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Chapter V - China’s pasture resources - Zizhi Hu and Degang Zhang


This chapter has been condensed from a much more detailed Country Fodder/Pasture Resource Profile, which can be found on the FAO website (Hu and Zhang, 2001). China’s pastoral areas are concentrated in six provinces and autonomous regions - Inner Mongolia; Xinjiang; Tibet; Qinghai; Sichuan; and Gansu - where extensive stock raising is the main agricultural enterprise. Mixed farming, on relatively small family farms, is the agricultural system of the rest of the country, where livestock are still important, but are mainly fed on crop residues, some sown pasture and limited rough grazing if available. Since China spans a latitude range from below the tropics to areas with permafrost, and from sea level to great plateaus above 5 000 m, there is a great diversity of pasture types; these are defined and described along with the animal production systems that have developed on them. A range of forages and pasture plants have been developed to suit the various zones; some forages, such as lucerne (Medicago sativa), which is of very ancient cultivation in northern and western China, and Astragalus sinicus, which is rotated with rice as a foddercum- green-manure, are widespread. Now Lolium multiflorum is becoming increasingly used in southerly rotations. The main forages, their adaptation and use are described, including several aquatic fodder crops.

The pastures of family farms still belong to the state and families pay according to a Long-term Grassland Use Contract with the government. The livestock belong to the family. In the past decade, the government has put the Long-term Grassland Use Contract 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, with fencing, homestead and barn, establishing artificial grassland and building infrastructure for water and electricity supply. This has been basically completed nationwide. Contracting of pastures simplifies their administration and gives families incentives for their better management and improvement, but does restrict mobility in semi-arid areas of traditional transhumance. Pasture degradation is a major problem, currently increasing by about two percent annually, but some parts - Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Heilonjiang - are worse than the average, and it is hoped that grassland allocation will allow this trend to be slowed or reversed.

In the agricultural areas, farm size is small, so sown pastures and forages are generally cut and carried to feed livestock. In intensive systems, forage is fed to monogastric stock as well as to ruminants. Several specialized, non-pasture, fodders are grown, including aquatic forages, in suitable, mostly subtropical, zones. There has been considerable innovation in the livestock and forage sector in recent years and the livestock sector is now much more market oriented, and its subsistence component relatively small. Lolium multiflorum is now widely used as a winter forage in rotation with rice. Increasing use is being made of crop residues, and ensiled maize stover and ammoniated straw are widely used in commercial fattening and overwintering of cattle and sheep.

Three case studies are presented in subsequent chapters: two from Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region - one on transhumance allied to irrigated haymaking and the other on lucerne breeding - form Chapters VI and VII, with a detailed study of the pastures and animal husbandry of Tibet Autonomous Region in Chapter VIII.


China covers about 9 600 000 km2, and its territorial waters cover 4 730 000 km2. It has land borders with fourteen countries and maritime borders with five others. The country is divided into 34 provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities and special administrative regions. The population - 1 205 000 000 - is 22 percent of the human race. Han account for 94 percent of the population, but there are 56 other ethnic groups. Chinese is spoken throughout the country.

Based on economic development and geography, China is divided into three parts: west, central and east. The east includes Liaoning, Tianjin, Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong, Hainan, Hong Kong and Macao. The centre includes Heilongjiang, Jilin, Shanxi, Henan, Anhui, Hubei, Jiangxi and Hunan. The west includes Guangxi, Sichuan, Chongqing, Guizhou, Yunnan, Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Tibet.

FIGURE 5.1. East, Central and West parts of the People’s Republic of China.

Cultivated land and forests are mainly in the east and centre; grassland is in the west. The east is dominated by farming and the west by grassland husbandry. Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu are the six main pastoral areas.

China’s topography is in three great terraces: highest in the west and lowest in the east. The terrain is generally mountainous, with a very high mean altitude: 33 percent is mountains and only 12 percent plains. The area below 500 m almost equals that above 3 000 m: both are around a quarter of the total. The natural conditions and agriculture of the three terraces are very different:

Most water systems run from west to east, and drain to the Pacific, except for those rising on the southern Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, which run from north to south and drain into either the Pacific Ocean or the Indian Ocean from the barrier of the Hengduanshan Mountains.


China’s soil types are complex. The zonal soil types in the East Monsoon Zone are - from south to north - latosol, lateritic red soil, red soil, yellow soil, yellow-brown soil, burozem and drab soil, dark brown forest soil, and podzolic soil. Zonal soil types from northeast to northwest are chernozem, chestnut soil, brown soil, sierozem, grey brown desert soil, and brown desert soil. On the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the soil types from east to west are alpine meadow soil, alpine steppe soil, alpine desert soil and alpine frozen soil. Because there are many mountains, the vertical zonal pedigree of a soil type appears widely. There are different soil pedigrees on the different mountains. Influenced by a long history of cultivation, there are also many agricultural soil types, including paddy soil, oasis soil and lou soil (stratified old loessial soil).

Soil fertility is, as everywhere, a limiting factor in grassland production. China’s soils are generally low in phosphorus; potash is low in many of the better watered southern and eastern areas, but high in many northern and western semi-arid zones. There are few national sources of phosphate and potash, and, because of long transport routes, farmers do not have easy access to these fertilizers. Fertility recycling is stressed, with use of manure, compost, etc., together with green manuring, including using legumes and Azolla.

Soil degradation (Plate 22) is the most important constraint for China’s ecological conservation and economic development. Desertified (i.e. degraded soils in the arid, semi-arid and subhumid areas) land accounts for 27.32 percent of the total area. Of this, 61.3 percent was caused by wind, 7.80 percent by water, 8.89 percent by salinization, 13.85 percent by frost and 8.16 percent by other factors. The area of degraded grassland - 1 052 300 ha - is increasing by two percent annually. The area of degraded arable land in the arid, semi-arid and non-humid regions is 7 744 900 ha, or 40.6 percent of all arable land. See also Tables 5.1 and 5.9.

Plate 22. Land cleared for crops and then abandoned gives poor grazing in Guizhou, China. Once the forest cover was removed, the shallow soils were soon eroded to expose the underlying rock.

Agricultural land use characteristics in PR China.

Land Use

Area (‘000 ha)

Percentage of Total

Cultivated land

120 040



158 940


Inland water

17 470



400 000


of which usable grassland

313 330



253 550



According to the system used in Vegetation of China (Wu Zhengyi, 1980), 10 vegetation type groups cover 29 vegetation types and 560 formations: (1) Coniferous forest, (2) Broad-leaf forest, (3) Shrubs and shrub-meadow, (4) Steppe and savannah, (5) Desert, (6) Tundra, (7) Alpine sparse vegetation, (8) Meadow, (9) Marsh, and (10) Aquatic vegetation. Vegetation types in the East Monsoon Zone have a latitudinal zonal distribution; from south to north they are: tropical rain forest and monsoon forest; subtropical evergreen broad-leaf forest; warm-temperate deciduous broad-leaf forest; temperate broad-leaf and coniferous mixed forest; and subtemperate coniferous forest. Vegetation types in northern China have an obvious longitudinal distribution; from east to west they are: forest; steppe; and desert. Vegetation type distribution on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is characterized by both horizontal and vertical zonal features. With increasing altitude and decreasing rainfall from southeast to northwest, the vegetation types are: mountain forest; alpine shrub; alpine meadow; alpine steppe; and alpine desert. All types (forest, steppe and desert) are present. Subtropical evergreen broad-leaf forest is widely distributed through the impact of the monsoon; a complete and unique vertical distribution spectrum of alpine vegetation is found on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.


Despite its vast territory and the effects of topography and atmosphere circulation, there are only three climatic zones: East Monsoon; Northwest Arid and Semiarid; and the Qinghai-Tibet Alpine Zone. Regional capitals, even Lhasa, are usually in relatively clement sites. Climate is further discussed below in relation to grassland zones.

The East Monsoon Zone

It occupies 45 percent of the land; north and northwest winds are common in winter, and southeast, south and southwest winds in summer. Rainfall varies seasonally according to wind and coincides with high solar radiation. Drought, waterlogging, wind disaster and cold snaps are frequent in the east because of the protean monsoon, typhoon and cold waves. Eastern China can be divided into three climate zones from south to north: Tropical; Subtropical and Temperate. Temperature differences are quite large in winter, but small in summer. The major vegetation in the East Monsoon area is various types of forest.

