Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Chapter II - Cold, semi-arid Asia


Cold semi-arid Asia is a great belt to the south of the taiga. Much of it, apart from some mountains and deserts, is steppe. It includes parts of Russia, Buryatia, Mongolia, much of Central Asia including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as vast areas of China, including Inner Mongolia, northern Gansu, Xinjiang and the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau. China is dealt with in detail in later chapters. Climate is arid to semi-arid and winters are arctic. The area is unsuitable for large-scale fodder conservation, so stock have to be fattened adequately during the short growing season and autumn to survive until next spring. Winter shelter and feed are major problems. Over most of the area there is little interaction between herding and cropping. There are no warmer areas for overwintering (unlike the Himalayan systems, described in later chapters), and winter and early spring is a prolonged period of food scarcity. A major herding skill is getting stock fat enough in summer and autumn to survive the winter.

Many of the herding peoples are of similar ethnic origins and lifestyles. Those to the west of the Altai mountains are Muslims. All were originally full-time nomads, living in circular felt tents, or in Tibet in black woven tents. Herders’ diets are based on dairy products and meat. Two case studies are presented from Mongolia (Chapters III and IV): one describing two transhumance systems in mountainous areas, and another on haymaking by herders using animal-drawn equipment, with some trials on ice-irrigation. Detailed studies on China are given in later chapters.

In the twentieth century the livestock industry of most countries in the region was collectivized for a period. Decollectivization has taken place in all the countries during the past ten to fifteen years, with varying results. These are described briefly for Buryatia, China, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. From the outcome of collectivization and the various degrees of “modernization” that have been applied to the extensive stock rearing systems of the various countries of cold semiarid Asia, it appears that deviating too far from mobile systems using hardy stock is fraught with risks. Use of exotic breeds brings dependence on shelter and on imported feed, which may not be economic. Sedentarization seems to bring localized overgrazing, as well as undue exposure to weather risks. The use of imported feed for winter feed may lead to overstocking and damage to pastoral vegetation. Most of the countries of the region report serious to very serious degradation of their grazing lands. By far the least affected is Mongolia, which has maintained herding mobility, with hardy local breeds throughout.


The case studies, although in contiguous countries, Mongolia and China, involve both northern and central Asia. The herding systems of the region have much in common: mixed herds of several species are general, since they make better use of the natural vegetation, provide a range of products for communities that live entirely by herding, and spread risk in an area of climatic extremes. Horses are very important for meat and milk (Plate 1), and essential for herding - all herders are mounted. Sheep, goats and cattle are all important, while yaks and their hybrids are kept in higher areas (Plate 2). Bactrian camels are common for transport (Plate 3). Since time immemorial, transhumant stock rearing has been the main land use in this vast region (Plate 4), as the semi-arid climate, with long, cold winters, is unsuited to crops. The region - mostly steppe except for some mountains and deserts - lies south of the taiga and includes Buryatia, Tuva, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Parts of China, including Inner Mongolia, northern Gansu and Xinjiang, would fit in here, but are dealt with in a separate chapter because of their size and the vastness of the grazing lands.

Plate 1. Horse herd, Ikh Tamir, Mongolia.

Plate 2. Yaks take over from cattle at high altitudes. Yaks at 4300 m in Linzhou County, about 70 km from Lhasa, Tibet.

The climate is generally semi-arid to arid, and winters are arctic. Winter feed and shelter are major problems. There is little interaction with crop production in most of the area as the climate is unsuitable for cropping, although the lowlands of Xinjiang and a few parts of western and southern Mongolia have a short, hot summer where crops can be grown if irrigation is available. Unlike the Himalayan systems described later, where herds move more or less avoiding extremes of heat and cold by spending the summer on alpine pastures and winter on or near the subtropical plains, herders in northern Asia cannot avoid the winter cold. Winter is also a long period of feed scarcity, so a major skill in herding is to get the stock fat enough in summer and autumn to be able to survive until spring.

Many of the peoples of the area are of similar ethnic origins and lifestyles: those to the west of the Altai mountains are generally Muslims. All were originally fulltime nomads, living in the characteristic circular felt tent or ger (yurt in Russian) on a folding frame (Plate 5), which can be rapidly struck or erected, or, in the case of Tibetans, in black, woven tents. Herders’ diet is largely based on meat and dairy products. In the recent past the herding industry of many countries of the region was collectivized. Decollectivization has taken different forms and had varying results.


