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Chapter VIII - China case study 3: Pastoral systems, change and the future of the grazing lands in Tibet - Tashi Nyima


Tibet’s vast grasslands are not only grazing land, they are of prime ecological importance for their great biodiversity and as the upper catchments of most of Asia’s main rivers. Before 1950, both human and livestock populations were low, and probably in equilibrium with grazing resources. Once the industry was collectivized and modern health care for man and beast introduced, both human and animal populations rose extremely steeply, overgrazing became widespread and the fragile grasslands suffered and their yield dropped.

Decollectivization only defined rights to livestock ownership, not grazing rights, so subsequently there has been no rational grazing management and even less investment in grazing infrastructure. Widespread attempts at introducing crop production to zones manifestly unsuitable for it have resulted in the sterilization of large areas of the best grazing. Instead of trying to get stock, and people dependent on stock rearing, into equilibrium with pasture production, the authorities are trying to intensify so that stock output meets urban demand. They are also following a policy of sedentarization, which is totally unsuited to very extensive stock rearing in so harsh a climate. Implementation of this policy worries many pasture ecologists. In the areas where crops can be grown, mixed farming is increasingly important. Since the output of pastoral areas is static or declining, improvement of meat and milk production from agricultural and agropastoral zones is likely to be the main way of reducing the urban areas’ reliance on imports from elsewhere in China.


The Tibetan plateau occupies an eighth of China; its average altitude is about 4 000 m. Tibet Autonomous Region, a major part of the plateau, which covers 1 200 000 km2, is one of China’s largest, but least developed and least populated, provinces. More than 2.5 million Tibetans live in this subregion. Crops and forests are limited to a few areas because of the short growing season, and pastoralism is widespread. For most highlanders, livestock is the only means of sustaining their food security and livelihood.

There are two systems, pastoral and agropastoral. Pastoral systems are nomadic - the Tibetan plateau is one of the largest nomadic pastoral areas in the world - and are usually at altitudes above 4 200 m (Plate 42); agropastoral systems are below 4 200 m, where crops can be grown. Profound changes in both systems are taking place, with both negative and positive impacts on the fate of the grazing land, including:

All these changes will alter the future fate of Tibet’s grazing lands and affect herders’ way of life and the ecosystems on which their livelihood depends.

This paper describes Tibet’s grazing lands and livestock production systems, discusses their history briefly, and the changes that have taken place in the last 20-50 years in terms of systems, and finally gives suggestions on the scope for exploring opportunities for sustainable development of pastoral systems.

Tibet Autonomous Region

The Tibet Autonomous Region (hereafter referred to as Tibet) is in the southwest of China, from 26°50’N to 36°53’N (2 000 km) and from 78°25’E to 99°06’E (1 000 km). It has borders with the provinces of Qinghai and Xinjiang in the north, Sichuan and Yunnan in the southeast, and with India, Nepal and Bhutan in the southeast. In the southwest, near Nepal, is the highest and most magnificent mountain range in the world, the Himalayas. In the northeast is vast, open pasture (Changtang means “the vast land in north”) where nomads live by yak rearing. Central Tibet, with valleys and mountains between 3 500 and 4 500 m, is a land of barley farming, where the majority of Tibetans live, eating barley as their staple food. Tibet has six prefectures: Shigatse, Shannan, Naqu, Changdu, Ali and Linzhi; and one municipal city, Lhasa. There are 71 administrative counties, 900 townships and more than 7 000 villages.

Plate 42. Much of the grazing land is high, cold and of low productivity. A pass above 5 000 metres on the Lhasa to Namtso road.

The total area of usable land is about 760 300 km2, 63 percent of the territory. The area of arable land, grazing land, forest lands and barren land by prefectures and their proportions are shown in Table 8.1.

There are about 64.8 million hectares of grazing land, of which about 55.6 million are usable; nearly 80 percent is in Naqu and Ali Prefectures (Table 8.2). By 1995, there was 5 420 000 ha of fenced pasture for winter grazing and protection; about 4 170 000 ha of it was in Naqu. There were 4 400 000 ha of irrigated pasture, mostly in Shigatse. In recent years, there has been major progress in promoting fenced and irrigated pasture, but, with increasing livestock numbers, overgrazing is common and serious.

Livestock and livestock production

The common large animals are yak, cattle, zo (a cross of yak and cattle), donkey, horse and mule; there are also sheep, goats, swine and poultry. In 1999, the total livestock was 23 000 000 head, of which there were about 5 790 000 large animals (3 000 000 yaks, 400 000 horses and 130 000 donkeys), 16 900 000 small stock (11 000 000 sheep and 5 890 000 goats) and 230 000 swine. Goats are mostly in western and sheep in northwestern and central zones. Tibet currently produces about 150 000 tonne of meat, of which about 83 000 tonne is beef (yak and cattle) and 57 000 tonne is mutton and goat meat. There are 1 150 000 milk cattle; milk production was 210 000 tonne in 1999. With the promotion of livestock in crop-dominated areas and increasing demand for dairy products, cattle have become very profitable. Wool, cashmere and leather are the main non-food livestock commodities. At present, Tibet produces 9 400 tonne of wool (sheep and goat) and about 640 tonne of cashmere. Cashmere is largely exported; wool is processed locally.

Distribution of land resources in Tibet (000 ha).


Arable land

Forest land

Natural pasture

Barren land














2 117.79







2 976.70


7 061.07


2 886.00





3 059.49


3 187.51


1 188.25







12 617.14


4 208.52







20 858.08


16 602.11







16 906.76


9 084.19





6 073.61


2 048.38


2 531.72


Tibet in total



12 651.98


64 796.72


37 003.03


SOURCE: Land Management Bureau of Tibet Autonomous Region, 1992.

Area of usable, fenced and irrigated grazing land, by prefecture (000 ha).


Total area

Area usable

Area fenced

Area irrigated


2 117.79

1 112.0




7 061.07

4 965.3




3 187.51

1 731.3




12 617.14

4 331.3




20 858.08

26 041.3




16 906.76

17 324.7




2 048.38




All Tibet

64 796.72

55 621.3



SOURCE: Land Management Bureau of Tibet Autonomous Region, 1992.

Biophysical environment

The great variations of topography, with elevations ranging from 500 m to 8 848 m, and the vast extent of the plateau, lead to obvious vertical zonation and horizontal patterns of climate, soil and vegetation. The Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1992 classified Tibet into seven physiogeographical units, more naturalvegetation- oriented than an exclusively topographic classification (Leber, Holawe and Hausler, 1995), namely:

Soil, vegetation and major types of grazing land

There are grazing lands throughout Tibet with a great diversity in structure and composition, ranging from cold, steppe-like lands, dominated by Stipa, to mountain desert shrub lands with shrubs such as Ceratoides, Artemisia and Ajania, with a sparse cover of grasses, to alpine valleys in the Himalayas with a diverse flora, and to temperate conifer and deciduous forests where forest meadows provide valuable grazing for transhumant herds (Miller, 1995). These types of grazing are determined by soil, topography and climate.

There are nine major soil types in the grazing lands: Alpine meadow soils; Subalpine meadow soils; Alpine steppe soils; Subalpine steppe soils; Mountain shrubby-meadow soils; Alpine desert soils; Subalpine desert soils; Alpine marshland meadow soils; and Taupe and Brown soil. These soils developed under different types of vegetation and conditions, such as steppe, meadow, shrubby meadow, shrubby steppe, wetland and desert, as well as a few of them under forest.

Alpine meadow soil

This is one of the more widespread and better soils, found between 4 600 and 5 200 m, developed under cold, semi-humid conditions, with annual mean temperatures of -6° to -0°C and average annual precipitation of 350-550 mm. Kobresia pygmaea and K. humilis are the major plants, with combinations of Carex spp., Polygonum macrophyllum, Leontopodium spp. and Anaphalis spp. Soil depth varies from 4 to 20 cm, with average organic material (OM) content of 3.7-27 percent. Soil pH is 6.1-7.2. There are three major subtypes: alpine steppe-meadow soils; alpine marshland-meadow soil; and alpine shrubby-meadow soils. Alpine steppemeadow soil is often in the transition area of meadow to steppe, where plants such as Stipa and Artemisia dominate, and average OM content is less than 5 percent. Alpine marshland-meadow soil is in low areas where water accumulates. Meadow grass dominates, and the soil is rich in organic matter, with an average content of over 20 percent. Alpine shrubby-meadow soils are usually on north-facing slopes, with shrubs like Rhododendron spp., Dasiphora fruticosa and Salix spp., with soil OM content of about 10 percent.