The western arid and semi-arid area

This area in inner Eurasia has a continental climate all year round. Precipitation decreases gradually from east to west, from 400 mm to less than 100 mm. Steppe and desert dominate the landscape. Vertical variation of climate in the Qinghai-Tibet Alpine area is very significant, characterized by low temperature, strong solar radiation, wind and uneven rainfall. Precipitation declines from southeast to northwest on the plain of the plateau; the natural landscape varies accordingly from forest, through alpine shrub and alpine steppe, to alpine desert.

Features of Agricultural Zones

The most important difference in agricultural zonation is between east and west; water is the main determining factor. China can be divided into three natural zones: the monsoon zone in the east, which accounts for 45 percent of all land; the arid inland zone in the northwest, with 30 percent; and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau inland zone in the southwest, accounting for 25 percent of all land. The eastern monsoon zone is agricultural; the northwest and southwest are pastoral.

The northeast

This is a vast plain with fertile land for crops and forests with plenty of water but low solar radiation. Industry and communications are developed, the population engaged in agriculture is low, and farming is comparatively large scale. It is the main production area for cereals, soybean and sugar beet. Forestry is also developed, with the largest natural wood production. There is little development of animal husbandry, which is dominated by stall feeding.

Inner Mongolia and along the Great Wall

With a temperate climate, low precipitation and scarce water, there is less arable and forest, but vast grasslands. There is frequent drought, windy weather and increasing desertification. Livestock is the main agricultural sector: crops and animal husbandry are intermixed. Animal production is traditional nomadic or semi-nomadic (herders have fixed houses in winter and early spring, but travel at other seasons) and its commercial economy is undeveloped.

Yellow River, Huai River and Hai River

The climate is temperate monsoon, with rainfall at the season of high solar radiation; water is relatively scarce. With vast plains, well-equipped agricultural machinery, good communications, a long history of cultivation and a high proportion of arable land, it is an important area for wheat, cotton, maize, groundnut and fruit. The development of animal husbandry and aquaculture is relatively good.

Loess Plateau

The topography is characterized by plateaus and hills covered by loess; soil erosion is very severe. Solar radiation is plentiful but water scarce. Agriculture is primarily rainfed grain production. The commodity economy is undeveloped, but the potential for developing grassland farming and fruit growing is high.

Middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River

Solar radiation, temperatures and water are all favourable. Water is abundant; the arable area is large and fertile. City density is high and industry is well developed. Agriculture is highly developed, with a high total yield of a variety of agricultural products. It is the main integrated agricultural production area and the centre for rice, cotton, oil crops, tea, silk, swine and fish.

The southwest

The climate is warm and humid. The terrain is dominated by hills; flat land is scarce. Agriculture is poor, extensive and low yielding; grain production is for subsistence. It is the production centre for tobacco, rape seed, silk, tea and fruit. The dominance of commercial swine production is remarkable. There are many forest and speciality products.

South China

This part is hilly, with scarce arable land and a long coastline. Most is subtropical with plenty of precipitation; it is the only area suitable for tropical crops. The position is advantageous, and favours export-oriented industries. The rural economy is well developed. Staple agricultural products are vegetables, fish, swine and poultry. Grain production exceeds local needs. The difference in development between coastal and hill areas is very marked.

Gansu and Xinjiang

There are vast areas of low-quality land; much is natural grassland, with little forest and arable. Solar radiation and thermal resources are abundant, but water is very scarce. Desertification and salinization are very severe and the agricultural environment is very fragile. Energy and mineral resources are abundant. Communications are poor. Scattered oases are the main crop production mode. Grain and oil resources per capita are high. Cotton, sugar beet, fruit and melons yield well. Grassland husbandry is well developed. Livestock are raised in both crop and pastoral areas, but output is quite low.


This zone is characterized by rarefied air, high altitude, strong solar radiation and low temperatures. Natural grassland covers the largest area, forest takes second place. Arable land is rare and patchily distributed. Water is plentiful but unevenly distributed. It is a sparsely populated, vast land in a remarkable landscape. Communications are very difficult. Agriculture, forestry and animal husbandry have features in common with all alpine areas. Livestock, crops and trees are adapted to low temperature and low oxygen concentration, and their potential for productivity is quite high. Livestock herding on natural pasture is the major agricultural sector. Grain production per capita is half of the national average. Management of agriculture and livestock is extensive and production levels low. The commodity economy is undeveloped and backward.

Ruminant livestock production systems

Livestock production has developed rapidly since 1949. At the end of 1999, livestock numbered 670 020 000, of which 430 198 000 (64 percent) were pigs. Grazing livestock and the pastoral industry are concentrated in six regions and provinces: Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region, Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai Province, Sichuan Province and Gansu Province. These have 70 percent of sheep, all the camels, 25 percent of cattle and goats, 44 percent of horses and 39 percent of donkeys (see Table 5.2a). Of the total livestock, 2 461 300 are kept by state-owned farms (3.67 percent of the total, including 2.54 percent of swine). Production of meat and milk (see Table 5.2b) has increased greatly. Average annual growth rates of meat and dairy output from 1980 to 1998 were 8.7 percent and 9.9 percent, respectively. National production of meat and wool took first and second places, respectively, in the world in 1999. Meat availability per capita is 47.3 kg - above average world level - but the per capita availability of milk and wool is still low. The proportion of animal product value in total agricultural production increased from 12.4 percent in 1949 to 28.5 percent in 1999. Until recently, livestock production was mostly not commercial and the supply of livestock products inadequate; now it has moved from the subsistence to the commercial economy and the proportion of animal products consumed domestically is very small.

Farm type and size

China is a country of small, family farms; small farm size in agricultural areas has a marked effect on choice of forage management systems, which often makes grazed pasture impractical, so sown pastures and fodders are usually cut and carried. There are two types of holdings: family farms and state-owned farms. The pasture of family farms still belongs to the state and families pay according to a Long-term Grassland Use Contract with the government; the livestock belong to the family. In pastoral areas, a family farm usually has 5-6 people, 40-80 ha of pasture and 100-150 sheep units of livestock. In eastern agricultural areas, animal production at family level is small due to land scarcity. According to the sample survey of rural households, a family had only 1.48 swine, 0.47 sheep and 0.05 cattle on average in 1999, and the output of beef, milk and wool were 0.40 kg, 12.74 kg and 0.73 kg, respectively. Some family farms specialize in livestock (pigs, sheep or cattle) and their scale is much larger than common family farms. Some sell more than 100 fat beef cattle annually.

Livestock population changes in the pastoral provinces(1) of PR China (in thousand head).


Cattle & buffalo





Swine (year end)

Goats (year end)

Sheep (year end)


110 318

8 715

9 444

4 780


362 836

123 158

114 125


121 757

8 912

9 528

4 806


400 348

134 801

120 956


124 419

8 981

9 558

4 739


422 563

141 683

127 352


126 983

8 914

9 348

4 673


430 198

148 163

131 095

Six pastoral provinces and regions (1999)

29 608

3 907

3 637

1 502


63 952

38 032

91 454

Proportion of pastoral provinces in total (1999)









NOTE: (1) The pastoral provinces and regions include Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region, Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai Province, Sichuan Province and Gansu Province.

SOURCE: National Bureau of Statistics, 2000.

Output of livestock products of China.


Meat (‘000 tonne)

Milk (‘000 tonne)

Sheep wool (tonne)

Goat fibre (tonne)





Cow milk







31 580

3 557

1 810

7 358

6 294

298 102

121 020

74 099

35 255

9 585


35 963

4 009

2 128

6 811

6 011

255 059

116 054

55 683

25 865

8 626


38 837

4 799

2 346

7 454

6 629

277 545

115 752

68 775

31 417

9 799


40 056

5 054

2 513

8 069

7 176

283 152

114 103

73 700

31 849

10 180

Pastoral(1) (1999)

5 476



2 228

2 084

172 336

71 694

33 629

9 914

5 971

Share(2) (1999)











NOTES: (1) Production from the six pastoral provinces and regions, which are Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region, Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai Province, Sichuan Province and Gansu Province. (2) The proportion from the six pastoral provinces and regions in national total production.

SOURCE: National Bureau of Statistics, 2000.

State farms are mainly for breeding. Those in crop growing areas, for swine and poultry, are usually small; those in pastoral areas are normally larger, with 30 000-50 000 ha and 20 000-30 000 head of stock (in sheep units). The largest state-owned farm covers 150 000 ha. These farms are mainly for breeding sheep and cattle, with a very few for horses and goats. The state ranches of ancient China were to supply war horses. In the late 1970s, most military ranches switched to sheep, cattle or mixed farming.