Buryatia - a republic of the Russian Federation - is at the junction of the steppe and taiga zones, on Mongolia’s northern border, with Tuva - another republic of Russia - to its west. The main river of Buryatia is the Selenge, which rises in Mongolia and drains to Lake Baikal. About 70 percent of the land is taiga, so its dependence on livestock is much less than that of Mongolia. Forest-based industry, trapping and minerals are all important. In 1992, 22 percent of national income and 12 percent of employment were in the agricultural sector. Precipitation is generally less than 500 mm/yr. Forest dominates the natural vegetation and grazing lands are mainly in valleys - with large tracts of meadow.

In 1993, the natural pasture was estimated at 21 200 km2, of which 3 400 km2 were used for hay and 17 800 km2 for grazing. Total grazing land comprises 12 220 km2 of improved meadows, 6 541km2 of natural meadow and 6 560 km2 of bush and rocky land. About 1 840 km2 of the meadow is marshy, frozen in winter and early spring and therefore of limited access for grazing. The following pasture zones are distinguished:

Plate 3. Camels are common pack animals in much of the steppe. Near Ikh Tamir, Mongolia.

Plate 4. A Mongolian herders’ camp in autumn.

Plate 5. Mounting a ger, the common tentage of the steppe. Roof poles rest on a concertina frame, and all is covered with felt and cloth. There are no ropes or tent pegs, yet gers withstand very high winds.

The dominant species in pasture communities are: Festuca lenensis, Stipa baicalensis, Leymus chinensis, Agropyron cristatum, Potentilla acaulis, Veronica incana, Artemisia frigida, Sanguisorba officinalis, Hemerocallis minor and some species of Carex, Filifolium, Oxytropis, Polygonum and Pulsatilla. On average, the estimated annual forage production of natural pastures is 2 500-3 000 kg/ha of green matter. Pasture degradation is estimated at 60 percent and uncontrolled grazing has led to drainage problems. Available grazing and hay is sufficient only for 50-60 percent of the feed requirements of the national herd.

Nomadic herding was the production system until the 1930s, when collectivization, in the form of collectivization and sedentarization of the population, was introduced as a matter of policy. This brought joint cultivation and haymaking. Livestock production became dependent on external inputs, including feed and fodder.

Evolution of livestock numbers in Buryatia (head).






Total livestock


560 600

559 100

549 600

502 700

455 300

Sheep and goats

1 493 600

1 384 000

1 262 700

1 091 500

822 200


73 500

76 500

73 700

73 700

73 000

Livestock on peasant farms




4 400

11 800

18 400

Sheep and goats


1 500

32 900

35 000

34 800





1 500

2 200

SOURCE: Adapted from FAO, 1996.

Restructuring of the agricultural sector began in 1992, with a redistribution of land of collectives; land under private gardens and grazing land were unaffected. In the initial phase, many former agricultural enterprises collapsed because of migration of workers to private holdings; now many villages have organized new public enterprises as partnerships or companies. State enterprises maintained a strong presence in the livestock sector, and in 1994 only 25 percent of the livestock was privately owned.

Recently, difficult living and market conditions have encouraged migration to urban areas of the rural population, which was 36 percent of the total. In 1990, rural employees numbered 150 000, of which 60 percent were in animal husbandry, 25 percent in cropping and the remainder in related activities. Livestock was distributed about 33 percent in the dry steppe, 23 percent in the steppe, 27 percent in the forest steppe and 17 percent in the mountain taiga zone.

Since decollectivization there has been a sharp decline in livestock numbers (see Table 2.1), especially sheep. Part of the reduction is due to the collapse of the public sector and may be compensated by the rise in private herds, but much is due to lack of feed. Increased slaughter for home consumption has been an important factor in the decrease, accelerated by low market prices for livestock products.

People’s Republic of China

Chapter V is devoted to a description of China’s pastoral sector, and Chapters VI to VIII to three Chinese case studies.

Hu, Hannaway and Youngberg (1992) give a comprehensive description of China’s grassland vegetation. Here some aspects are discussed to compare the various approaches to decollectivization that countries have taken.

Herding communities in China are generally “minority nationalities”, including Mongolians, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Tibetans. In the past decade the Government of China put the “Longterm contract grassland use system” into force, with great effort. Under this system, grassland productivity is improved by subdividing pastures and allocating long-term grazing rights to individual families, based on the number of family members. This has been basically completed nationwide, but it has not been put into practice totally on summer pastures because of their long distance from settlements, complex topography and difficulty of management. This is discussed in more detail in Chapters VI to VIII. The China study, however, indicates that, during the same decade, the degree of pasture degradation rose alarmingly.