Subalpine meadow soil

This is widespread and of good quality. It is found in between 3 900 and 4 600 m where the average annual temperature is about -2° to -4°C and annual precipitation 400-700 mm. Vegetation is very variable, but Kobresia spp. and Carex spp. are common. Other plants, such as Potentilla spp., Pedicularis, Anemone, Roegneria spp., Ptilagrostis mongolica and Poa spp., are found in many areas. Shrubs are typically Rhododendron, Dasiphora fruticosa, Salix and Caragana. The OM content is about 12 percent and the soil is highly acid.

Alpine steppe soil

This is the most widely distributed and largest in area, with several subtypes - see Table 8.3. It is found in northwestern Tibet, and at altitudes between 4 400 and 5 300 m throughout Tibet. It develops under the alpine cold semi-dry climate with annual mean temperatures of 0°-6°C and annual precipitation of 200-300 mm. The soil is frozen for more than five months of the year and the vegetation is cold-tolerant species, such as Stipa spp., and accompanied by Festuca ovina, Oxytropis, Astragalus, Orinus, Carex moorcroftii, Androsace sp. and Arenaria sp. In drier western Tibet, Stipa glareosa and Artemisia spp. are common. In some parts, Ceratoides compacta grows. The OM content of the soil is often 2 percent, and some has less than 0.4 percent; the pH averages more than 8.0. With high elevation and cold climate, biological and chemical soil weathering is very slow, so there is a high gravel content, often more than 10 percent.

Subalpine steppe soils

These are found in central Tibet between 4 100 and 4 700 m, under temperate semi-dry climatic conditions with an annual mean temperature of 0°-3.7°C and annual precipitation of 230-350 mm. Stipa capillacea, Pennisetum flaccidum and Aristida triseta are the most common plants, accompanied by Festuca ovina, Oxytropis, Astragalus, Potentilla chinensis and Stellera chamaejasme. The OM content is usually about 2 percent, with a pH of 7.5-8.9. There are five subtypes: typical subalpine steppe soil; subalpine meadow-steppe soil; subalpine desertsteppe soil; subalpine shrubby-steppe soil; and subalpine alkalized-steppe soil.

Subtypes of soil under alpine steppe soil.

Subtypes of soil

OM content (%)



Alpine meadow-steppe soil

1.5 - 3.5

Stipa purpurea, Kobresia spp., Carex spp., etc.


Alpine desert-steppe soil

< 0.8

Orinus, Stipa spp.

> 9

Alpine shrubby-steppe soil

1.5 - 2.0

Stipa purpurea, Stipa glareosa, etc.


Alpine alkalized-steppe soil


Kobresia spp., Poa annua, Trikeraia hookeri, etc.


SOURCE: Land Management Bureau of Tibet Autonomous Region, 1992.

Mountain shrubby-meadow soil

This is found in central Tibet at elevations of 3 400-4 200 m under a temperate semi-dry climate with annual mean temperature of 4°-9 ºC and annual precipitation of 300 - 500 mm. Vegetation such as Sophora moorcroftiana, Caragana spinifera, Artemisia, Pennisetum flaccidum, Aristida triseta and Orinus thoroldii is found, with Cotoneaster spp. and Rosa spp. near the forest line. The OM content is usually about 2 percent and can be up to 3 percent, with pH values of 6-7.

Alpine desert soil

This is found in the far north, along the Kara-Kunlun Mountains, above 4 800 m, where the climate is cold and dry, with annual mean temperature of -8ºC and low annual precipitation. Ceratoides compacta, Stipa glareosa, Carex moorcroftii and Oxytropis spp. are the only plants that survive. The OM content of the soil is less than 1 percent and pH is around 8.6.

Subalpine desert soil

This is found in far western Tibet, in Rutob and Zhada counties, where the altitude is 3 600-4 500 m. It developed under a temperate, dry climate with annual mean temperature of 0° to -3°C and annual precipitation of 50-150 mm. Only a few cold- and drought-tolerant plants grow, such as Ceratoides sp., Ajania fruticulosa, Ptilotrichum canescens and Ephedra spp. The OM content of the soil is less than 0.5 percent, with strong alkalinity at the surface.

Meadow soil and marshland soils

These two types, the best for grazing and mowing, are in low valleys and basins. Vegetation varies depending on soil moisture. On meadow soil, Kobresia spp. and Carex spp. are the common species. In marshland, there are plants such as Ranunculus, Hippuris and Potamogeton, in addition to Kobresia spp. and Carex spp. Meadow soil has 7 percent of organic matter, on average, and marshland soil has more than 10 percent and up to 20 percent. The average pH range in both types is 6-8.

Taupe soil and Brown soil

These are found in southeastern forest zones. Taupe soil is found between 3 600 and 4 200 m and brown soil below 3 700 m. Taupe soil is found under temperate and semi-humid climates with average annual temperature of 2°-5°C and annual precipitation of 400-700 mm. Trees such as Populus davidiana, Betula platyphylla, Picea likiangensis var. balfouriana and Sabina tibetica are common, as are shrubs like Sabina wallichiana, and Spiraea sp. Grass-like species such as Kobresia spp. and Carex spp. are common, as are Potentilla spp. Brown soil is found in warm semi-humid climatic condition with average annual temperatures of 7°-13ºC and annual precipitation of 350-600 mm. Both shrubs and grass are common. The common shrubs are Sophora viciifolia, Ceratositgma minus, Caragana sp., Lonicera thibetica and Rhamnus sp. The OM contents of taupe soil and brown soil are 6 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

Nutrient and mineral contents of major soil types

Alluvial calcium soil and alluvial noncalcium soil are the major soil chemical types in grazing lands. Alluvial calcium soil is distributed in the lower elevations of river valleys and alluvial non-calcium soil is mainly in the higher elevations of mountains. Both can be found in alluvial fans. In most soils, the humus layer is very thin and humus content low because of slow decomposition of organic material due to low temperature and dryness. In general, meadow types of soil have high contents of OM, N, P and K (Table 8.4).

Iron (Fe), zinc (Zn), molybdenum (Mo), copper (Cu), boron (B) and manganese (Mn) are the main minerals required for plant growth and development. Among the different types of soil, alpine desert soil is very low in mineral content, while in meadow soil there is relatively adequate mineral content (Table 8.5).

Major pasture types

Pasture types are determined by soil, climate and vegetation. From southeast to northwest, pasture type varies from tropical and subtropical to warm and temperate to cold, and from humid and subhumid to semi-arid to extreme dry types. In general, 17 different types of grazing land have been classified (Tibet Bureau of Land Management, 1994). Figure 8.1 illustrates the major types.

Cold highland steppe is the largest in area and the most widely distributed type. It is mostly found in Ali Prefecture and Naqu Prefecture. Cold highland meadow is second largest in area and is found in all parts of Tibet. Cold highland desert steppe is the third largest in area, but is only found in Ali and Naqu Prefecture. There are warm and tropical pasture types, but they are limited to Linzhi Prefecture, where it is lower elevation and humid (details are given in Table 8.6).

Nutrient status and fertility of major soil types of grazing lands in Tibet.

Soil type

OM (%)

N (%)

P (%)

K (%)

Alpine meadow soils





Subalpine meadow soils





Alpine steppe soils





Subalpine steppe soils





Mountain shrubby-meadow soils





Alpine desert soils





Subalpine desert soils





Meadow soil





Marshland soils





Taupe soil and Brown soil





SOURCE: Land Management Bureau of Tibet Autonomous Region, 1992.

Mineral content of major grazing land soil types in Tibet (in ppm).

Major grazing land soil type







Alpine meadow soils



< 0.1

> 0.2

> 1


Subalpine meadow soils


> 2



> 1.0


Alpine steppe soils





> 1.0


Subalpine steppe soils

< 10


< 0.15



< 10

Mountain shrubby-meadow soils



< 0.1




Alpine desert soils







Subalpine desert soils

> 20






Meadow soil

> 20


< 0.1




Marshland soils

> 20

> 3.0

< 0.1

> 1.8

> 2


Taupe soil and Brown soil

> 20






SOURCE: Land Management Bureau of Tibet Autonomous Region, 1992.

