Xiji County is on the Loess Plateau in an area of typical continental climate, with an average summer maximum temperature of 32.6°C and a minimum of 5.3°C. The average rainfall 1937 - 1980 was 428 mm. Incidence and intensity of rainfall is highest in summer, leading to rapid run-off and erosion of topsoil. The elevation varies between 1 988 and 2 633 m. The county authorities initiated, in 1982, a series of interventions aimed primarily at stopping and reversing the trends of soil degradation, while increasing fodder, fuel and timber production. The interventions included:
- The conversion to forest or pasture of all crop land on slopes steeper than 15° or particularly exposed to erosion. On the remaining croplands, the government intensified its extension and training programme on increasing yields.
- On denuded, barren hills, the strategy was to convert separate areas on the upper and lower slopes to pasture and forest in order to increase the permanent cover and retain runoff. These plantings were combined with erosion-control measures.
For the marginal cropland, the conversion programme used local alfalfa (Medicago sativa), Astragalus adsurgens, and, in the early stages, Melilotus spp. On barren hills, alfalfa, Astragalus adsurgens, Sainfoin (Onobrychis sativa) and native wild-rye (Elymus spp.) were used, although mostly alfalfa.
The pasture specialist of the ex post evaluation mission reported:
"Large-scale planting of alfalfa on sloping, marginal land significantly contributed to the control of soil erosion and run-off through the provision of a permanent vegetation cover. The area planted rose by three times, from 9 370 ha in 1981 to 27 706 ha in 1990; the majority of alfalfa is still (1991) very productive and has more than 80 - 90% vegetative cover.
"Despite the high rate of failure of alfalfa and astragalus on the barren hills, there has been a positive effect of this activity on erosion control and run-off. The exclusion of livestock from these areas has allowed the native grass to grow back and the construction of mini-terraces on the contour has helped to arrest runoff.
"However the pasture and forestry conversion programme on the barren hills has had a negative effect on the remaining area of natural pasture (excluding the mountain grassland areas of the NE and NW), which is now much smaller than at the beginning of the project (natural grassland reduced from 57 789 ha at the onset of the project, to 16 794 ha during the project) and is showing the deleterious effects of a much higher density of grazing.
"The project also influenced strongly the direction taken by individual households to expand and diversify their opportunities for raising income from livestock. The initial impetus came from the introduction of the household responsibility system in 1982, which distributed livestock to households, but it was reinforced by the project's pasture conversion activities, which sharply increased the forage supply from 1985 onwards.
"With less grazing land available as a result of the project's pasture and forestry conversion activities, there has also been, post project, an intensive effort made by some villages to move towards a more intensive livestock production system. This has been reinforced by the increasing technical and financial support given by the Bureau of Animal Husbandry for the introduction from nearby counties and provinces of more productive and prolific native cattle and sheep breeds that can be yard-fed rather than grazed.
"Finally the greatly increased fodder supply developed through the project and the overall reduction in livestock numbers that has occurred, which is reflected in the rising offtake achieved between 1981 and 1990 (1.89% to 10.34% for cattle, and 8.8% to 20.5% for sheep and goats) has brought about a situation where feed supplies are broadly in balance with the numbers of livestock present.
"Pasture experience and lessons learnt
"1. Conversion of marginal lands to pasture using alfalfa has proved a sound innovation since it effectively controls erosion, raises soil fertility and greatly increases the availability of good quality fodder. Alfalfa has been grown successfully between widely-spaced rows of poplar trees on marginal agricultural land. However, both in the project area and similar areas, it will be important to integrate planting of alfalfa on marginal lands with ongoing programmes and plans for increasing the area of improved terraces on sloping marginal land.
"2. Conversion of barren hills to pasture utilizing mainly alfalfa and Astragalus was considered initially to be technically sound, since both species were thought to be adapted to the higher-elevation hilly areas. Subsequent experience has shown that both species were not adapted and, in addition, the costs of establishment were too high. Erosion was only partially controlled through the exclusion of stock, allowing some re-generation of native grass to take place. In similar areas, conversion of barren hills to pasture should not be attempted without adapted species being available, and using more cost-effective methods.
"3. The reduction in the area of barren hill grazing land has had a positive effect in forcing many villages in the project area to reduce their numbers of sheep and goats. This has led, especially post project, to an intensification of livestock production, where stock are now yard-fed and fattened over short periods to raise livestock income. Special attention should be given from the start of project activities to ensure that stratification and intensification of animal husbandry is fully supported by technical inputs, including intensification of fodder production.
"Taking into account the present conditions in Xiji County post project, the level of achievement, and the lessons learnt, the following technical recommendations are made that are considered of special importance for improving the planning and technical input for future pasture components that may be introduced by new projects in nearby counties with a similar environment.
"1. In view of the harsh climate and the need to employ the most cost-effective treatments for renovating denuded, barren hills, consideration should be given to introducing simple hillside closure for 1 - 2 years, using guards, to allow re-generation of the natural vegetation to take place. After re-generation, these hillsides could be re-opened on a rotational basis for individual households to harvest the native grass, as directed by of the Chief of the Village Commission.
"2. Taking into account the current ongoing plans for greatly increasing the areas of improved terraces on sloping marginal land, both in Xiji County and other nearby counties, which takes up a large part of the available labour of farmers, much more attention needs to be given to introducing more intensive, short-term, high-yielding fodders, especially annual grasses and legumes, which can be grown in association or rotation with other agricultural crops on the improved terraces. This will require increased technical support from Grassland Stations to initiate the necessary fodder-crop trials on farmers' fields in order to find suitable species and varieties, and then to provide back-up extension support to get them into farm use.
"3. Taking into consideration the recent accelerated support now being given by the Bureau of Animal Husbandry to introduce more productive and prolific native cattle and sheep breeds in Xiji County that can be easily fattened in yards and do not require extensive grazing, more attention should be given in new projects to providing improved animal sheds, as well as better methods of feeding straw and crop by-products, and the conservation of fodders as hay or silage.
"4. Having regard to the shortage of crop land and the need to concentrate shelter belts and erosion-control plantations in strategic positions, which broadly protect the agricultural land below, more attention in new project areas needs to be given to designing and testing sylvi-pasture and agro-sylvi-pasture plantations that properly reflect the needs of the farmers for the short, medium and long terms. In view of the variability in performance in both forestry and pasture plantations established in Xiji County, which appears to have been greatly influenced by aspect, slope, exposure and other climatic and edaphic factors, the test sites need to be carefully chosen with these factors in mind."
Figure 54. Spring fodder deficit is severe on the Loess Plateau. This sheep is stripping bark from a sapling of Robinia pseudacacia (Shensi, China)