Intensification, with enclosure of family grazing land, some upgrading of stock, pasture improvement and integration of crop production and herding, has been adopted with apparent success under the somewhat more clement conditions of the Autonomous Region of Inner Mongolia. Supplementary feeding is an integral part of the system, but herders have access to forage and concentrate feeds from agricultural areas, as well as a vast internal market for their products. The Altai case study describes a system where there has been a considerable upgrading of cattle, less so with sheep, but transhumance has been maintained, partly because of the Prefecture’s mountainous nature and its excellent alpine pastures for summer grazing. The introduction of a new winter feed supply, through irrigated hay production, has improved overwintering condition and survival, but has increased pressure on the transition pastures. There are probably few sites where land and water for haymaking are available in herding areas. Again, the area has access to China’s large market for its products.

The Autonomous Region of Inner Mongolia has developed much more towards individual holdings rather than continuing with the traditional, transhumant system. It has a slightly less harsh climate than Mongolia and Xinjiang, which allows some cultivation of crops, sown pasture and hay, as well as access to feed from neighbouring agricultural areas. It also has good access to a vast national market for livestock products. Pasture degradation has become a major problem in the Region: between 1957 and 1980, the number of livestock rose by 57 percent. Major policy changes have taken place in the past half-century (Ma Rong and Li Qu, 1993): first the livestock of rich landowners and herd-masters were distributed to poor herders. Collective production units were established and step by step developed into collective, brigade and commune. Recently, land and livestock have again been redistributed among the residents. Grazing land is now leased to residents on a contract for a fixed term, and they are responsible for all production, planning and management. Because of the national market, the prices of livestock products rose sharply and this led to increases in stock numbers and overexploitation of the pasture. This short-sighted strategy caused serious ecological problems and the concept that natural pasture could be used without limit was proved fallacious.

After 1980, some 70 percent of the grazing land was leased to individual households. Policies are based on the carrying capacity of the land and appropriate stocking rates and management practices. Contracting farmers are encouraged to create and improve the pasture, and quality has obviously improved with their greatly increased enthusiasm to improve grazing areas. All collective stock was sold to pastoralists at a discount on market prices, to be paid for in instalments over 10-15 years, with the monies to be taken for public accumulation and used for development of grassland as a communal facility. Collective farms have completely disappeared. State farms are divided between production farms and stud farms, and state production farms contract their livestock to herders. After nearly three decades of collective ownership, agricultural capital now has been transferred to producers through the contractual system of “family responsibility”.

Ho (1996) gives a depressing description of the situation in Ningxia, where mismanagement and overgrazing has led to ever-worsening erosion, pasture degradation and associated difficulties, even with the “responsibility system” to persuade herders to manage their grazing lands correctly.


The Kyrgyz pastoral scene is described by Fitzherbert (2000). Kyrgyzstan is mountainous and mainly pastoral, with most of it above 1 500 m. Traditionally, horses were the main livestock, being best suited to long transhumance and foraging in deep snow. Kinship-based groups had rights over recognized areas of pasture along their transhumance between the lowlands and the mountains. Winter feed supply limited stock numbers. By the late nineteenth century, winter camps had permanent buildings and simple stock shelters had come into use. Collective production was developed from 1930, and by 1940 collectivization was complete. Sheep became much more important and profitable; less hardy, fine-wool breeds were developed and raised. The rural population remained in villages; livestock were taken to the high summer pastures (Plate 6) by a small number of salaried herdsmen. Transhumance was maintained for the livestock while settlement gave families permanent housing and access to services.

Plate 6. A camp on the high pasture in Kyrgyzstan.


Privatization of state and collective enterprises took place in 1992. Livestock were shared out among individuals working in the enterprises, and private herding then developed. Currently, three-pasture transhumance continues, but multispecies herds are now normal. While crop land has been let on 49-year leases, natural pasture is almost all common grazing.

Livestock numbers rose steeply between 1960 and 1989. The number of small stock rose by 66 percent, cattle by 50 percent, but horses by only 25 percent, with a maximum herd size of 18 million sheep equivalents in 1989. This was made possible by an increased reliance on imported grain. In the three years following privatization, sheep numbers fell by 30 percent and cattle by 12.5 percent, while horses increased by 23 percent. With the change of system, many stock were slaughtered to pay for services and fodder. This was exacerbated by low prices for livestock products. The local transhumance system - otgonne - aims at maximum use of grazing, with build-up of bodily reserves for winter, and minimal use of conserved fodder.

Sheep numbers in particular have declined most dramatically since the early 1990s, for a number of reasons (van Veen, 1995). After collectivization in the 1930s and 1940s, Russia harnessed the herding skills and transhumance traditions of the Kyrgyz and the rich seasonal grasslands of the Tien Shan mountains into a wool farm for the USSR. They developed new (to the area) breeds of sheep based on the merino, the Rambouillet and other classic western fine-wool breeds, to produce the “Kyrgyz fine-wool” and others. Wool rather than mutton was the government’s priority, so large flocks of wethers were maintained as well as ewe flocks, and flock numbers increased, often regardless of good pastoral management, to meet Central planning quotas.