FIGURE 8.1. Main vegetation types in the rangelands of Tibet.

SOURCE: Mountain Environment and Natural Resources Information Service (MENRIS), ICIMOD.

Among the 17 pasture types, seven - Cold highland steppe; Cold highland meadow; Cold highland desert steppe; Cold meadow steppe; Cold desert steppe; Temperate steppe; and Mountain meadow - comprise some 98 percent of the total. Their area and percentages of the total are shown in Table 8.7.

Agro-ecological zones

There are seven agro-ecological zones in Tibet (see Figure 8.2).

There is a hot humid agroforestry zone in the southeast, in a mainly forest area, where livestock depend on forage cut from the forest, with grazing in the warm, tropical shrub pasture. Yak, cattle, swine and goat are common. Shifting cultivation is seen in many villages. It has distinct dry and wet seasons, affected by the monsoon. Most of the crops are rainfed. Winter wheat, winter barley, maize and even rice are the major crops.

The warm semi-humid agroforestry zone is where major rivers such as Jingsha Jiang, Lancangjiang and Nujiang flow south out of Tibet. Moisture comes through the river valley and the climate is affected by the monsoon. Shrub pasture is the main resource for stock raising. Yak is a predominant animal in livestock production. Many temperate crops are grown (not rice or warm-climate types).

Proportion of different pasture types in the seven Prefectures of Tibet.

Type of grazing land








1. Temperate meadow steppe





2. Temperate steppe







3. Temperate desert steppe


4. Cold highland meadow steppe






5. Cold highland steppe






6. Cold highland desert steppe



7. Temperate steppe desert


8. Temperate desert


9. Cold highland desert



10. Warm pasture


11. Warm brushy pasture



12. Tropical pasture


13. Tropical brushy pasture


14. Lowland meadow




15. Mountain meadow







16. Cold highland meadow








17. Marshland and wetland




NOTE: Because of rounding errors, some types do not total exactly 100%.
SOURCE: Land Management Bureau of Tibet Autonomous Region, 1992.

Area of major pasture types and their proportion of the total area in Tibet.

Pasture type

Area (‘000 ha)


Cold highland steppe

31 588.60


Cold highland meadow

25 367.33


Cold highland desert steppe

8 678.67


Cold meadow steppe

5 938.67


Cold desert steppe

5 441.33


Temperate steppe

1 786.00


Mountain meadow

1 254.67



80 062.27(1)


NOTE: (1) This higher figure for pasture (Table 8.1 has 64 796.72 thousand hectares) reflects the inclusion here of areas of barren land, unusable areas, and even disputed border lands.

SOURCE: Land Management Bureau of Tibet Autonomous Region, 1992.

The warm semi-dry agricultural zone comes with increasing altitude. It is a crop-dominated, livestock-crops mixed agricultural zone. More than 70 percent of the livelihood of farmers depends on crops. Barley, wheat and rape are the main crops; cattle, yak, sheep and goats are the main animals.

The cool semi-dry agropastoral zone is transitional between crop and pure pastoral zones. Fields of barley, rape and pea are found. Crop cultivars are early maturing and drought resistant. Cattle, sheep and yak are the main animals.

The cold semi-arid pastoral zone is the largest, and is known to Tibetans as Changtang (“the vast northern plateau”). Because of low temperatures and a very short growing season, crop production is not possible. Nomadism is the main production system of the people, who migrate following availability of pasture and water. The north of the zone is very dry, with less than 200 mm of annual precipitation; it can be divided into a cold dry pastoral zone and a cold semi-dry pastoral zone. Yak, sheep and goats are the main livestock. In the east there are more yak, while sheep and goats predominate in the west. Cashmere goats in particular are found in the far west, adjacent to Nepal and India.

FIGURE 8.2. Agro-ecological zones of Tibet.

Livestock production systems

There are four broad livestock production systems (see map - Figure 8.3):

There is great variation within production systems, particularly in the crop-based livestock system. Most households, except purely pastoral ones, grow crops, keep livestock and diversify activities to generate income and ensure food security.

The area of grasslands in each system is illustrated in Table 8.8. Generally, there is only a little grazing land in crop-based livestock systems, but they have a larger proportion of sown grassland. More degraded land is found in the pastoral system, while most improved grassland is in the agropastoral zone (see Table 8.8).

FIGURE 8.3. Map of the distribution of the four main livestock production systems.

Grassland resources in the four livestock production systems in Tibet.

Grassland type

Total ha













Natural grassland (total)(1)

64 303 965

4 161 198


15 696 757


41 004 485


3 441 525


Of which

Cold season

11 917 980

239 151


2 304 255


9 137 122


237 452


Warm season

36 756 100

2 316 363


10 135 116


21 653 426


2 651 195



8 799 213

1 538 396


2 442 007


4 458 605


360 205



18 922



17 682






Temporary grassland

4 399 364

2 857


243 822


4 119 223


33 462


Degraded grassland

2 412 402

63 983


553 882


1 635 991


158 546


Improved grassland

3 864



2 688






Sown grassland

5 349

3 712




1 016




NOTE: (1) Depending on the source of the data, the total grassland area varies between 64.3 million hectares and 64.8 million hectares.

SOURCE: Land Management Bureau of Tibet Autonomous Region, 1992.

Crop-based livestock production system

This includes the majority of Lhasa Municipality and some counties of Shigatse and Shannan Prefectures. It occupies the river valleys of the middle reaches of Yalongzangpo (Brahmaputra) River and its two tributaries, Lhasa Stream and Nyachu Stream (known locally as One River, Two Streams). The main production is cereals and rapeseed. Average altitude is 3 800 m. Precipitation in this zone is unevenly distributed, both spatially and seasonally: 90 percent occurs during June to September, with 80 percent falling at night. Spring and winter are dry, with annual average relative humidity of 43 percent. Strong sunshine and wind, especially during the spring, lead to high annual evaporation - 2 425.5 mm, almost six times the level of precipitation. Crops are prone to drought in spring and waterlogging in autumn. In higher areas, crops are damaged by both spring and autumn frost, and by hail in late summer and early autumn.

Plate 43. In the lower Lhasa river valley, yak × cattle hybrids are widely used. Yaks and their hybrids are easily trained for draught and as pack animals.

Over half the arable land and half the urban areas are in the crop-based system, which accounts for over 56 percent of grain and 70 percent of rapeseed. Although crops dominate the economy, the area still has 16 percent of the animals, 16.1 percent of meat production and 22 percent of the milk production of the whole of Tibet. Pasture has relatively low productivity, as rainfall is low. Stock raising depends on crop residues and by-products, especially in spring and winter. Yak and zo are the main draught animals (Plate 43). In lower valleys, milk is mostly from cows; higher up it is from yak and zo. In this zone, people mostly eat grain, little meat, and milk as butter tea. In terms of energy intake, barley makes up over 77 percent for farmers. In urban areas, wheat and rice consumption is increasing and accounts for 35 percent of energy intake.

Agropastoral production system

This system includes northern Changdu, northwestern Shigatse and southern Shannan Prefectures. It is in the upstream valleys of the Yalongzangpo, Cuona, Longzi, Nujiang, Lancangjiang and Jinshajiang Rivers. The system is spread over the cold semi-arid highlands, with a few cool semi-arid areas at 4 000-4 500 m. The climate is similar to the crop-based system, but spring temperatures rise more slowly, autumn temperatures fall earlier and the frost-free period is shorter. This zone suffers from gales, frost, hail and snow, which severely restrains development of agriculture. Because of cold and the high altitude, most land is for grazing or barren; large amounts have been cultivated in lower valleys. In a few counties in lower areas, some apples and peaches are grown. Crops and livestock (cattle, sheep) have equal importance in farming.

Barley is the main cereal, making up over 65 percent of total crop area. In lower parts, spring wheat is grown where possible. Pea (Pisum sativum), the only pulse, is important as a source of protein for both man and animals. Sown area and production of grain is 30 percent of that in Tibet as a whole. Peas, usually grown mixed with barley or rape, are mostly used for human food, usually mixed with barley, but are also used as animal feed, particularly horses; pea haulm is considered locally to be the best animal feed; mixing barley straw with pea haulm is common. Potatoes and small areas of vegetables, both in greenhouses and outside, are also grown. Cattle, yak, sheep, goat and chicken are the main livestock. The number of animals, production of meat and production of milk are 47 percent, 45 percent and 40 percent, respectively, of Tibet’s output. Small quantities of barley are imported or exchanged with other areas for meat and animal products. Barley and mutton are the main sources of energy for farmers.