Livestock species and breeds

Livestock in China can be classified into four lineages, according to origin and distribution:

China has a great range of livestock breeds, famous for their prolificity, flavour and adaptation to extensive management, cold tolerance, load carrying and suitability for specific regions. There are excellent special breeds in each typical grassland type. Breeds have been described by species (Editorial Board of Cattle Breeds of China, 1988; Editorial Board of Sheep Breeds of China, 1989).


Bos taurus and Bos indicus, called Huang Niu (Yellow Cattle) in Chinese, are found everywhere below 2 000 m. There are 55 recognized breeds. Based on their adaptation to ecological conditions, cattle fall into three ecogeographical groups: Northern Cattle, Central Plains Cattle and South China Cattle. Cattle breeds have been described by Chen Youchun (1990).

The representative breed of Northern Cattle is the Mongolian, adapted to grazing in the Temperate Zone Steppe and Temperate Zone Meadow. Excellent breeds are Wuzhumuqin Cattle, Kazakh Cattle and Sanhe Cattle, all dual-purpose breeds.

Central Plains Cattle are found in the flat agricultural tracts of the Temperate Zone Deciduous Broad-leaf Forest and are mainly stall fed, with some grazing. There are many excellent breeds, such as the Qinchuan, Nanyang, Luxi and Bohai Black. These are famous draught animals, and their raising depended, historically, on lucerne cultivation.

South China Cattle are in the hilly tropical and subtropical zones, and include Hainan Cattle, Guangxi Cattle and Yunnan Cattle.

Yak (Bos grunniens)

This, the “ship of the plateau”, is typical of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, at 3 000-5 000 m. There are 15 million yaks in China (in Qinghai, Tibet, Sichuan, Gansu, Xinjiang and Yunnan), around 90 percent of the world total. They were domesticated from Bos grunniens mutus, which is still found in remote mountains of Tibet (Zhang, 1989). Yak are raised for draught and meat; milk, hide and hair are also important products. As “green food” (from less polluted plateaus), yak meat is very popular in cities. Nomadic herding is the main management system and yak have probably been kept on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau for 4 000 years. Herders drive their yak from low (cold season pasture) to high mountains (warm season pasture). Chinese yaks can be classified into two groups: Valley and Plateau.

Valley Yaks are mainly found in the alpine region of the Hengduan Mountain range of the southeastern Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, including the eastern part of Tibet, the southern part of Qinghai, the southwestern part of Sichuan and northeastern Yunnan. The altitude is 4 000-5 000 m. Annual precipitation is more than 600 mm; the climate is frigid and subhumid. Grassland in this region is mainly alpine shrub meadow and the growing period is about 150-180 days. Yak of this type are big, hardy, have high meat productivity and high yield of hair and undercoat. Both sexes have wide and rough horns. Yak × cattle hybrids (see Plate 23) are common at the altitudinal interface between the two species.

Plateau Yaks are mainly found in the centre of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, which covers most of Qinghai, Tibet and parts of Sichuan and Gansu. Their habitat is mountainous and difficult of access. There are many marshes, semi-marshes and hilly grasslands with broad valleys, open topography and gentle slopes. Plateau yaks have therefore a wide range of geographical types, with various hair coats, a high proportion of polled animals, and different horn shapes. Generally, plateau yaks are good milkers, with high fat content milk.

Buffalo (Bubalus bubalis)

These are of the swamp type, and are kept in humid tropical and subtropical areas. They are stall fed and mainly kept for draught and meat, although milk and hide are also important.

Sheep (Ovis aries)

These are the main grazing stock in China, and are kept in temperate areas between 30°-50º N and 75º-135º E.

Kazakh is an ancient coarse-wool breed in the desert areas of Xinjiang. It was used as the female parent of Xinjiang Fine-Wool sheep, which is a very adaptable breed and has been successfully introduced to many places. Tibetan sheep are suited to extreme alpine climates, but cannot adapt to warm areas. Gansu Alpine Fine-Wool sheep and Qinghai Fine-Wool sheep are excellent breeds with Tibet sheep as the female parent. Tan sheep, famous for their pelt with long curled hair, are raised in desert and semi-desert areas.

Plate 23. Yak × cattle hybrids. These are common, and productive at the altitudinal interface between the two species. Gansu, China.

Central Plains sheep are kept in warm temperate and subtropical areas under semi-stall feeding. Hu sheep, the southernmost sheep breed, can live under subtropical humid conditions. Xiaoweihanyang sheep and Hu sheep are very prolific: each lambing can give 2-6 young (so artificial feeding is always needed). Daweihanyang sheep have very fat tails.

Goats (Capra hircus)

These are the most widely distributed livestock in China, since they can adapt to many climates and pastures. There are 35 recognized breeds. One special breed is the Zhongwei goat, with fur like that of the famous Tan sheep. The Tibetan Turi goat is famous for its cashmere. Since 1999, government has advised farmers to switch goats from grazing to stall feeding to assist grassland rehabilitation.

Horse (Equus caballus)

Horses are the traditional draught animals below 4 000 m. There are four major ecogeographical groups (North Grassland horse, Xinjiang Mountain Grassland horse, Qinghai-Tibet Plateau horse and Southwest Mountain horse), with 70 breeds. In pastoral areas, horses are used for riding and grazed on natural grassland. Herders in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang also drink mare milk.

In agricultural areas, horses are pack and draught animals, mainly for ploughing, and kept in stables or even the farmers’ yard. Normally, Chinese do not eat horsemeat. Special breeds include Haomeng horse (natural pacer), Chinese Mini Debao pony, Erlunchun Forest horse, and anoxia-tolerant Tibetan horse and Yunnan horse (adapted to stony mountain terrain).

Camel (Camelus bactrianus)

Camels are important in temperate deserts. There are some single-humped (dromedary) camels in south Xinjiang but the great majority are two-humped Bactrian camels. There are three breeds: Xinjiang, Alashan and Sunite. The Sunite lives in the steppe and is the largest since forage is better. Camels, which are kept as pack animals and for wool, are raised on natural pasture, with winter supplementation.

Swine (Sus scrofa domestica)

China has some 60 recognized swine breeds. Most are stall fed. The Tibetan pig is a grazing breed, grazing on natural grassland as a mixed drift of 60 to 80 head (mixed adult and young, male and female). The Tibetan pig grows slowly because of poor forage; its adult liveweight is around 35 kg. However, its meat is very lean and is excellent for preserved pork and roast suckling pig. Xinjiang Yili White pig is another grazing breed, but its numbers are few; they graze along rivers or in woodland, but are housed in winter.

Feeding systems

Extensive grazing system

Feeding systems in the north differ from those in the west. Inner Mongolian grasslands are flat and the environment is simple; pastures can be grazed at any season if water is available; and animals are moved rotationally following a certain range and routine. In desert areas of Xinjiang there are two seasonal grazing belts: basins and mountains. Animals graze in the basins in winter, move in transhumance to mountains in spring, and to high mountains in summer, returning to basins in late autumn. This is a strict seasonal grazing system and animals spend 1-2 months travelling from winter to summer pasture. On the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, animals graze above 3 000 m, but pastures are still divided into seasonal pasture belts: low cold-season and high warm-season. Summer pasture can only be used for 1-2 months. Recently, the system has been changing to one where animals receive supplementation in winter.


Animals are tethered so the grass can be completely used, but it is used primarily for saddle horses, high yielding milk cows in pastoral areas and for small pieces of pasture in agricultural areas.

Uncontrolled grazing

This is not planned and animals are herded from place to place over a large area. This system existed when the grazing rights were not defined and the grassland was sufficient. Once the Long-term Grassland Use Contract System was completed, this system has been gradually replaced by rotational grazing and only exists in remote summer pastures or open pasture. However, some researchers consider that if nomads still follow this system it is proof of its rationality and the efficacy of many aspects of traditional pastoral practices as means to convert forage from cold, arid rangelands into animal products in an environment where crop growing is not possible. The survival of pastoral nomads indicates that many strategies of animal husbandry and grassland management developed centuries ago are well adapted to the spectrum of environment conditions (Miller and Craig, 1997).

Integration of livestock into farming systems

In the past two decades, ruminant livestock husbandry has been successfully integrated into farming systems. The rationale of the approach is that since holdings are small, grazed sown pasture is not practicable, so stall feeding with cut-and-carry is usual for ruminants, using crop residues, wild herbage and cultivated fodder.