After independence, in 1991-1992, one of the first things that happened, even before land reform had started, was splitting up the flocks and herds among the members of the sovkhozes and kolkhozes [types of collective]. There was also a collapse of the logistic support they had previously received from the Soviet State to maintain large numbers of animals and people up in the high valleys in the summer.

Stock numbers in Kyrgyzstan, 1990 to 1999 (‘000 head).







Sheep equivalents

Change from previous year


9 544.40





14 536.17


9 106 60








8 361.70





13 034.06

-1 154.90


6 972.60





11 990.89

-1 043.17


4 783.00





9 390.38

-2 600.51


3 899.30





8 506.68



3 322.20





8 476.15



3 333.50





7 895.03



3 308.50





7 906.33

+ 11.30


3 263.80





8 215.67

+ 309.34

NOTE: Official stock counts are in January, before the main spring births. Previously, official stock numbers reflected the ‘state-owned’ herds and flocks, without the individually owned animals, so that the figures for the years 1990/92 may have been higher than recorded here, especially for sheep.

SOURCE: Kyrgyzstan GoskomStat, cited in Fitzherbert, 2000.

Plate 7. Kyrgyzstan pastures at 2500 m in June.


Cheap concentrate feed ceased to be available. Intensive livestock units - beef, dairy, poultry - collapsed. Very few remain. It became much more difficult to maintain large numbers of sheep over winter. The acreage of lucerne shrunk dramatically, ploughed up to grow wheat to feed a population that had previously been fed by Ukraine, the Volga Region and Kazakhstan. The Russian market for wool collapsed. The fall in sheep numbers has been the most dramatic: from over 9 million in 1990 to under 3 million now. Breeding programmes and controls collapsed, except on a few farms that managed to hold on to their flocks. Here opinion is divided between some managers who hang on to previous policies and try to maintain their fine-wool flocks, and others, who are now deliberately breeding back to fat tailed-fat rumped breeds, as clearly the market is now for meat rather than wool. Yak numbers have also declined sharply, since nobody wants to undertake the hard transhumance to the high pastures. Some outlying areas have been almost abandoned for grazing, and wildlife there is said to be on the increase.

After an extensive trip through Kyrgyz mountain pastures in 2001, Fitzherbert (personal communication) found that pasture condition had greatly improved (Plate 7) and that traditional grazing practices were once more being used.

Generally we have found them in marvellous condition - with exceptions of course - but to our surprise many of what they call the priselni pastures, i.e. those closest to the settlements, appear to be in a very recovered, even in excellent state. The mountain Kyrgyz are increasingly returning to a more traditional and rational use of pastures. Fewer animals are being kept round the villages all the year round, and more are being sent up to the jailoo in the summer. That does not mean that all owners are going, but that traditional systems of bada (hiring a group herdsman), and kesu of shared rotational herding responsibility among a group of families, as well as larger flock masters herding their own individual flocks and herds of horses and cattle, mean that most animals are now away from the villages by the end of May or early June, and off to the more distant pastures. We also know much more about the use of south facing slopes for wintering (the sunny side or kungoi) and the shady side (snowy side or teskey) slopes of valleys for spring and early summer pasturage.

Pastures at all levels, and seasonal locations, which every herdsman agrees were grazed down to dust in the 1980s as the result of increasing quota demands from Moscow and seriously heavy stocking, have recovered amazingly well, demonstrating the innate resilience of these pastures and their species, both perennials and ephemerals. There was no evidence of pasture degradation or deterioration to no, or very light, stocking, as predicted or stated by a number of armchair pastoralists; rather the reverse.

Plate 8. Milking at a transit camp, moving to summer pastures, with much of the gear on lorries. The animals group by species at a few words from the herders. Tarialan, Mongolia.


In Mongolia stock rearing is, and always has been, almost the only industry in the country. Traditionally the land was managed, under feudal tenure, by transhumant systems - the only way of using such inhospitable land. While stock movements (Plate 8) are generally, as elsewhere, dictated by the availability of feed, water and shelter, in some regions during summer movement is also made necessary by the presence of biting insects. The case studies show how, in mountainous country, topography and the seasonal closure of passes by snow also has a marked influence. Uvs aimag [province], one of those studied, has a particularly extreme continental climate - it has the hottest summers and coldest winters of anywhere on its latitude and is the northernmost limit of desert.