Pure pastoral production system

Changtang, the vast open land of the northern Tibetan Plateau, including the entire territory of Naqu Prefecture, most of Ali Prefecture and Dangxiong County of Lhasa Municipality, is a vast pastoral area covering altogether 17 counties. It is surrounded geographically by the Kunlun Mountains in the northwest, Himalayas in the west, the Gandisi Mountains in the southwest, the Nianqingtanggula Mountains in the southeast and the Tanggula Mountains in the east. It occupies almost 60 percent of Tibet, with a total area of 711 000 km2. Stock rearing accounts for over 95 percent of agricultural output. Barley and rape have been cultivated since the 1960s in the lower river valleys of the south.

Biophysically, this area is cold semiarid or arid, with an average elevation above 4 600 m (most is between 4 600 and 5 100 m). Annual average temperature is below 0°C, with an average of 7.3°C in the hottest month and -7.5°C in the coldest. Cropping is impossible in most of this zone, and even animal husbandry is limited by harsh natural conditions; disasters such as wind storms, hail and frost are frequent, and nomads, in particular, often suffer from snow calamities. Heavy snow in 1997-1998 nearly caused the collapse of the livestock production system, as about half of the livestock died. Many nomads were plunged into poverty despite being rich before.

Livestock depend on grazing; there is little forage and hay. In the east, grassland is dominated by highland meadows and swampy meadows, which are relatively productive and can support large grazing animals; the yak predominates (Plates 44 and 45).

Over 80 percent of livestock, in sheep equivalent units, is yak, which provides almost 80 percent of meat and milk and 70 percent of the nomads’ income. In the west, pasture is mainly alpine steppe and alpine desert steppe, which cannot support large ruminants, but local sheep and goats are well adapted to the conditions.

In the last few decades, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, crops have been grown where possible. It was hoped to solve the problem of shortages and avoid the heavy cost of transport. Many attempts failed as there were no suitable crop cultivars, and herders did not know how to grow crops. A few farmers succeeded in growing crops in favourable microclimates in lower river valleys and on the bank of lakes.

Those who gained knowledge and experience in growing crops later went to other counties to reclaim land. The crop area in both eastern and western parts increased rapidly during the 1970s, but decreased considerably after the 1980s. One important lesson learned was that this cold and fragile land often cannot maintain its productivity when cultivated, because decomposition of organic matter is difficult. Large amounts of farmland were abandoned and became useless for both cropping and grazing. Recently, with new cultivars of barley, adapted to local conditions, and improvements in crop management, attempts to achieve food grain self-sufficiency have been increasing in areas such as the counties of Ge’er, Suoxian, Biru and Geji. However, food grain and oilseed production in this zone have never reached 1 percent of that in Tibet as a whole. This zone currently supplies over 36 percent of meat, 47 percent of milk, 56 percent of sheep wool and 40 percent of sheepskins of Tibetan production.

Plate 44. Yak breeding station on the high plateau at over 4 500m.

Livestock products are commonly exchanged for agricultural products through private traders. People eat considerable amounts of barley and wheat, which forms 83 percent of their energy intake. Nomads generally only feel comfortable when they have at least 12 yaks or 50 sheep, or 60 sheep equivalent units per person in the family, and enough tsangpa (flour of roasted barley).

Agrosilvipastoral mixed production

This prevails in the middle valleys of the Nyiyang, Nujiang and Lancangjiang Rivers, including the entire Linzhi Prefecture, and Mangkang and Zuogong Counties of Changdu Prefecture - nine counties altogether. In more favourable environments, crops, livestock and forestry co-exist and are fundamental to ensuring food and livelihood security.

Affected by topography and the monsoon from the Indian Ocean, the climate varies horizontally and vertically. Vertical differentiation of climate and vegetation are much more marked than horizontal differentiation, and greater than in the other three systems. Climatic variation ranges from hot humid in the south to warm humid in the middle range, and to temperate semi-humid in the north, and even to cold arid in the higher altitudes. The livestock production system has developed over a long time, typically incorporating different resources through cropping, livestock raising and forestry.

Plate 45. A warm welcome at the yak breeding station at 4 300 m in Linzhou county, 70 km from Lhasa, Tibet.

Farmers here are much better off than elsewhere in Tibet. Most are self-sufficient in both livestock and crop-based food production. There is a more balanced intake of food in this zone than in others.

Livestock production potential

The carrying capacity of grazing land has been studied from different perspectives (Liu, 1992; Yang, 1995; Tibetan Bureau of Land Planning, 1992b). The supporting capacity of crop straw as animal feed has also been analysed (Yang, 1995; Tibetan Bureau of Land Planning, 1992b). Xiao (1994) attempted to analyse the capacity of agricultural by-products to support livestock production. However, livestock production potential and quantities of meat and milk produced still remain largely unknown. In this report, production potentials for meat and milk were calculated based on an analysis of carrying capacity of pasture, and potential capacity for raising livestock using crop residues and agricultural by-products.

Pasture carrying capacity

Over the last thirty years, animal numbers have increased, from 17 million in 1965 to 23 million in 1999. Total production of meat and milk has reached 103 000 tonne and 185 000 tonne, respectively (Zhang, 1997). However, growth has been at a cost, in terms of overgrazing, in particular, and degradation of livestock productivity. There has been a lack of input to the grazing land; output has always exceeded input. This lack of sustainable utilization has caused overgrazing (57 percent overstocking in Naqu Prefecture), degeneration (49 percent of Naqu) and declining productivity (20 percent fall since the 1980s). The situation is becoming worse (Ling Hui, 1998). Carrying capacity has decreased by 20-40 percent compared to the 1970s (Bai, 1995). Desertification, salinization, increases in poisonous plants and increasing damage from rodents and insects are common. They lead to degradation of the grazing environment and lowered productivity (Bai, 1995; Ling, 1998).

Sustainable use of pasture is crucial to livestock development. In the early 1990s, the total carrying capacity of pasture land was 40-60 million sheep-equivalent units (SEU), where 1 yak = 5 SEU, (Liu, 1992; Bai, 1995); it dropped to 34.2 million SEU (Yang, 1995), and it is now estimated that carrying capacity is less than 30 million SEU, or about 40 SEU per 100 ha. These estimates differ from each other, but the overall tendency is that the carrying capacity of Tibet’s pastures is declining due to steady grassland degradation.

The spatial distribution of potential carrying capacity does not match the actual distribution of grazing land, being limited by biophysical conditions and socio-economic development. In the pastoral production system, where livestock have high priority, there is little room to increase livestock numbers and production. In contrast, in the south, where carrying capacity is considerably higher, increases in livestock are limited by lack of grazing land, steep topography and low priority for livestock.

Moreover, carrying capacity is not only unevenly distributed spatially but also between seasons. The difference of carrying capacity between summer and winter is about 50 percent (Bai, 1995). There are tremendous differences in stocking rate between cold and warm seasons, where the Stocking Rate = [(Number of livestock - Carrying Capacity)/Carrying Capacity)] × 100. Numbers of livestock in cold and warm seasons were based on the numbers of livestock in December and July, respectively. In the warm season, most of Tibet is understocked, but in the cold season, almost all areas are overstocked; there are only a few counties in the far south that possess some potential to keep more livestock. Large parts of the north and centre are overgrazed by the existing numbers of animals.

Overstocking in the cold season is high in all systems. In the pastoral system, there is great overstocking in the cold season and slight overstocking in the warm season. In the crop-based livestock system, there is substantial overstocking in both seasons.

The ratio of carrying capacity in warm season to cold season is more than 2.73, while the ratio of numbers of livestock in the warm and cold seasons is only 1.09. There is great potential to raise livestock in the warm season (about 13 million SEU), but in the cold season there is 15.6 million SEU of overstocking (Table 8.9). Culling and marketing stock in late autumn or early winter for cash and for other necessities may make livestock production more profitable and reduce overstocking on winter grazing.