Since 1983, the government has encouraged farmers to grow fodder and raise livestock. Agricultural experts and extension services applied a “three components growing” model (cereals, cash crops and forages in rotation). Both farming structure and production efficiency improved under this model. Practices vary according to region.

In pastoral areas, farmers are encouraged and assisted to establish some artificial grassland for hay.

In northern warm-temperate agricultural areas, farmers are encouraged to use some, or even all, arable land to grow high quality forages such as lucerne, or to grow Vicia sativa for high quality hay after the wheat harvest and use it to raise swine and poultry.

In southern subtropical paddy areas, farmers use the fallow paddy field to grow Lolium multiflorum for swine, dairy cows and rabbits: a rotation of rice and ryegrass. Annual ryegrass is sown in November and cut every 10 days from December to March (8-10 times). The fresh yield is 60-70 tonne/ha, and its crude protein content is 20-26 percent. This farming system has been extended to more than 2 million hectares in southern subtropical paddy areas.

Beef production with maize stover

In the Central Plains (including Henan, Hebei, Shandong and Anhui Provinces), maize stover was used as fuel or thrown away. Since the mid-1980s, silage technology has been the subject of an extension campaign. With the help of the Livestock Technical Extension Service, farmers can easily get beef cattle through artificial insemination with imported frozen semen, and now fatten them with maize silage supplemented with some concentrates. This is a high profile initiative. The central government, starting in 1992, established demonstration counties at national level for cattle fattening using maize stover; as well as counties for raising sheep with ammoniated straw. There are now many large-scale beef cattle farms in this area and the Central Plains has become the main beef production area, supplying around half of national beef needs. This activity is expanding rapidly as cereals are relatively abundant and the demand for beef is rising.

Sheep production with ammoniated straw

In northern agricultural areas, wheat straw was fed untreated to draught animals. More and more farmers use machines and huge amounts of straw were not utilized. In the last decade, ammoniated straw technology was extended to increase the nitrogen content in straw, and improve palatability and feeding value. Animal production in this area has greatly improved. The central government started, from 1995, to establish demonstration counties. It strongly promotes roughage utilization and animal production. Rations are based on ammoniated wheat straw, supplemented with concentrates.

Socio-economic conditions


Since the Open Door and Reform Policy of 1979, legislation development in the animal husbandry sector has made great progress. It started with the By-law on Livestock and Poultry Epidemic Prevention in 1985, and since then 13 laws relating to grassland and animal production have been promulgated, including Law on Grassland, Law on Animal Epidemic Prevention, By-law on Animal Remedy Management, By-law on Breeding Animal and Poultry, Law on Quarantine Inspection of Imported and Exported Plants and Animals and By-law on Fodder and Fodder Additive Management. Over 100 detailed rules and regulations have been made and local governments have made local regulations accordingly. Usually, the local Grassland Station or Animal Production Station is responsible for seeing that regulations are observed.

Extension and veterinary services

China has a complete animal husbandry technical extension service network (including grassland technical services) at four levels: National, Provincial, Prefectural and County. There are more than 50 000 service points in the country, with more than 400 000 staff. Additionally, around 500 000 village extension workers are involved. Some workers at grassroots level were lost around 1990 when funds were reduced. In 1998, the 46 249 Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Medicine Stations (or Grassland Stations) at township level were declared government-sponsored institutions, and of them, 30 989 stations are totally sponsored, employing 67 percent of the total 295 407 staff.

Market constraints

Animal products had a sellers market before the 1990s and supply was insufficient. Thereafter, animal production was dramatically promoted and farmers now have to face furious competition in a buyers market. To make market mechanisms more active, and favour animal production, government strengthened information exchange between producers and consumers. Government also established a Milk Plan for Students and Breakfast Revolution to increase milk consumption. To improve fine-wool production, a Society of Fine-Wool Producers has been set-up in Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region. Meanwhile, shows, sales and auctions of breeding sheep and wool have been held in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. These two regions produce most of the sheep wool in China.

Pasture and forage resources

In China, grassland is defined as “land mainly covered by herbaceous vegetation, or with sparse shrubs or trees concurrently present in the community”. It can provide food for livestock and wildlife; it also provides a pleasant environment, organic products and other functions for humans. Land sown to forages is defined as artificial grassland.

Area and distribution of grassland

China takes third place after Australia and Russia in grassland area, with a total area of 392 832 633 ha in 1994. This was 11.82 percent of the world’s grassland. The usable grassland is about 330 995 000 ha, or 35 percent of the national mainland area. Most grassland is in the northern arid and cold zones. The six major pastoral provinces for grassland and livestock - Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu - account for 75 percent of national grassland and around 70 percent of grazing livestock.

Grassland classification

Because of its huge territory, complex terrain, diverse climate and long history of grassland use, China has many grassland types; this has led to in-depth research on their classification. Currently, there are two systems of grassland classification, with more than 40 years of research behind them.

The Vegetation-habitat Classification System

This was created by Professors Liao Guofan, Su Daxue, Xu Peng, Liu Qi and Zhang Zutong, and is a compendious and nonnumerical system based on the subjective judgement of the surveyor. It was used for the national survey of grassland resources from 1980 to 1990 (Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Medicine Division, 1994, 1996). Most of the data cited in this document are from that investigation. The system has four grades:

Areas of different grassland classes.

Grassland Class and Subclass

Total Grassland Area

Usable Grassland Area


Area (ha)


Area (ha)


Temperate Steppe Class

74 537 509


66 247 465



Temperate Meadow-Steppe

14 519 331


12 827 411


Temperate Typical Steppe

41 096 571


36 367 633


Temperate Desert-Steppe

18 921 607


1 705 421


Temperate Desert Class

55 734 229


39 745 057



Temperate Typical Desert

45 060 811


30 604 131


Temperate Desert Steppe

10 673 418


9 140 926


Warm Shrubby Tussock Class

18 273 058


15 627 185



Warm Tussock

6 657 148


5 853 667


Warm Typical Tussock

11 615 910


9 773 518


Tropical Shrubby Tussock Class

32 651 615


25 506 997



Tropical Tussock

14 237 196


1 141 999


Tropical Typical Shrub Tussock

17 551 276


13 447 569


Tropical Savannah

863 144


639 429


Temperate Meadow Class

41 900 414


35 942 515



Lowland Meadow

25 219 621


21 038 409


Mountain Meadow

16 718 926


14 923 439


Alpine Meadow Class

63 720 549


58 834 182



Alpine Steppe Class

58 054 911


149 202 826



Alpine Meadow-steppe

6 865 734


6 011 528


Alpine Typical Steppe

41 623 171


35 439 220


Alpine Desert Steppe

9 566 006


7 752 078


Alpine Desert Class

7 527 763


5 592 765



Marsh Class

2 873 812


2 253 714




392 832 633


330 995 458


Note: (1) Numbers in [brackets] denote rank of subclass.

The Comprehensive and Sequential Classification System

This was developed by Professors Ren Jizhou, Hu Zizhi, Zhang Degang, Long Ruijun and Dr Gao Caixia (Ren, 1985; Ren, Hu and Zhang, 1999). It can be used for grassland classification worldwide within a unified system, and its features are:

The Thermal levels and the corresponding thermal zones.

Thermal Level

Accumulated temperature>0°C

Thermal Zone


<1 300ºC

(Alpine) Frigid Zone

Cold Temperate

1 300 to 2 300ºC

Cold Temperate Zone

Cool Temperate

2 300 to 3 700ºC

Cool Temperate Zone

Warm Temperate

3 700 to 5 300ºC

Warm Temperate Zone


5 300 to 6 200ºC

North Subtropics


6 200 to 8 000ºC

South Subtropics


>8 000ºC


The Precipitation categories and their associated natural landscapes.

Humidity category

K Value(1)

Typical natural landscape





0.3 to 0.9

Semi-desert (Desert steppe, Steppe desert)


0.9 to 1.2

Typical Steppe, Xerophytic Forest, Savannah


1.2 to 1.5

Forest, Forest Steppe, Meadow Steppe, Savannah, Meadow


1.5 to 2.0

Forest, Tundra, Meadow



Forest, Tundra, Meadow

NOTE: (1) K = r/(0.1. ), where K is humidity, r is annual rainfall (mm), and is >0°C annual accumulative temperature (°C).