The cold, arid climate is well suited to extensive grazing and transhumance, which makes best use of pastures where forage availability in any one place can vary greatly from season to season and year to year. The ancient, original systems were transhumant with a wide range of possible travel. In the late thirteenth century, Marco Polo described Mongol transhumance and their gers. The country’s pastures have probably always been heavily stocked, and hard grazing is a historical phenomenon, not something of recent development. Kharin, Takahashi and Harahshesh (1999) quote Przhevalsky (1883), who said that “all suitable agricultural lands were reclaimed and all grazing lands were overloaded by livestock.” Feudal land ownership was done away with on the founding of the Mongolian Communist State in 1921; transhumance continued, with government supervision.

A fundamental change took place in 1950, with the collectivization of the livestock industry. While this facilitated the provision of government services and marketing (and probably control of a nomadic population), it decreased the range over which herds could travel and thus reduced opportunities for risk avoidance in times of feed scarcity. The unit of management was the negdel, covering the same area as a single district (sum); it was primarily an economic unit responsible for marketing livestock products, supplying inputs and consumer goods, as well as fodder and transport services to members, and it provided health, education and veterinary services. Although livestock was collectivized, each family could keep two livestock units (bod - a large-animal unit, where 1 camel = 1.5 bod; cattle and horses = 1; and 7 sheep or 10 goats = 1 bod) per person, so about a quarter of the herd was under private control.

During the collective period, the government intervened heavily in livestock production through the provision of breeding stock, fodder, marketing, transport and services. It was a heavily subsidized production system, which did not allocate resources efficiently. The loss of mobility through collectivization was compensated by the production of supplementary forage, and a State Emergency Fodder Fund (SEFF) was established to provide feed during weather events that would threaten survival, but, with heavily subsidized transport and undervalued prices, herders soon became dependent on it as a regular source of feed. By 1991, SEFF, handling 157 600 tonne, had become a major component of the state budget. A network of stock routes allowed slaughter stock to be trekked to market, fattening en route. There were marketing and primary processing facilities for hides, skins, wool and cashmere.

Eighteen aimags were subdivided into 225 sum, in turn divided into brigades. Negdel headquarters had administration, schools (boarding), medical facilities, a veterinary unit, communications, recreational facilities and shops. Negdels were set production quotas and paid accordingly with bonuses - the system was production driven. A vast number of salaried administrators and specialist staff was built up at all levels, especially in the capital.

Political change was rapid in the early 1990s. Policy was to privatize half of the livestock and turn the rest of the negdel’s assets into companies, with the former negdel members as shareholders. Some companies were never formed, others collapsed quickly. All stock was soon distributed amongst negdel members. This created a large class of “new herders” from the ex-salaried workers - some with little or no relevant experience or training. No legislation was drawn up to define rights to pasture so private stock graze on uncontrolled public land. There is a ministerial dichotomy: livestock is under agriculture, but pasture under natural resources! Because of lack of title, no maintenance occurs on pasture infrastructure, so at least 85 percent of mechanized wells are not functioning.

An overall description of herding in Mongolia, as well as a summary of changes in its structure, is given in the FAO Pastoral Resource Profile for Mongolia (Suttie, 2000b). The basic system is four-season grazing, with specific winter, spring, summer (Plate 9) and autumn pastures, using mixed herds (Plate 10), usually of five species of hardy local breeds.

Otor - travel to distant pastures - is also an important part of the system. There are three major periods of otor: (i) spring otor for grazing young grass; (ii) summer otor for development of enough muscle and internal fat; and (iii) autumn otor for consolidation of fatness. There can also be emergency movement of large stock to grazing reserves in a hard winter. Some social reorganization has begun to appear, usually at the level of a few families collaborating for herding tasks, but no larger association, capable of participating in overall land management, has yet appeared.

Plate 9. Mongolian summer camp in the Great Lakes basin.

With decollectivization, most of the technical services previously available to herders - including veterinary care, improved quality breeding stock, organized marketing of livestock and products, emergency fodder, and shops in outlying centres - have been suspended.

Privatization of livestock has created many problems for grazing management. With private livestock on public land there is no control over how herders use pasture. Market and social forces have brought about changes in pasture use. The collapse of markets and social services have encouraged herders to move close to cities and service centres. New herders, mostly ex-employees of negdel and state farms, have difficulties in gaining access to grazing (especially winter grazing), and this leads to conflicts. The influx of new herders is leading to frequent disputes over territory. Grazing rights are not clear at local level, which makes dispute settlement difficult for administrators. Controls on land use cannot be enforced effectively by sum officials; the areas are too great and the government resources too small to do such work, even if it were practicable. A self-regulating and community- based system of management is needed. Several suggestions have been made, varying from grazing associations to a return to traditional units.