Overstocking is exacerbated because conservation and rehabilitation of grazing land is largely ignored; improvement and development of artificial grassland has made little progress. The total area of rehabilitated pasture by re-seeding, irrigation, fencing and artificial grassland is only 0.02 percent of the grazing area. Over 20 percent of grazing land in Naqu and 18.8 percent of pasture in Shannan is seriously degraded. There is a lack of effort in developing fencing, irrigation systems, controls for disease and rodent damage, eradication of poisonous plants, and replanting and fertilizing of grassland. The proportion of poisonous plants has increased from 15 percent to 45 percent in some areas. The area for grass-cutting and winter grazing is decreasing year by year. Production of grass has decreased by 60 percent since 1960. There is no established forage reserve of hay to reduce livestock loss and preserve body weight in winter.

Herd structure is often unbalanced, with a large proportion of small, old, unproductive animals in the flock. The proportion of productive animals is 23 percent on average. The reason herders give is the high death rate of animals in winter, compelling them to keep more livestock. The production system exhibits a vicious cycle of high death rate, more livestock kept over winter, low offtake rate, leading to poor economic performance and poor livelihoods for herders.

Carrying capacity and stocking status of grazing land (million SEU).

Production System

Warm season

Cold season

Ratio of carrying capacity in warm to cold season

Ratio of No. of livestock in warm to No. in cold season

Carrying capacity

No. of livestock in July


Carrying capacity

No. of livestock in December






































Tibet in total









SOURCES: Dr Liu Yanghua of the Institute of Geography, Chinese Academy of Sciences, provided data for carrying capacity of natural pasture. The Bureau of Statistics of Tibet Autonomous Region provided livestock numbers.

There is a lack of scientific management and improved livestock. While traditional stock are very hardy, currently neither traditional pure breeds nor improved ones are increasing production. Several investigators have reported declines in productivity of local yak and sheep breeds. Efforts have been made to improve yak, sheep and cattle, and extension of these improved breeds on a large scale is limited by their limited economic capability and biological adaptability. On a per area or per animal basis, production of milk and meat is still among the lowest in China, mainly because of lack of good feed, particularly over the winter, lack of proper veterinary services and poor feeding strategies. With the growth in the population and the need to sustain the livelihoods of nomads, more livestock products are needed. However, the low productivity of individual animals means that this can only be attained by increasing stock numbers. Without improvement in the carrying capacity, this leads to overgrazing.

Inconsistencies between livestock ownership and grazing tenure remain unsolved. The commune system ended and implementation of the responsibility system of agricultural and livestock management began in 1980. Each person was allocated a fixed number of animals so that everyone had equal assets. However, grazing rights were not allocated to individuals and still belong to the government. When livestock is owned privately and pasture public, there is no incentive for herders to conserve, improve or use it sustainably. This leads to overgrazing and degradation.

The commercialization rate of livestock products is low. The more livestock a herder has, the wealthier he feels in nomadic society. Over the past several decades, this has not changed. The average offtake rate is only 18-30 percent, of which over half is consumed by the herders themselves. Few livestock products, particularly meat and milk, are sold outside nomadic society.

Potential of crop residues as animal feed

Straw is an important source of feed in the crop-dominated and agropastoral systems, and is the only feed available in winter and spring. In Linzhou County, Lhasa, in 1996, over 85 percent of the winter and spring feed was straw; a similar situation was found in Shigatse County. Over 89 percent of straw is barley, which has on average 48 percent total digestible nutrients (TDN) and 4.3 percent crude protein (CP) in the dry matter, compared to wheat straw with 41 percent and 3.6 percent, respectively (Christensen, 1999). Pea haulm is also an important feed in the agropastoral systems; in many high areas, peas may not mature for grain, but are grown with barley for forage. A promising trend is the growing of lucerne (Medicago sativa) and other green forages in central Tibet. Many herders plant fodder oats and barley. Nevertheless, straw is an irreplaceable source of feed.

Straw production was estimated at 1.2 million tonne in 2000, based on 1 million tonne of grain production. Cereal straw includes pea straw; rapeseed residues are hardly used as feed. Barley straw accounts for 76 percent; in the cropbased livestock production systems, winter wheat straw accounts for more than 50 percent. Current management of straw is not good: its rate of use for feed is about 26 percent. Farmers in most cases simply pile straw beside the house or on the roof. There is rarely further processing, such as application of ammonia or micro-organisms to ferment straw. There is no facility for feeding straw, such as troughs or racks; it is simply spread on the ground, so large amounts are wasted. In some villages, straw is used as fuel.

In recent years, the introduction of fermentation, together with troughs and chopping, has been successful for fully utilizing straw. In Tsedang Township and Gongga County of Shannan Prefecture in 1997 and 1998, many farmers adopted the combined package of fermentation of straw, chopping, and feeding with troughs. Local extension staff and farmers feel that this approach could enhance the utilization rate by up to 60 percent. Another approach adopted by farmers in Dazi County of Lhasa is mixing chopped barley straw with wheat or corn flour, as well as forage from lucerne. The total utilization rate improved by up to 62 percent. Assuming that the utilization rate of straw reaches 60 percent, more than 360 million SEU can be additionally supported, based on an estimate of 200 kg of barley straw for one sheep as a supplement to grazing. This is calculated based on number of SEU animal supported by straw feeding = total production of straw (1.2 million tonne) × ratio of utilization of straw as feed for animal (60 percent) /estimated amount of straw needed for one SEU (200 kg/SEU).

Feed-production potential

To increase livestock production by promoting improved livestock and developing intensive production, high quality feed will be required. Currently, over 173 000 ha of wasteland are available for developing forage, haymaking and silage production. If 40 000 ha of this land were cultivated for forage and grass, then after three years, an additional 1 500 000 SEU could be supported (Hu, 1995).

Expansion of the area of winter barley is now possible with multiple-cropping systems in central Tibet. A crop of green forage of alfalfa, turnip or rape could be taken after harvesting winter barley; about 30-60 tonne/ha of fresh forage could be produced. With expansion of winter barley to 10 000 ha, more than 35 000 grazing SEU could be supported. Besides these opportunities, with an increase in crop production, more than 100 000 tonne of cereals could be used for livestock feed. In addition, there are over 243 000 tonne of agricultural by-products, such as bran, oilseed meal and lees, which are not properly used as animal feed and are wasted.

To summarize, with the existing carrying capacity of grassland, full utilization of barley and pea straw, substantial use of wasteland to produce feed, development of forage and adequate use of agricultural by-products, 30 percent more livestock could be sustained on average. Based on this assumption, total carrying capacity in Tibet was estimated at 38 680 000 SEU at current production levels (Table 8.10). Comparing this capacity with the existing numbers of animals, the limit has been reached. At the existing level of livestock production, population structure and rate of offtake, 140 000 tonne of meat and 230 000 tonne of milk can be produced.

TABLE 8.10
Total potential supporting capacity and stocking status of grazing land in Tibet (million SEU).

Farming and food production system

Total supporting capacity

Supporting capacity of natural pasture

Total supporting capacity

Ratio of overstocking in warm season

Ratio of overstocking in cold season

Supporting capacity of natural pasture

Ratio of overstocking in warm season

Ratio of overstocking in cold season

Crop-dominated system







Agropastoral system







Pastoral system







Agrosilvipastoral mixed system







Tibet in total







SOURCES: Dr Lui at the Institute of Geography, Chinese Academy of Sciences, provided data for carrying capacity of rangelands. The author estimated total supporting capacity of livestock production in Tibet.

Further increases in meat and milk production will depend not only on improved livestock productivity by breeding, but also on improving pasture, increasing utilization rate of straw, developing forage, processing agricultural by-products for feed, re-structuring livestock populations and increasing rates of offtake.

Potential for livestock breed improvement

In 1999, the average offtake rate of sheep and goats was 26 percent, and 15.2 percent of yak and cattle. Total meat and milk production was 146 000 tonne and 208 800 tonne, respectively. Average per capita consumption of meat and milk in rural areas was 14.32 kg and 112.37 kg respectively.

Stock numbers are currently being controlled, so to increase production, local government is looking at possibilities of increasing productivity per unit or per animal. The potential productivity of improved breeds to intensify output and re-structure livestock populations is crucial to increasing livestock output.

