang August 1st Agricultural College is carrying out excellent work studying the local genetic resources of fodder plants, and especially of lucerne. They have bred and are multiplying improved lucernes. This crop is very important in both animal production and fertility maintenance throughout the Autonomous Region. These varieties could also be of great interest to other cold desert and semi-arid zones in continental climates, including central Asia and the higher parts of the Himalaya-Hindu Kush region.

Figure 53. Carting and stacking hay at Altai. Small tractors are becoming popular for haymaking

Localized waterlogging is a problem at some sites, either from a rising water table, often due to water from other irrigation areas, or wet patches due to poor field levelling. Much improvement of levelling is needed, and this is neither easy nor rapid by hand on stony soil, with limited labour and land frozen for months. In addition to tackling the root causes of the problem, forages tolerant of such conditions are being sought. Birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) is very promising. A wide range of cultivars have been tested and some are quite productive and hardy, having survived several winters. Within four years of the introduction of irrigation, several pasture legumes, characteristic of non-desert conditions, have appeared spontaneously in areas of higher fertility on moist sites, including Lotus spp., Trifolium fragiferum, T. pratense and T. repens. These occur nearby in grazed clearings in the riparian forests and their seed probably came in droppings.

Straw from the arable break in the rotation is stored and fed, but the overall winter ration is heavily dependent on lucerne - a rare case of winter feed being probably wastefully rich in protein. To date, no suitable grasses for haymaking have been identified and local preference is very much towards lucerne hay.

Changes in management systems to increase productivity, make better use of available feed and to minimize strain on the transition pastures, include:

- Lambing in February instead of April, which gives stronger lambs that will cross the transition pastures quicker, and produces a heavier lamb for September slaughter (traditional: 30 - 35 kg; new additional 7 - 10 kg (liveweight)). About 80% of the ewe lambs may be tupped in the first season. Good winter feeding and some shelter is necessary for this.

- September slaughtering of lambs for freezing, rather than over-wintering them for summer fattening, has been the policy since the early 1980s.

The effect of the improved supply of winter feed is already visible among the earlier settlers, both in flock size and in the condition of individual livestock. Any surplus winter feed is used for increasing their breeding herd through purchase of stock from needy neighbours - it is not usually sold. In addition to improving livestock production, this scheme has considerable social benefit, since the transhumant families now have access to education, in their winter quarters, during the long, severe winter, and to medical facilities, without losing the benefits of the transhumant system.

[4] Based on Li-Menglin, Yuang Bo-Hua & Suttie, 1996.

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