The vast grasslands of Mongolia are part of the steppe, a prominent transition belt in inner and central Asia between the forest and desert belts. Steppe vegetation is characterized by a predominance of grasses, especially Stipa spp., Cleistogenes soongorica and Festuca spp. Legumes are scarce, and the commonest are Medicago falcata and Astragalus spp. Artemisia frigida is frequent and is the main steppeforming plant of the desert steppe. The montane forest steppe has Festuca spp. and Artemisia spp. as dominants.

Plate 10. Cattle being milked beside calf pens. Cattle, yaks and their hybrids are kept. Ikh Tamir, Mongolia.

Opinions on the present state of Mongolia’s pastures vary widely, especially those of external missions. There is general agreement that overstocking now occurs close to agglomerations, especially the capital, and along roads. Damage through random track-making by vehicles in valley bottoms is also widespread. Thereafter opinions have varied from declaring that the nation’s pastures are seriously degraded, risking an ecological disaster, to the view that overstocking is a localized phenomenon and labour availability, not pasture production, is the main constraint to herding.

While stock numbers are at an all-time high since recording began in 1918, the 1996 levels were only marginally higher than those of 1950. The consensus is that problems vary from place to place, and that outlying (summer and autumn) pastures are underutilized while winterspring pastures are often being abused. Natural control of stock numbers is the traditional way to correct overstocking. Periodic zud - a term applied to various types of winter weather event in the cold season, mostly deep or frozen snow making feed inaccessible, but also lack of snow preventing access to grazing where there is no water in winter, blizzards, very low temperatures, etc. - or prolonged drought kills large numbers and puts the grazing stock back in equilibrium with the forage supply. Nevertheless, however effective natural disasters are in protecting the grazing vegetation, they inevitably lead to poverty and suffering among the herders. The spring of 2000 saw a particularly severe zud over a large area.

Previously, mechanized wells and bores had supplied water to large areas in the steppe; most of these are now out of use since their ownership is unclear and they have not been maintained, so these areas are now unavailable to domestic stock, but are being recolonized by gazelles.

Eighty percent of Mongolia is extensive grazing, and a further 10 percent is forest or forest scrub, which is also grazed. Its climate is arid to semi-arid and the frost-free period of most of the steppe is 100 days; transhumant herding on natural pasture is the only sustainable way of using such land. There is hardly any crop production. Natural pasture is the only animal feed, and since it is impossible during so short a growing season to conserve feed for the unproductive nine months, survival of herds depends on having the stock fat enough in autumn to survive winter and spring. Animals not essential for breeding are sold, or slaughtered and frozen for domestic use, at the onset of winter.

The livestock population rose very rapidly from 1918 until 1940 (Table 2.3), but was severely affected by bad weather in the 1940s, and remained almost stable throughout the collective period. There has been a very steep increase since decollectivization, to over 28 000 000 in 1996, and even the zuds of 1999 to 2001 have not brought numbers down to 1996 levels. The evolution of stock numbers, as stock units (using the traditional bod units), is shown graphically in Figure 2.1.

In the absence of other employment opportunities, families must keep livestock (Plate 11). The evolution of stock numbers, therefore, is probably associated with the rise in the human population. The total population has risen sharply, more rapidly than livestock numbers, tripling in half a century, from 772 400 in 1950 to 2 422 800 in 1998, and the degree of urbanization rose very steeply on collectivization. Whereas previously the urban dwellers were only 15 percent, after a decade of collectivization they had risen to 40 percent, and were 57 percent by 1989, the end of the collective period. These figures include those in the sum centres. The 1997 figures show a slight decrease in the proportion (but not number) of town dwellers, perhaps reflecting some families returning to herding. While the rise since 1950 has been large and rapid, the projections for the next twenty years show no slowing down, but instead predict a near doubling!

Stock numbers in Mongolia, 1918-2000 (‘000 head).










1 150.5

1 078.7

5 700.0

1 487.9

9 645.8



1 389.8

1 512.1

8 444.8

2 204.4

13 826.1



1 566.9

1 887.3

15 660.3

4 080.8

23 675.7



2 538.1

2 722.8

15 384.2

5 096.3

25 384.8



2 317.0

1 987.8

12 574.6

4 978.6

22 702.2



2 289.3

1 637.4

10 981.9

4 732.6

20 392.9



2 317.9

2 107.8

13 311.7

4 204.0

22 574.9



1 985.4

2 397.1

14 230.7

4 566.7

23 771.2



1 971.0

2 408.1

13 248.8

4 298.6

22 485.5



2 200.2

2 840.0

14 657.0

5 602.5

25 714.9



2 270.5

3 476.3

13 560.6

9 134.8

28 800.1



2 660.7

3 976.0

13 876.4

10 269.8

31 105.8

SOURCE: ADB, 1998.