In terms of new breeds, it was reported that both milk and meat production of yak, in most areas, can be increased by 30 percent through cross-breeding among the main breeds of Pali Yak, Sibu Yak, Jiali Yak and Dandxiong Yak. Local cattle are well adapted to the harsh conditions; most are tolerant of coarse feed and are well suited to grazing, but their productivity is low. Improvement through crossbreeding with external large-framed cows increased milk production more than five times and body weight by 46-57 percent (Hu, 1995). Improved cows, however, need better quality and larger quantities of feed. A 40 percent increase in wool, meat and milk production of sheep was achieved by similar cross-breeding. Up to 1996, there were only 15 000 improved yaks, 15 000 crossbred sheep, 40 000 improved cattle and 35 000 improved goats.

In the latter half of the 1990s, breed improvement has been one of the four important technologies (improved breeds, micro-organic fermented straw as feed, artificial grassland and disease prevention) promoted to increase the profitability of livestock in Tibet. Nevertheless, the number of improved animals has not increased substantially and the proportion of improved and crossbred livestock is still small.

In general, there are large numbers of yak and sheep, and a large proportion of old and small animals. It is advisable that, in the crop-based production systems, promotion is focused on cow and zo, while in the agropastoral and pastoral production system, on yak, sheep and goats. Increasing female yak and sheep to a proportion of 50 percent and 60 percent, respectively, would increase milk production (Hu, 1995). In general, livestock production can only be sustained when it fits local biophysical conditions and where there is a market for its products.

Changing trends of pastoral systems and livestock production in Tibet

Livestock raising comprises more than 50 percent of gross agricultural output and is fundamental to ensuring food security. Historically, the number of livestock was about 10 million head. Socio-economic changes in the 1950s and 1960s resulted in stock numbers increasing rapidly. Livestock systems are in transition, driven by increasing demand for livestock products, particularly meat and milk, due to human population increase, income growth, and changing lifestyles and food preferences.

The number of livestock: quantitative increase towards qualitative improvement

The total number of livestock has had three distinct development stages: fast-growing, steady-growing, and stagnant. Figure 8.4 illustrates this trend.

FIGURE 8.4. Changes in the total population of livestock - 1952 to present.

Overall, during the 1960s, the average growth rate was more than 10 percent. There was a slow increase in the 1970s, at an average rate of 2.16 percent. During the 1980s, there was stagnation, decreasing at -0.16 percent. In recent years there has been a slight increase in the livestock population. Particularly with increasing demand for pork in recent years, the number of pigs has increased at a rate of 6.6 percent annually, after a large decrease during the 1980s.

The total number of livestock has reached an alarming level compared with the carrying capacity of the pastures. Actions have been taken by local government to control livestock numbers. Guidelines for sustainable use of grazing lands and livestock development in the pastoral production system have been prepared, and a series of official documents have been formulated. One is the Pasture Law. It is laid down in the law that the number of livestock should be based on the area and productivity of the grazing land. In the implementation of this statement, certain measures have been taken, including fixing the number of livestock - particularly numbers of yak, cow and sheep - according to area of grazing land in each administrative village, and encouraging herders and farmers to improve the unit productivity of livestock. Guiding herders to focus on the profitability and unit yield of livestock instead of seeking increase in number has been the focus of re-orientation and re-structuring of livestock production systems. In addition, traditionally, livestock numbers are perceived as the symbolic wealth of the household. Now herders and farmers are encouraged to produce what the market wants, using local resources. General principles for future development of livestock production were set as: stable development of pasture-based livestock production; vigorous development of crop-based livestock raising; and accelerated development of peri-urban intensified livestock production. The main aim of this is to boost total livestock production without burdening the grasslands.

Pasture management: towards a responsibility system

Overall reform of the rural economy and agricultural development policies in Tibet began in 1978. The household responsibility system was formulated and introduced after the First Central Government Symposium on Tibetan Development, in 1980. Actions have been based since then on two ‘long-term steadiness’ policies. One has been long-term stability of cultivated land allocated to household use and selfdetermination of management. The second has been long-term stability of animals allocated to households for raising and owning privately, and self-determination of management. The landholding system for crops was changed from communes to household responsibility. However, that for grazing land has remained a state-owned or government-controlled system. Incentives for herders and farmers and mechanisms to conserve, sustainably use and better manage the grasslands by themselves are lacking. This is one of the factors that has led to degradation and overgrazing year by year.

To tackle this, most of the counties and prefectures have emphasized putting the household’s responsibility and ownership of grazing land into effect in recent years. The intention is to make herders and farmers aware of long-term sustainable use and management of pastures. However, some ecologists suggest that this will create problems by restricting the mobility of nomads and their herds, which is the nomad strategy developed over centuries, to use and manage vast but fragile grazing land effectively on the high and cold Tibet plateau. Local policy-makers and pasture management specialists are aware of this, and some degree of flexibility has been given, such as the village responsibility system, collective responsibility system and household responsibility system, which were being adopted where appropriate. Meanwhile, different levels of government have been working on the expansion of irrigated pastures, artificial grassland and fenced pastures. Responsibility for carrying out these developments and postmanagement operation responsibilities were given to each village or household, and government takes responsibility for allocating minimal funds. The fundamental idea and expectation behind these activities is to increase pasture productivity so as to increase the unit supporting capacity of grazing toward the actual number of livestock.

Grazing land development: towards intensified management

Under the general conditions of low carrying capacity, lack of feed in winter and spring, and shortage of winter grazing, one of the last hopes of promoting and reinforcing grazing-based livestock production systems in Tibet is now considered to be to develop fenced, irrigated, fertilized and planted pasture wherever possible. Both fenced and irrigated pasture are, however, currently limited, and development has not progressed much. For example, the area of fenced pasture during 1980-85 was about 308 000 ha; in 1996, it was 546 000 ha. The average irrigated pasture area during 1980-85 was about 122 400 ha, and in 1996 it was 153 000 ha. Thus fenced pasture increased by only 238 000 ha and irrigated pasture by 30 600 ha. This is too small to support productive and profitable livestock raising.

In recent years, especially since the huge disaster due to heavy snow in the 1997-98 winter and early spring, efforts have been made to increase the productivity of the grazing lands through developing fenced, irrigated and sown grasslands in pastoral areas. In 1999 alone, 20 000 ha of pasture were fenced for winter grazing. Application of fertilizer to pasture is also increasing. Almost all counties are speedily popularizing the technologies of fencing, irrigating, fertilizing and eliminating insects, mice and weeds from the pasture, and planting grass. Meanwhile, local government is focusing on settling nomads. Great efforts have been made in building sheds or shelters for stock in winter. In 1999 alone, 1 220 000 m2 of sheds or shelters were built.

Meat production: hope from increasing the offtake rate of livestock

The demand for meat and milk is increasing, but, as noted earlier, pasture production and feed supply have not been improved, neither have offtake rate nor unit output per animal. Thus, the increase in production has been mainly attributed to increases in the number of animals during the last 15 years. Land which was already overgrazed and degraded has been further burdened, to an alarming point, so it is necessary to increase the offtake of livestock.

Locally, great attention has been paid to increasing the offtake rate. Total offtake of yak and cattle increased to 690 500 head during 1995-1999, from 411 400 head in the late 1980s (Table 8.11). In 1999, total offtake of large animals was 774 900 head, from a total herd of more than 5.7 million. Total offtake of small animals ranged from 4.1 million head to 4.5 million head out of a total flock of more than 17 million. The average rates of small animal offtake and large animal offtake in 1999 were about 26.3 percent and 15.2 percent, respectively. Nonetheless, the offtake rate of most animals has, by and large, been the same during the past 15 years (Figure 8.5), except for pigs.

TABLE 8.11
Changes and trends in offtake of livestock.


Yak and cattle


Sheep and goats

Average offtake (‘000 head)

Average offtake rate (%)

Average offtake (‘000 head)

Average offtake rate (%)

Average offtake (‘000 head)

Average offtake rate (%)






2 678.4







3 399.8







3 595.0







3 956.5


FIGURE 8.5. Annual offtake rates of the main livestock categories in Tibet.

Milk: increasing market demand but stagnant production levels

Tibetan food preferences have been changing very rapidly. Urban cereal consumption has been declining, whereas in the rural population it is still increasing slightly. Both in rural and urban areas, the use of barley as a staple has fallen significantly in recent years. Most urban households now use wheat and rice as staples. Just 10 years ago, tsangpa was the main cereal. Consumption of meat, milk, eggs and vegetables have increased very rapidly since 1990. In particular, urban populations now prefer low calorie but high protein food. In rural areas, richer households consume more rice, wheat and vegetables. Consumption of meat and butter tea are increasing with the improvement of living standards.