There are four levels in this system:

Grassland types

According to the Vegetation-habitat Classification System, grassland in China can be divided into nine classes and 268 types. The names of classes and subclasses and their areas were shown in Table 5.3. There are 69 types in the Temperate Steppe Class, 39 types in the Temperate Desert Class, 25 types in the Warm Shrubby Tussock Class, 39 types in the Tropical Shrubby Tussock Class, 51 types in the Temperate Meadow Class, 24 types in the Alpine Meadow Class, 17 types in the Alpine Steppe Class, 4 types in the Alpine Desert Class and 8 types in the Marshes Class.

Index of grass yield

Herbage yield varies greatly among different classes. The dry grass yield is 911 kg/ha on average, with the highest at 2 544 kg/ha, from the Tropical Shrubby Tussock Class, and the lowest at 117 kg/ha, from the Alpine Desert Class (see Table 5.6). Carrying capacity is shown in Table 5.7.

Grassland protection

Many factors can ruin grassland. Apart from overgrazing, these include rodents, pests, diseases, toxic plants, harmful plants and fire. Of these, rodents and pests are most important. The area of grassland destroyed by rodents ranges from 1.7 to 2 million hectares, and pests damage 6.5-7 million hectares annually. Disease management systems for China are discussed by Nan (2000).

Dry Herbage yield of different grassland classes in China.

Grassland Class

Yield (kg/ha)


Total yield (kg)

Percentage of total

Temperate Steppe



5 888 × 107


Alpine Steppe



1 006 × 107


Temperate Desert



1 432 × 107


Alpine Desert



65 × 107


Warm Shrubby Tussock

1 740


2 718 × 107


Tropical Shrubby Tussock

2 544


6 490 × 107


Temperate Meadow

1 697


6 090 × 107


Alpine Meadow



5 189 × 107



2 183


492 × 107


National Average


3 009 × 107


Carrying capacity of different grassland classes.

Grassland class

Carrying capacity (ha/sheep unit/year)

Theoretical carrying capacity (million sheep unit)

Percentage of total


Temperate Steppe





Alpine Steppe





Temperate Desert





Alpine Desert





Warm Shrubby Tussock





Tropical Shrubby Tussock





Temperate Meadow





Alpine Meadow





Marsh Class









NOTE: (1) 13 million sheep units on fragmented grassland are not included.

Grassland nature reserves

The establishment of grassland nature reserves began in the 1980s, and eleven have been set up, with a total area of 2 068 968 ha. The Xilingol Steppe Nature Reserve in Inner Mongolia is one of the internationally recognized sites designated as an International Biosphere Reserve. However, the number of grassland reserves is very low compared to the 85 forest reserves. The government plans to create another 17 grassland reserves, of which five are under way.

Dominant plants of the main grassland zones

Many plants play an important role in forming a grassland community in terms of coverage and herbage yield over large grassland areas and with various grassland types. The most important species in different grassland classes are listed below.

Dominant plants of the Temperate Steppe

Leymus chinensis, Stipa baicalensis, S. grandis, S. krylovi, S. bungeana, S. breviflora, S. glareosa, S. klemenzii, S. capillata, Festuca ovina, Cleistogenes squarrosa, Filifolium sibiricum, Artemisia frigida, A. halodendron, A. ordosica, A. intramongolica, Thymus serpyllum var. mongolium and Ajania fruticulosa.

Dominant plants of the Alpine Steppe

These are cold resistant, mainly from the Gramineae and Compositeae. The most important are Stipa purpureum, S. subsessiflora, Festuca ovina subsp. sphagnicola, Orinus thoroldii, Carex moorcroftii, Artemisia stracheyi and A. wellbyi.

Dominant plants of the Temperate Desert

These are super-xerocole shrubs and sub-shrubs. The most important are Seriphidium terrae-albae, S. borotalense, Artemisia soongarica, Salsola passerina, S. laricifolia, Sympegma regelii, Anabasis salsa, Reaumuria soongarica, Ceratoides latens, Kalidium schrenkianum, Potaninia mongolica, Nitraria sphaerocarpa, Ephedra przewalskii, Haloxylon erinaceum and Haloxylon persicum.

Dominant plants of the Alpine Desert

The ecological environment of this class is the harshest. The dominant plants have outstanding ability to resist cold and drought. The most important are Rhodiola algida var. tangutica, Seriphidium rhodanthum and Ceratoides compacta.

Dominant plants of the Warm Shrubby Tussock

These are mainly grasses of medium height and some forbs. The most important are Bothriochloa ischaemum, Themeda triandra var. japonica, Pennisetum centrasiaticum, Spodiopogon sibiricus, Imperata cylindrica var. major and Potentilla fulgens.

Dominant plants of the Tropical Shrubby Tussock

Almost all in this class are hot-season grasses. The most important are Miscanthus floridulus, M. sinensis, Imperata cylindrica var. major, Heteropogon contortus, Arundinella setosa, A. hirta, Eremopogon delavayi, Eragrostis pilosa, Eulalia phaeothrix, E. quadrinervis and Dicranopteris dichotoma.

Dominant plants of the Temperate Meadow

These are mainly perennial temperate and medium-humid mesophytic grasses. Some are halophytes or forbs. The most important are Achnatherum splendens, Arundinella hirta, Agrostis gigantea, Calamagrostis epigeios, Bromus inermis, Deyeuxia angustifolia, Deyeuxia arundinacea, Poa pratensis, P. angustifolia, Miscanthus sacchariflorus, Phragmites communis, Brachypodium sylvaticum, Festuca ovina, Carex duriuscula, Potentilla anserina, Sanguisorba officinalis, Iris lactea var. chinensis, Suaeda spp. and Sophora alopecuroides.

Dominant plants of the Alpine Meadow

These are mainly cold-resistant perennials. Most are Kobresia spp. and forbs. The most important are Kobresia pygmaea, K. humilis, K. capillifolia, K. bellardii, K. littledalei, K. tibetica, Carex atrofusca, C. nivalis, C. stenocarpa, Blysmus sinocompressus, Poa alpina, Polygonum viviparum and P. macrophyllum.

Grassland types by use.

Grassland Type

Area (million ha)

Proportion (percent)

Grazing pasture, of which



Warm season pasture



Cold season pasture



Year-round pasture



Grazing and hay dual purpose pasture



Grassland difficult to use



Total usable grassland



NOTE: Figures are not exact due to rounding.

Overgrazing and grassland deterioration in major pastoral regions (percentage).




Overgrazing rate

Deteriorated grassland

Overgrazing rate

Deteriorated grassland






Inner Mongolia






























Dominant plants of Marshes

These are mainly Cyperaceae and Gramineae. The most important are Carex meyeriana, C. muliensis, C. appendiculata, C. stenophylla, Scirpus yagara, S. triqueter, Phragmites communis and Triglochin palustre.

Opportunities for pasture improvement

Grassland use

Most grassland in China is in the arid, semi-arid or alpine areas, where the climate is harsh, communications poor and the economy backward. Grassland within agricultural and agropastoral areas is scattered in remote places, and its use is extensive, mainly uncontrolled, grazing. Utilization methods are based on natural geographic conditions and grassland productivity. Natural grassland can be divided into three types according to their use (see Table 5.8).

Grassland deterioration and control strategies

Grassland deterioration - a worldwide problem - is severe in China. According to data published in 1994, the area of degraded grassland was 68 million hectares at the end of the 1980s - over a quarter of the usable grassland. It has increased significantly in the past decade. Now 90 percent of grassland shows signs of deterioration, of which moderately degraded grassland is 130 million hectares (32.5 percent of the total), and it is accelerating by 20 million hectares annually (Liu, 2001). Grassland deterioration in major pastoral regions is shown in Table 5.9.

Symptoms of grassland deterioration are drifting sand, salinization, patch-like distribution and hammada. Its major causes are severe overstocking, long-term uncontrolled grazing, improper land reclamation and abandonment, climate change, and collecting fuelwood and traditional medicinal herbs. It not only results in decline of productivity, but also in environmental damage, water and soil erosion, sand and dust storms, and desertification. The government is paying great attention to this. As one of its most important targets, ecological environment rebuilding has been covered in the West Development Plan of 2000. In agricultural and agropastoral areas, this target will be achieved through returning arable land on slopes of >25º to forest and grassland, and reducing the number of grazing livestock. Severely degraded pasture will be closed for recovery. Stock numbers at pasture will be reduced by yard feeding so that the vegetation and environment can recover rapidly.