FIGURE 2.2. Change in stock levels in Mongolia over time (stock units ×103).

The degree of urbanization may seem surprising, given the lack of towns of any size, but many of these people are living around the small townships at sum and aimag centres, originally as employees of negdels and many now semi-unemployed, not having succeeded in herding after decollectivization.

Two consecutive years, 1999/2000 and 2000/2001 have had the harsh combination of drought followed by zud: stock suffered on thin pastures in the growing season and were unable to feed because of hardened snow in winter. This is, of course, a regular risk in herding under such climatic conditions (Plate 12). The greatest disaster was 1944/45, when 8 million adult stock were lost. Eight zud winters have been recorded since then, the worst pre-2000 being in 1967. The figures used to define zud are stock losses, not meteorological data; for much of the time when zud has been recorded there was a well organized system of grazing management. Shelters were maintained and winter feed conserved, emergency systems were probably better equipped as well. It is not clear, therefore, to what extent the recent losses are a reflection of severe weather events, and how much is due to lack of preparedness by herders and authorities. Stock numbers had risen very steeply since 1990, and this may have been a contributing factor to the severe losses. The government is now very aware that good stock and pasture management, coupled with preparation at local level, is necessary if further such disasters are to be mitigated or avoided. It is recognized that “relief” is generally ineffective and expensive; similarly, restocking herders is to little avail if the underlying faults that put stock at risk are not attended to.

Plate 11. Cashmere goats are an important source of revenue in cold climates. Early October, Mongolia.

Plate 12. Winter can come early. Mongolia, mid-October.

In response to the damage caused by zud, the government drew up a Programme for Combating Zud and Drought (Resolution of the Government of Mongolia, 13 March 2001, No. 47, Ulan Bator). This sets out the responsibilities of central and local government at various levels, as well as those of the herders themselves. Herder responsibility mainly concerns adequacy of winter preparedness. The programme has a set of integrated goals:

An FAO TCP project studying Herding Risk Strategy concluded:

The main key to winter survival of livestock is having them in as good a condition as possible, adequately fat, by the onset of winter. Herd survival and herders’ risk avoidance is not a seasonal activity: it depends on proper grazing management throughout the year. Grazing management principles are well known in Mongolia but, since the early 1990s, have been largely ignored. Preparation of stock for winter is not only an autumnal activity; it depends on proper herd and grazing management throughout the year. Proper seasonal use (and protection) of pastures is the key to good grazing management. Otor is an essential strategy both for autumn fattening and winter emergencies. Suitable areas for otor reserves at both inter-aimag and inter-sum level have been identified, but require infrastructure as well as regulation of use. Many otor areas are already well known, but all should be prospected and their use planned. Otor areas at all levels should be delimited and agreements made on their use - depending on their situation, collaboration between sums or aimags will be required. Herders should be encouraged to go on autumn otor for fattening. Winter emergency otor reserves should be equipped with necessary infrastructure.

The potential area of hay land was mapped some time ago; it does not always take into account suitability for the various methods of haymaking (manual, mechanized, horsedrawn), potential hay quality nor accessibility to users. More information is needed both to estimate potential hay production and to assess likely needs in machinery and spares.

Local rules for pasture use, with emphasis on control of seasonal movement, are necessary so that herders know where they should (and should not) be at a given season. These have existed but require revision and updating; their drafting should be a consultative process. Once the rules are drawn up, herders have to be made aware of them. Their observance should be assured by involvement of herders and local administration. Grazing management plans indicating seasonal grazing areas and times for moving from zone to zone should be revised and updated, sum by sum, in consultation with herders. Out-of-season grazing should be avoided, and this includes exclusion of trespassers from other sums. The bag khural [local-level parliament] should assist in the implementation of the plans.

Winter preparedness involves much more than good grazing management. Other activities include animal health, household preparedness in food, fuel and housing, timely construction or cleaning and repair of shelters and pens, and assurance of water supply.

Correct grazing management and respecting of seasonal use can probably be organized at sum and bag level if herders’ participation is obtained. If, however, herds from outside the sum use its pastures in an uncontrolled fashion, the sum’s work will have been in vain.