There is a trend that once farmers become rich and have economic capacity to buy imported cereals, which are more palatable, local barley and wheat are replaced. The lifestyle and food preferences in urban areas are now similar to other provinces of China. Traditionally, tsangpa (roasted barley flour) has been the staple cereal; butter tea and chang (beer from barley) the drink; dried (or cooked) sheep and yak the meat; and potato and radish the vegetables. Though overall food preference is changing, butter tea is now the only distinct and common Tibetan drink in most households, both rural and urban, and butter consumption (Plates 46 and 47) is increasing with rising living standards. Tibet is highly deficient in butter: in 2001, this study estimated that there was a shortfall of at least 7 000 tonne.

Plate 46. Dairy products are important for domestic consumption. Milk pails and churns on sale in Lhasa.

TABLE 8.12
Growth rate of meat and milk production (percent).


Meat Production

Milk Production




Lamb and mutton


Cattle and yak milk





























The growth of meat and milk production has been slowed by the limitation of stock numbers since the 1980s. The average annual growth rates of meat and milk production were 4.38 percent and 8.53 percent, respectively, during 1980-85, but in 1990-95, they were 3.64 percent and -0.34 percent, respectively (Table 8.12). Since 1994, both meat and milk production have been steadily increasing, but the growth rate of milk production still has not reached the level of the early 1980s. The growth rates of per capita meat and milk production also decreased during the 1980s and early 1990s, although again increasing in the late 1990s (Figure 8.6).

In general, total production of meat is still increasing, while the production of milk has stagnated (Figure 8.7). By using linear regression analysis (1978-1999) for total production of meat and milk with the equations Ymt = 4.2023x + 38.41 [R2 = 0.9654] and with Ymk = 4.8531x + 95.621 [R2 = 0.7452], total production of meat was expected to be 140 000 tonne and production of milk would fluctuate around 210 000 tonne by 2001, which would be far from meeting the rapidly increasing demands for meat and especially milk.

Plate 47. Spiritual values are important in Tibet and butter has many religious uses. Butter lamps in Johang Temple.

FIGURE 8.6. Growth rate per capita of meat, mutton and milk production (percent).

SOURCE: Statistic Bureau of Tibet, 1999.

FIGURE 8.7. Changes in meat and milk production, 1978-1999.

SOURCE: Statistic Bureau of Tibet, 1999.

Meat and milk production: the driving forces of their growth

There are many factors driving meat production to increase. Generally, it depends on the number of livestock and the rate of offtake, and the area of grazing land, its quality, feed production and climatic conditions, particularly drought. Time series data during the 1990s for these major factors were used to analyse the relevancy and correlation between meat production and those factors. The results are shown in Table 8.13.

Table 8.13 shows that:

The same approach was used to analyse milk production, with factors such as the total number of yak and cattle, numbers of sheep and goats, total cereal production, total area of grazing land, total usable area, area of fenced pasture, area of irrigated pasture and ranking of drought. The results are presented in Table 8.14.

It was concluded that the total number of yak and cattle has the greatest effect on milk production, followed by the total number of sheep and goats. Again, correlation between cereal production and milk production is very close. But there is less effect from the area of pasture, and area of irrigated and fenced pasture. It might be because there is just a small area and also because of little change in area of fenced and irrigated pasture. Moreover, at current levels of socio-economic development, there could be considerable expansion of fenced and irrigated pasture. Increases in both total number and per unit yield of cattle, yak, sheep and goat could be achieved through development of cereal production. It is important to suggest that milk production could be increased through developing specialized small-scale dairy cattle raising in cropping areas, and improvement of feed quality and feeding strategies.

TABLE 8.13
Major factors affecting total meat production.


Degree of relevancy

Coefficient of correlation

Population of livestock



Cereal production



Cattle and yak offtake



Pig offtake



Sheep and goat offtake



Total area of grazing land



Total usable grazing land area



Area of fenced grazing land



Area of irrigated grazing land



Ranking of drought



TABLE 8.14
Major factors affecting milk production.


Degree of relevancy

Coefficient of correlation

Number of cattle and yak



Number of sheep and goats



Total grain production



Total area of grazing land



Total area of usable grazing land



Area of fenced grazing land



Area of irrigated grazing land



Ranking of drought



Meat and milk production: where are they going?

Throughout Tibet, almost every household produces meat and milk for domestic use. The great variation in carrying capacity of grazing land - its area, biophysical conditions and socioeconomic development of counties and regions - means that there is corresponding variation in meat and milk production. Per capita meat and milk production were estimated for each county of Tibet, and then compared. In most counties in the north and northwest, per capita meat production is more than 60 kg; in central parts, it is under 30 kg. Per capita milk production follows the same pattern.

In order to examine where meat and milk production are going, the data for the last 15 years were taken and the growth rates of meat and milk for each county during that period were calculated (see Figures 8.8 and 8.9). Two main conclusions were drawn.

First, there has been a large increase in meat production, particularly where cropping is possible. In most of central and southern Tibet, total meat production increased annually by more than 3 percent on average (see Figure 8.8). By and large, areas where cropping is possible recorded the largest increase. The crop-based production system increased by 11.8 percent per annum and the agropastoral area by 9.7 percent per annum. In pastoral systems, meat production increased by only 1.97 percent per annum.

Second, milk production is declining in the pastoral system, while it is increasing in the crop-based system. Figure 8.9 shows that milk production has decreased at a rate of more than 2 percent per annum in most of the north and northwest counties. In the counties where cropping is possible, milk production has grown at more than 2 percent per annum. Milk production in pastoral systems has declined by 1.8 percent per annum, whereas in both crop-based production systems and agropastoral systems it has increased by more than 16 percent per annum.

In general, meat and milk production bases are shifting towards central Tibet. Reinforcement of crop-based livestock production systems is desirable for further increasing both meat and milk production. In the pastoral system, increases in per unit yield of meat and milk production are needed.

FIGURE 8.8. Annual growth rate of total meat production in each county of Tibet.

FIGURE 8.9. Growth rate of total milk production in each county of Tibet.

The above analysis indicates that in the crop-based production system and regions where cropping is possible, both meat and milk production have been increasing, while in pastoral areas they are declining. This reflects the limitations of further development of the livestock sector, not only because of the low carrying capacity of grazing land, but also from difficulties in improving unit yield. Grazing-based livestock production may not have much growth in the near future unless there is radical improvement in grazing land production conditions. In the cropping areas, there is great potential for livestock production through utilizing crop straw and agricultural by-products as animal feed, devoting marginal land to forage production, producing forage through promotion of multiple cropping, and developing silage production. In other words, there is greater potential for biomass production in the lower river valleys of the cropping areas than in the pastoral system.

Future grazing land (rangeland) needs for feeding the increasing population

The total area of grazing land (rangeland) is about 80 million hectares, making up 71 percent of Tibet and over 20 percent of total rangeland in China (Tibetan Bureau of Land Planning, 1992a). In yield terms, 49 percent of usable pasture yields 750 kg/ ha of fresh grass. This yield is very low compared with other regions of China, but the area with this yield level is almost half of the usable rangelands in Tibet. The area yielding 750-1 500 kg/ha of fresh grass accounts for 28 percent. However, the area yielding more than 4 500 kg/ha of fresh grass comprises only 1 percent, and is mostly distributed in non-livestockdominated areas in southeastern Tibet (Tibetan Bureau of Land Planning, 1992a). Middle and low-grade rangeland accounts for 44 percent (Tibetan Bureau of Land Planning, 1992a). In Tibet, the carrying capacity of natural grazing is 1 SEU per 2.13 ha, compared to 1 SEU per 0.7 ha in Qinghai Province, 1 SEU per 0.75 ha in Inner Mongolia and 1 SEU per 0.41 ha in the United States of America. Production per animal is extremely low. For example, production of sheep wool in Tibet is about 0.5 kg/head, which is one-third of Qinghai production levels, and only one-eighth of average production in the United States of America.