Grassland improvement

According to the Planning Programme for National Ecological Environment Construction and the Outline of the Fifteenth Ten-Year Plan, the following should be achieved by 2010:

These objectives show the resolve to improve degraded grassland and the environment. There are temporary and permanent solutions for grassland improvement: the latter is to establish artificial grassland.


This is to protect grassland, or strictly control grazing pressure, through fencing, so that the land has a chance to recover. Herbage yield increases rapidly in the humid and subhumid areas, but the effect declines with time; closure should not exceed three years. In western China, where the grassland is severely degraded, a large area has been closed since 2000 and many animals culled or stall fed.


Reseeding involves oversowing degraded grassland to improve sward composition and productivity. Manual methods are used on small areas, but aerial seeding should be used on large areas. The cost-benefit ratio is 1:2-4, and investment can be recouped in two years. The following require attention during aerial seeding operations:

Surface tillage

Shallow tillage (with a cultivator) has a positive effect on yield in pasture dominated by rhizomatous grasses such as Leymus chinensis and Phragmites communis, and those that form a dense sod (dominated by Kobresia spp.). Shallow tillage improves air and water permeability of the soil and by cutting rhizomes enhances vegetative propagation. The yields of grasslands dominated by Leymus chinensis, Kobresia spp. and Agropyron cristatum could be increased by 50 to 200 percent. Seed yields of Leymus chinensis and Agropyron cristatum can be increased by 180 percent to 1 500 percent.


Burning is an old, practical method of grassland improvement, but is no longer used in northern China because the grassland is so severely degraded. It is, however, still widely used in the shrub grassland and swamp grassland in southern China.

Forage grasses and artificial grassland

Artificial grassland combines pastoralism with agronomy. China was one of the earliest countries to grow Medicago sativa, since at least 126 BC along the Yellow River, where it was rotated with wheat. Apart from improving crop yields and soil fertility, this system contributed to forming livestock breeds such as Qingchuan cattle, Jinnan cattle, Zaosheng cattle, Nanyang cattle, Guanzhong donkey and Zaosheng donkey (donkeys are less important now because of mechanized cultivation and transport). The regional distribution of cultivated forage is described by Hong Fuzeng (1989), and Chen Baoshu (2001) describes fodder cultivation.

The area of artificial grassland is small. In 1995 it was 13.8 million hectares (3.4 percent of all grassland). It increased to 15.48 million hectares in 1997 (3.8 percent) and 20 million hectares in 2000 (4.8 percent). Aerial seeding has been important for establishment; it began in 1979, and the area aerially seeded was almost 2.5 million hectares; by the end of 1998, the established area was almost 1.5 million hectares. The artificial grassland area in Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Xinjiang, Shaanxi and Sichuan is large: over 2.5 million hectares in Inner Mongolia and close to 1 million hectares in Gansu. Priority is given to lucerne in all provinces except Sichuan. The lucerne area in Gansu is close to 400 000 ha, which is 34 percent of the national total.

There are over 100 species of cultivated forage in China, mostly legumes and grasses, and over 30 are sown on more than 10 000 ha (excluding mixed sowing - see Table 5.10).

Forage cereals

Avena sativa (oats) is the most important fodder in the north and alpine areas, generally sown pure; the area has increased rapidly in recent years because it is easy to grow and harvest. Its seeds do not ripen on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

Hordeum vulgare (barley) has a cultivated area just less than forage maize. It is sown countrywide, both in the north (spring barley) and south (winter barley). Naked barley is the Tibetan staple food.

Secale cereale (rye), introduced from Russia in the 1940s, is widely cultivated in northern and alpine areas.

Setaria italica (foxtail millet), an annual, is indigenous to China and has been grown for more than 6 000 years. It is widely sown in the north as a cereal. The nutritive value, palatability and digestibility of its straw are higher than those of wheat and rice. It can be made into high quality hay (retaining the grain) by dense planting.

Sorghum bicolor has been cultivated in China for 4 000 years, but its area is much less than Sorghum sudanense, which has been increasing in recent years.

Zea mays (maize) is the most important forage, sown countrywide in a long, narrow belt from northeast to southwest. It was used as human food before 1980, but is now mostly used for livestock.

TABLE 5.10 Major forages and sown area (thousand hectares; 1998).



Life form

Medicago sativa



Astragalus sinicus



Caragana koshinskii



Astragalus huangheensis



Zea mays (forage)



Leymus chinensis



Hordeum vulgare



Elymus sibiricus



Lolium multiflorum



Avena sativa



Elymus dahuricus, E. excelsus



Vicia villosa



Avena nuda



Vicia sativa



Setaria italica (forage)



Sorghum sudanense



Onobrychis viciifolia



Trifolium repens



Artemisia sphaerocephala



Oxytropis coerulea



Trifolium pratense



Stylosanthes guianensis



Bromus inermis



Melilotus alba, M. officinalis



Secale cereale



Lolium perenne



Raphanus sativus



Agropyron cristatum



Dactylis glomerata



Amaranthus paniculatus



Grain legumes as forage

Cicer arietinum(chickpea) is a dual-purpose crop. Introduced from Russia in the 1950s, it is cultivated in both the north and the south. Its grain is a very nutritious concentrate.

Glycine max (soybean) is indigenous to northeastern China, and the forage variety is a primitive form. Both green chop and grain are good feed, with high protein content.

Pisum sativum (white flowered pea) and Pisum arvense (purple flowered) have been cultivated for 2 000 years in China and are sown countrywide for their cold tolerance and they are better than Vicia sativa in admixture with oats.

Vicia faba(broad bean) is a dual-purpose crop and has been cultivated for 2 100 years in China, where its cultivated area is the greatest in the world. A forage cultivar introduced in 1960, it is cold resistant, with high yield and high quality.

Root tuber, stem tuber and melon forages

Beta vulgaris is widely grown in the north for sugar (main purpose) and fodder.

Brassica rapa, a biennial, is an old crop. It was mainly grown on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in early times and now has been extended to the whole country as succulent fodder.

Cucurbita moschata gives high yields and high quality, succulent fodder. The levels of carotene, vitamin A, B and C in flesh and fruit are 100 times higher than in cereals.

Daucus carota is grown countrywide as a succulent fodder.

Helianthus tuberosus has leaves, stem and tuber that can be used for livestock feed.

Other cultivated forages

Amaranthus paniculatus, an annual herb, is a high quality fodder for swine, poultry and cattle, and is of ancient cultivation in China, where the area is the largest in the world.

Calligonum mongolicum, a super-xerocole shrub, is a plant for sand fixation and for gravel deserts, with tolerance to drought and cold. It is used for aerial seeding.

Ceratoides latens, a shrub important in the temperate zone and alpine desert, with tolerance to drought and cold, is adapted to sandy and rocky soils.

Kochia prostrata, a creeping sub-shrub, is good forage in desert and semi-desert, tolerating drought, salt and poor soil. It is suitable for establishing rainfed grassland.

Lactuca indica, a biennial herb indigenous to China, is grown countrywide for swine and poultry.

Silphium perfoliatum, a perennial herb in the Compositeae, was introduced in the 1980s and is cultivated nationwide as fodder for cattle, swine and rabbits.

Symphytum peregrinum, a perennial herb introduced in the 1970s is widely cultivated between the Great Wall and Yangtze River for swine and cattle.

Aquatic forage crops

Alternanthera philoxeroides, a perennial herb of the Amaranthaceae, was introduced from Brazil in the 1920s. It is cultivated in both the north and south for swine, poultry, cattle, sheep and fish. Its dry matter content is less than 5 percent.

Aneilema keisak, an annual herb of the Commelinaceae, has been cultivated in subtropical China for a long time. Its dry matter content is around 5 percent. It grows fast and is used for swine, cattle and rabbits.

Azolla imbricata, a floating fern of the Azollaceae and widely distributed in tropical and subtropical zones, has been cultivated in China for 500 years. It forms a fern-algal symbiosis with blue-green alga (Anabena azolla, Cyanophyta) and can fix atmospheric nitrogen. Its yield is as high as 300-500 tonne/ha, with 16-18 percent of crude protein (DM basis). It is high quality fodder for swine, poultry and fish, and a good green manure. There is a detailed FAO publication (Van Hove, 1989) available in French and English which gives details on Azolla cultivation and its use as both a green manure and fodder.

Eichhornia crassipes, a floating herb of the Pontederiaceae, is a high yielding forage indigenous to South America. It is cultivated in the Warm Temperate Zone in China. Its dry matter content is around5 percent and it is used for swine, poultry, cattle, sheep and fish feed, or as green manure.