Risk in herding

Risk is inherent in extensive stock rearing, partly because it is carried out in areas that are marginal for other forms of agriculture. This is discussed in detail, with reference to cold, semi-arid areas, by Swift (1999), and Baas, Erdenbaatar and Swift (2001). Three main categories of risk affect the pastoral economy:

The different types of risk are interrelated: for example, bad weather may weaken surviving animals. Market failure exacerbates other risks. The word ‘risk’ itself carries many different meanings. It is often used in a very general, but negative, way: ‘risk refers to uncertain events that can damage well-being’. Risk is also used in English in positive ways, as when we talk about risk-taking by entrepreneurs.

Plate 13. Horses in the eastern steppe, Hentii, Mongolia. These are kept for milk and meat, as well as work. Large stock are usually left to graze free without herders.

While herders can lose drastically in bad years, they can build up capital in a series of good seasons. In the Himalayan zone, many herding groups are also stock traders. This may be more lucrative than the actual stock rearing. The studies here deal with transhumant people who are mainly engaged in looking after stock; this does not mean that their whole ethnic group are poor herders. Those who build up stock and capital can move to a more settled existence, buy land and property and live by trading. The subsistence cropgrower has far less chance of escaping from a cycle of poverty. Gujars in India and Pakistan (see Chapters X to XII) are renowned stock traders, as well as being milk dealers in peri-urban areas; it is the poorer ones who go on transhumance. The Kuchis of Afghanistan are also great traders. In the ex-communist countries, any tradition of trading would have died out under many years of centralized marketing, and clear trading patterns have yet to appear.

Strategies for cold semi-arid grazing land

Several strategies for exploiting extensive grazing land are used in the Region, or have been used in the recent past, with very varying degrees of success and sustainability.

Intensification through the use of exotic or upgraded stock, with higher production potential, has been widely advocated, sometimes with fencing of pastures. Use of exotic stock immediately leads to loss of mobility and hardiness, so shelter, even housing, will be necessary for overwintering. Such livestock are unable to subsist and produce entirely by foraging, so external inputs of feed are needed. Such production systems are usually sedentarized. “Improved” stock rarely stand up to long transhumance, so mobility cannot be used for risk avoidance, precluding making full use of far-off, high-altitude or arid grazing. Intensive production in areas of low pasture yield, with a very short growing season, are dependent on external inputs and thus can only survive when they have access to a good market for their products. This was the policy of the intensive livestock sector in Mongolia, which supplied urban demand for dairy, pork and poultry products; it made little use of the natural grassland and collapsed because of changes in the economic situation.

Sedentarization of the herding population and “improvement” of livestock by cross-breeding has been widely used in the pastoral regions of the former USSR since the 1930s. In some instances, upgrading to fine-wool sheep produced herds that required shelter in winter as well as supplementary feed; such herds have difficulty in surviving without external inputs and, with current low wool prices, upgraded sheep are being sold or slaughtered in Kyrgyzstan, and a slow start made to redeveloping local, adapted meat breeds.

Mongolia has maintained mobility (Plate 13) for its vast extensive livestock sector throughout the changes of system. Transhumance, with few if any external inputs, has clearly demonstrated its resilience and sustainability. The negdel, although restricting transhumance distances compared to the original traditions, still covered sufficiently large areas to cope with many weather events. Selected stock of local breeds were used, and some crossing of cattle took place in favoured areas, but the overall livestock population has remained hardy, productive, good foragers and suitable for mobile herding. Under the negdels there was an excessive use of subsidized fodder, which may have contributed to their eventual economic collapse, but they left behind both herders and stock adapted to the conditions and economic realities of the country’s grazing lands. The lack of orderly transfer of grazing rights, however, has led to some transitional problems. It is clear that improvement of grazing management in Mongolia must be within traditional transhumance and based on the proper use of grazing land, with the minimum use of external inputs. In addition to making best use of the available grazing in an organized manner, the redevelopment of family haymaking, from natural herbage, in those regions where hayfields can be developed, is a primary area for encouragement.

In China (see Chapter V) grazing land has been allocated on Long-term Grassland Use Contracts; this usually involves sedentarization of the families and often of the livestock. It is still too early to judge the effect of this on pasture condition, nor whether reseeding is sustainable.

It appears, from the outcome of collectivization and the various degrees of “modernization” that have been applied to the extensive stock rearing systems of the various countries of cold semi-arid Asia, that deviating too far from mobile systems using hardy stock is fraught with risks. Use of exotic breeds brings a dependence on shelter and imported feed, which may not be economic. Sedentarization seems to bring localized overgrazing as well as undue exposure to weather risks. The use of imported feed for winter feed may lead to overstocking and damage to pastoral vegetation. Most of the countries of the region report serious to very serious degradation of their grazing lands. By far the least affected is Mongolia, which has maintained herding mobility, with hardy local breeds throughout.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page