Plate 24. Trifolium fragiferum in Xinjiang. China has a very wide range of indigenous pasture plants. This, usually Mediterranean, clover is growing on the floodplain of the Ertix.

Pistia stratiotes, a floating herb of the Araceae, is a high yielding forage in tropical and subtropical zones. It has been extended to the watershed of the Yellow River. The dry matter content ranges from 5 to 6 percent. It is mainly fed to swine, poultry and fish, or as a green manure.

Zizania caduciflora is a perennial temperate and subtropical grass, long cultivated in southern China. Its height is 1-2.5 m and it is high quality fodder for cattle, horses and fish, with 14 percent crude protein.

Cultivars and seed production

The selection and breeding of forage grasses in China began in early times. Farmers selected many native forages (Plate 24), but modern grass breeding began quite late. In the 1950s, two cultivars of Medicago sativa were bred: Gongnong No. 1 and Gongnong No. 2. Breeding has speeded up since 1980. The National Examining and Approval Committee for Forage Cultivars, affiliated to the Ministry of Agriculture, was set up in 1987 (National Examining and Approval Committee for Forage Cultivars, 1992). China’s forage plant genetic resources have been described by Chen Shan (1994).

A set of laboratories and experimental stations was set up. In 1986, the National Crop Germplasm Store in the China Agricultural Academy (based in Beijing) was set up and is responsible for long-term conservation of crop genetic resources (including forages). In 1989, a Forage Germplasm Store was set up in the Grassland Institute of the Agricultural Ministry. Its storage capacity is 40 000 samples and it is responsible for mediumterm conservation and supply of forage germplasm. Meanwhile, five Resource Gardens of perennial forages were set up in Hohhehot, Beijing, Wuhan, Nanning and Kunming for field conservation, propagation and supply of germplasm. In 1998, the nationwide Testing Centre for Forage Seeds was established. All these units, based on the Forage Germplasm Store, combined with the National Crop Germplasm Store and Resource Gardens, make up a national network for conserving, supplying and evaluating forage germplasm.

Seed production

China has very long history of grass seed production, but seed supply is still a bottleneck because of weak breeding work. Although a set of centres for foundation seed production was set up in the 1980s, the output of commercial seed is very low. China currently cannot produce sufficient seed of Medicago sativa, Astragalus huangheensis, Melilotus alba, Vicia sativa, V.villosa, Leymus chinensis, Puccinellia tenuiflora, P. chinampoensis, Elymus sibiricus, E. nutans, E. dahuricus and Sorghum sudanense to meet national demand. Seeds of other grasses and forages cannot be produced commercially, including seed of Lolium perenne, Dactylis glomerata, Festuca arundinacea, Trifolium repens, T. pratense and the cold-season turf grasses Poa pratensis, Festuca elata, F. tenuifolia (syn. F. capillata), Agrostis stolonifera, so supplies are almost totally reliant on imports. Although large amounts of seed of Zoysia japonica and Cynodon dactylon could be produced in China, they would have to be exported for cleaning and then re-imported for end use because of lack of seed cleaning technology and equipment.

Defining economic zones of grassland agro-ecosystems

Herbivorous livestock, based on a properly functioning grassland agro-ecosystem, can use both native and introduced forages in a large range of varying ecological environments, so grassland adaptability to natural conditions is wider and more flexible than field crops and forestry. Considering the regional characteristics of grassland in relation to natural, social and economic conditions, the zonation for sustainable development is based on the following criteria:

Grassland zones

Based on the above criteria, China’s grasslands can be divided into seven ecological-economic zones:

Statistical data on local natural and social conditions and agricultural production in each Zone are given in Tables 5.11 and 5.12. Agricultural production by zone is shown in Table 5.13.

Current grassland situation and proposed strategy for each zone

Inner Mongolia-Ningxia Arid Grassland Zone

This is one of the most important pastoral areas (Plate 25). Grassland types change from northeast to southwest with decreasing precipitation, from meadow grasslands to typical grasslands, then to desert grasslands. The environment is fragile due to severe desertification caused by a combination of frequent gales, coarse soils, overgrazing and poor management. Deserts and desertified lands make up 11 percent and 18.4 percent of the land, respectively, of the zone. The rich grassland resources have high primary productivity and stocking capacity (Plate 26). Typical grasslands in Hulun Beir Meng and Jirem Meng in the east of the zone are among the best grasslands in China, with annual hay yield as high as 900-1 500 kg/ha (Plates 27 and 28) and stocking capacity of 0.7-1.2 sheep unit/ha. Desert grassland types occur in the Ulanqab Meng, on the Ordos Plateau and in the areas to the east of the Helan Mountain Range, with Stipa spp., Salsola collina and Artemisia frigida as dominant species. Annual hay yields are 400-600 kg/ ha and stocking capacity is 0.25-0.40 sheep unit/ha.

Winter grassland is only 30-60 percent of the warm-season grassland, so these areas are heavily grazed, usually lasting for five months, and longer than on warm-season grasslands. Significant annual variation in precipitation causes great differences in forage production, which can be as much as a factor of four between a year of good rainfall and a dry one. Crop growing has been expanding to the north, taking over more and more grasslands, resulting in increased conflicts in the local society.

TABLE 5.11
Major climate data of each grassland zone.


Annual accumulated temperature ³0°C (°C)

Annual precipitation (mm)

Humidity (K) (mm/°C)







< 250






















NOTE: K = r/(0.1 ), where K is humidity, r is annual rainfall (mm), and is annual accumulative temperature 0°C (°C).

TABLE 5.12
Major socio-economic data for each grassland zone (1995 data).


Land area (×103 km2)

Population (million)

Arable land (ha)

Grassland (ha)

Theoretical NPP(1) of grassland (106 tonne DM/year)




4 886 700

54 045 500



2 223.3


4 078 100

88 547 800



2 209.5


1 082 500

135 626 200





17 153 600

21 537 800





32 430 600

26 107 600





7 494 600

31 340 700



1 684.8


27 499 000

35 891 800



9 595.5

1 138.4

94 910 200

393 097 400

2 374.82

NOTE: (1) NPP is net primary productivity, calculated by the formula of Li, Sun and Zhang (1998) and Zhou and Zhang (1996).

TABLE 5.13
Agricultural production in each grassland zone (RMB×108; 1995).



























2 720.49


1 357.90








4 200.10


2 253.84


All China

9 169.22


4 671.99

1 298.19

Nomadic extensive management prevails. With rapid growth in livestock numbers and slow development in establishing artificial pastures, the grasslands have deteriorated seriously under heavy grazing. Shortage of pasture and frequent natural disasters cause heavy losses of livestock: loss, sale and domestic consumption by local herders each account for up to a third of the total animal production annually. In this zone, crop production should be restricted and development focused on livestock, with grassland protection, establishment of artificial pastures and integration of crops with feedlots. Feed processing and mechanization of forage production should have a high priority in development planning.

Plate 25. Herder with sheep. Inner Mongolia, China.

Plate 26. Pastoral scene in July near Hailar City, Inner Mongolia, China.

Plate 27. Hay being carried to the homestead near Xilinhot, Inner Mongolia, China.

The Northwest Desert-shrubland

This is the largest zone in terms of area. It is arid and semi-arid desert, most of which has annual precipitation of less than 250 mm, with a lot of solar radiation, between 2 600 and 3 400 hours annually. An extremely arid climate, frequent wind and sparse vegetation are features of this fragile environment. Sand storms often cause serious damage to grassland. It is estimated that desertification and salinization have affected 486 000 km2 and 1 730 700 km2, respectively (21.6 percent and 47.5 percent of all affected land in China).

The zone has 676 continental rivers, fed by snowmelt and glaciers in the Tianshan, Kunlun, Altai and Qilian Mountains, which allowed the development of local oasis agriculture over thousands of years. Nowadays, the Yili, the Ertix and Shule Rivers maintain their supply to the increasing population, but the other rivers are seriously short of water. Meanwhile, the area of arable land affected by secondary salinization has reached 14.7 percent in Xinjiang and 31.1 percent of the Hexi Corridor of Gansu.

The dry matter yield of native grassland is 300 kg/ha in mountain areas, and 300-1 200 kg/ha from sown pastures. This indicates the great grassland potential of this zone. Livestock production is mainly in the mountains, where serious seasonal imbalance between forage supply and requirement is a major constraint. Very often, in spring, livestock die in large numbers due to fodder shortage. The fodder resources of crop-producing areas in the zone are not used efficiently as there could be a combination of grazing and crop production.

Plate 28. Hay being stored ready for the winter near Xilinhot, Inner Mongolia, China.

As measures of improvement, artificial pastures should be widely and intensively established in mountain areas to protect against natural disasters. Rotational grazing needs to be adopted and measures taken to protect water sources. In desert areas, stocking rates should be strictly controlled, while feed and fodder production needs to be expanded in oases. Livestock can be transferred from mountain areas to oases for fattening, which would greatly improve the overall production system.

Qinghai-Tibet Alpine Shrublands Zone

This is the least populous zone, while the area of natural grassland is the largest. Due to its high altitude, averaging more than 3 000 m, solar radiation is 50 percent higher than in neighbouring zones, but heat resources are less.

Water resources are unevenly distributed. Annual precipitation is 1000-2000 mm, reaching as high as 3000-4000 mm in some places on the southern slopes of the Himalayas and in the southeast of the Hengduan Mountains. At the other extreme, precipitation is only about 50 mm in the Qaidam Basin and the northwest of the Qiangtang Plateau. Precipitation is 500-700 mm in other areas. Many rivers rise on the Plateau.

The primary productivity of native natural grasslands is low. Forages from alpine meadow are palatable and nutritious, but those from sparse wood and shrub grasslands are of poor quality. Due to the long cold season, windy weather, frequent snow disasters and drought, the imbal- ance between fodder supply and livestock requirement is great, and so the system has difficulty in resisting natural disasters. Long-term overgrazing has turned many places on grasslands into Black-Soil Patches or Sandy Lands (Liu, Zeng and Cai Rong, 1999; Ma and Li, 1999).

The offtake of marketable animal products is the lowest in China. Measures for improvement include strictly controlling the stocking rate, breed improvement, rotational grazing, establishing artificial pastures and accelerating the development of markets for animal products. The problems of transport, poor adoption of new technology and lack of funding for development should be given high priority. The zone is one of the least polluted regions in the world, so there is the potential to produce “green” food to meet the increasing demand for such on the world market.

Northeast Forests Zone

This zone is characterized by adequate rainfall, but low temperatures. The major grassland types are meadow grassland, typical grassland, alpine meadow and marsh. The dominant species are Leymus chinensis, Stipa baicalensis and Dendranthema maximowiczii, with the Leymus chinensis meadow being the most important type. Annual dry matter yield is 1 000-1 500 kg/ha, and remains quite stable from year to year. The stocking capacity is 1.5-2.0 sheep/ha.

Dairy cattle and milk production in this zone takes first place in China, and grassland is integrated with crop production to use more efficiently fodder and feed resources such as crop residues and maize. The strategy for development in the zone is to establish large-scale production centres with increased input and establish close cooperation between agricultural sectors for efficient utilization of resources. Ecologically healthy animal products should be the main output of production.

Loess Plateau and Huang-Huai-Hai Plain Zone

This area has the longest history of agriculture in China. There are many fine native breeds and rich feed resources. In addition to concentrates, silage and ureatreated maize stover have been widely adopted in recent years in beef feedlots, which have become a profitable enterprise. To meet the demand for fodder, lucerne (Medicago sativa) cultivation is expanding rapidly. In Gansu and Shandong, farmers grow Medicago sativa (cultivars Gannong No. 2 and Gannong No. 3, and other native or imported cultivars) for hay or sale to processing companies for pellet production, and farmer income can be increased by more than 15 percent compared with cereal growing.

The climate is humid or subhumid monsoon, with high consistency between rainfall and biologically active accumulated temperature. However, variation in rainfall between years is large and drought is a major problem (Hou, Li and Zhang, 1991). Surface and underground water is insufficient to meet agricultural demand. Average runoff per capita is only about 500 m3, a fifth of the national average. The Loess Plateau is seriously eroded, while the Huang-Huai-Hai Plain is dominated by soils of poor quality for agriculture, such as shajiang black saline soil and heavy sandy soil.

The zone is a major area for forage seed production. The forages include Medicago sativa, Melilotus spp., Onobrychis viciifolia, Sorghum sudanese, Astragalus adsurgens(Plate 29) and Zoysia spp. Erosion control and conversion of arable to woodland and pastures should be the major measures for sustainable development. Pasture establishment can be integrated into plans for small-catchment management. In the Huang-Huai-Hai Plain wastelands, beaches of rivers can be used to grow pastures for fodder and soil improvement. Based on established pastures and crop by-products, beef and dairy cattle, sheep and goats can be raised to expand the livestock sector of the local agriculture.

Plate 29. Astragalus adsurgens. This species has promise for northern areas, but has fallen out of favour lately because of high water needs and problems with persistence.

Southwest Karst Shrubland Zone

There are 48 ethnic minorities; half of the poverty-stricken people in China live in the zone (Research Group on Sustainable Agricultural Development in Karst Regions of China, 1999). The karst landforms have widely distributed limestone cliffs and bare stone deserts caused by irrational cultivation, overgrazing and deforestation of hillsides. It is estimated that the area of stone deserts has quadrupled in the past 50 years in Guizhou and Yunnan. This trend has been accompanied by serious water loss and soil erosion and general deterioration of the environment (Research Group on Sustainable Agricultural Development in Karst Regions of China, 1999).

Natural grassland is distributed in scattered patches in mountainous areas and usually difficult to manage. There are many poisonous plants, with palatable species accounting for only 30-60 percent. Native forage legumes are scarce, but the leguminous shrubs that exist in great number have not yet been utilized. Both overgrazing and under-utilization of local fodder resources co-exist.

Although water resources are adequate and the temperature regime is fair, there is not enough sunshine for seed production (Hou, Li and Zhang, 1991). Cereals yields and quality are low. Climatic conditions are suitable for improving natural grasslands and establishing artificial pastures vegetatively (Ren, Hu and Zhang, 1999). Sown pastures can have 3-4 cuts, even 6 cuts in some places, annually. Some forages, such as Lolium spp., Stylosanthes spp., Trifolium repens, T. pratense and Dactylis glomerata grow well. Annual hay yield is 3 400-4 500 kg/ha from natural grasslands and 8 000-10 000 kg/ha from sown pastures; on some it was more than 10 000 kg/ha, with 2 133 ha of pastures carrying 12 000 sheep that produced 2.5-3.0 kg clean wool each in a year (Jiang, Mu and Cheng, 1996).

Southeast Evergreen Broadleaf Forestshrubland Zone

This zone has the largest population, the most developed economy and the best climatic conditions (Hou, Li and Zhang, 1991). Grassland is secondary after tropical and subtropical forest is cleared. Annual hay yield is 2 000-3 000 kg/ha, but quality is usually poor. Productivity could be increased by 5-8 times if improvement measures are applied (Yang et al., 1997a, b).

Traditionally, green manure is grown, so it is easy to establish a new rotation between paddy rice and commercial fodder in the zone to realize better economic, ecological and social benefits. According to a study by Yang et al., (1997a, b) in Guangdong Province, rotation of Italian ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum) and rice increased the content of OM, total N, available N, biomass of micro-organisms and enzyme activity in the soil. These, in turn, increased the yield of early and late rices by 10 percent and 7 percent, respectively. In addition, the annual forage production was worth RMB 15 000. The current area of forage can be expanded within existing farming systems with available techniques. Processing needs to be developed for producing high-quality animal products with high added value.

This economic zone of the grassland agro-ecosystem is a kind of integrating system between pasture use, crop production and forestry. It is a multicomponent complex of ecosystems over a large geographical area, involving many economic and social activities. The theory of combining systems can be used to guide in planning and implementation of development programmes in suitable zones to achieve sustainable economic, social and environmental benefits.

Research and education

There are 23 organizations related to grassland and grass research in China, of which six national institutes are affiliated to the China Agricultural Academy and China Academy. Out of 36 agricultural universities, 16 provide four-year undergraduate education in grassland science. Gansu Agricultural University, Inner Mongolia Agricultural University, Xinjiang Agricultural University, China Agricultural University and China Agricultural Academy are authorized to provide a PhD programme. The toplevel technical extension organization for grassland management and fodder production is the Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Medicine Station of China’s Agriculture Ministry. Each province has a Grassland or Forage Grass and Forage Crop Extension Station. Each county has an Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Medicine Station, or a Grassland Station where the pastoral area is large.

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