How in the next 20 years could such low yielding grazing land sustain the increasing population with rapidly rising living standards and a changing food preference towards meat and milk? A simulation model was developed to calculate the demand for grazing land by year 2020, based on various assumptions for milk and meat demand, and unit yield of milk and meat production. Figure 8.10 illustrates the procedure.

The basic concept is that for different assumptions of population growth rate (1.3%, 1.5% and 1.7%) and its meat and milk consumption levels (Meat: MT1 = 18 kg/head; MT2 = 23 kg/head; MT3 = 30 kg/head. Milk: MK1 = 68 kg/head; MK2 = 72 kg/head; MK3 = 86 kg/head), the total demand for meat and milk in each county of Tibet can be calculated. Based on the current production of meat and milk, and area of grazing land in each county, yield per hectare of both milk and meat can be estimated. These estimates for unit grazing land yield also include the yields contributed by agricultural byproducts, forage produced from farmland, and straw from cereal crops. Thus the calculated demand for grazing land should be seen as equivalent to a certain amount of feed production for supporting the production of milk and meat. It cannot indicate the exact actual demand for grazing land, but it can be seen as an indicator of pressure on rangelands from increasing demands for milk and meat. Different assumptions of yield growth rate were used (0%, 15% and 25%). In all, 27 scenarios were generated.

FIGURE 8.10. Procedure for estimating grazing land demand in Tibet by 2020.

On average for all Tibet, total demand for grazing land at different assumptions of milk and meat demand and population growth rate could be 1.5 times the total existing area. Were population growth to stabilize at the lowest growth rate, the demand for grazing land would be less than the current area, and - particularly if yields increase - grazing needed for different levels of consumption would be far less than Tibet’s current resources. However, the situation differs from county to county. Especially when all the estimated demands for grazing land are aggregated into the different production systems, adjusted for the size of population and area of grazing land, the estimated demand for grazing land compared with the current level becomes very different. For example, in the crop-based livestock production system, where population is concentrated and there is less pasture, the demand for grazing land under different scenarios is more than twice the current area, especially the Low Yield + High Population Growth + High Consumption scenario (No. 2 in Figure 8.11), where demand would be 4.46 times current resources. In contrast, in the pastoral area, because of smaller population and large areas of grassland, the future demand for grazing land compared to current resources is lower. For instance, under the High Yield + Low Population Growth + Moderate Consumption scenario (No. 5 in Figure 8.11), future demand could be expected to be less than current levels.

FIGURE 8.11. Level of demand for grazing land in 2020 compared with current availability

(present = 1.00), based on six scenarios:
1. Low yield increase + low population growth + moderate consumption.
2. Low yield increase + high population growth + high consumption.
3. Moderate yield increase + low population growth + moderate consumption.
4. Moderate yield increase + moderate population growth + moderate consumption.
5. High yield increase + low population growth + moderate consumption.
6. High yield increase + high population growth + high consumption.

When the various scenarios are superimposed on the county-based administrative map, the spatial distribution of future demand for grazing land can be visualized. Taking the examples of Scenario 4 (Moderate yield increase + moderate population growth + moderate consumption) (Figure 8.12a) and Scenario 1 (Low yield increase + low population growth + moderate consumption) (Figure 8.12b), it can be visualized that there will be increasing pressure on the grazing land or demand for animal feed production in central Tibet, where the majority of the population is concentrated. In other words, there is going to be increasing demand for milk and meat in these areas, which will not be available locally, so it will have to be brought in, transferring the grazing pressure to more distant areas.


Livestock production cannot be sustainably increased unless there is productive and sustainable use of grazing land. The area available, soil quality, production of forage and its quality, regeneration, and environmental conditions directly affect the development of healthy and productive livestock.

Using the niches of the unique grazing lands and their biodiversity

Using the niches of the unique pastoral biodiversity to promote income generation for the herders is the essence of poverty alleviation in pastoral areas. The Tibetan Plateau has been recognized as the water tower of Asia, providing almost onefifth of freshwater resources. It has been called the ecological fountain or riverhead of the region (Luobsang Linzhiduojee, 1995). However, the fragility and marginal nature of Tibet’s grazing land ecosystem demands respect for its limitations, so care is needed in its development, with full awareness of the increased time and cost implicit in rehabilitation for livestock production compared with more clement areas. Environmental destruction and degradation, particularly of the grazing land, has a direct impact downstream. This should be realized in the formulation of law and policies. Legislation should be considered so that the local people are financially compensated for any conservation and rehabilitation of grazing lands on these very important catchment areas that will benefit peoples downstream. Unless there is much greater concern about, and concomitant care for, Tibet’s grazing lands, with active conservation and rehabilitation, further destruction and degradation of the environment will occur, and the knock-on effect will alter the fate of much larger populations downstream.

FIGURE 8.12A. Grazing land demand in 2020 (at moderate yield increase, moderate population growth and moderate consumption increase). Legend indicates demand factors compared to present, where present = 1.

FIGURE 8.12B. Grazing land demand in 2020 (at low yield increase, low population growth and moderate consumption increase). Legend indicates demand factors compared to present, where present = 1.

Biodiversity in the grazing land is unique and of great value. There are over 3 100 species of plants (Sun Shangzhi, 1994) of which about 2 670 are edible (Tibetan Bureau of Land Planning, 1992a). Collection of high-value plants, such as saffron, aweto, fritillary bulb and lotus flower, is a major local income source. Vast areas of grazing land provide habitat for many rare and endangered species of animal, such as musk deer, wild yak, black-necked crane and wild ass or kiang (Equus kiang, sometimes referred to as a subspecies of E. hemionus). The nutritive quality of forage is also reasonable. Many grasses have high protein and fat content, and low fibre (Tibetan Bureau of Land Planning, 1992a). However, productivity is low. Sustainable use and conservation of grazing land biodiversity and grazing land ecosystems is the essence and fundamental base for poverty alleviation in pastoral areas and improving livelihoods of the herders and nomads.

Accelerating the development of livestock production in the cropbased systems

Overstocking has led to grassland degradation and production stagnation in pastoral systems. Increased crop and cereal production holds scopes for raising livestock in crop-based production system where equal priority can be placed on increasing feed production, livestock improvement and marketing of livestock products. Farmers in this area need improved forage production technologies associated with cropland, such as seeding, irrigating and harvesting. It is also necessary to promote the use of forage crops such as oats, peas and lucerne. Multiple-cropping systems for forage production and the use of barley and wheat straw for livestock feed are yet to be fully promoted, but there is potential. Increased crop production and improved unit yield of cereal crops also provide opportunities for livestock feed from agricultural by-products and production of hay. Sufficient cereals mean sufficient concentrated feed. Productive cropland means marginal land can be devoted to the development of artificial grasslands and the cultivation of perennial forage crops. Feed production and the development of a market for livestock products should receive priority for developing livestock production in crop-based production systems.

Promoting integrated stable development of livestock production in the pastoral system

Increasing production without raising the number of stock is the major thrust in development of animal husbandry in Tibet. Increasing numbers leads to serious overgrazing and further pastoral deterioration. Controlling and rehabilitating degraded grazing land has been given great attention by local authorities. During the late 1990s, a comprehensive study of the grassland degradation and desertification in Naqu Prefecture showed that degraded grazing land in the area made up almost 50 percent of the total area of pasture; in some counties, such as Shenzha County, it reached 70 percent. It also indicated that the production of fresh biomass in various types of grazing land has decreased by more than 50 percent compared with the level recorded in the 1960s (Liu Shuzhen, 1999). This indicates that grazing land cannot sustain and support livestock as it did in the 1960s. However, recent increases in meat and milk production are not attributed to the area of grazing land and improvement of productivity, but rather to increases in stock numbers. Most counties have tried to increase stock numbers and there has been considerable growth in order to maintain total production of meat and milk. Thus, total production of livestock could be reduced for the sake of preserving and rehabilitating the degraded land, but this could lead to hunger and poverty among the nomads and herders. The only way to overcome this is to increase the yield of meat and milk per animal, while rehabilitating and improving productivity.

Speeding up development of urban and peri-urban intensified livestock production

Rapidly increasing the production of poultry, pork and milk, to satisfy the increasing urban demand, is a great opportunity to develop livestock production near urban areas. The per capita annual purchases of pork, poultry and eggs in 1999 were 13.2 kg, 4.8 kg and 4.6 kg, respectively. Taking the total urban population of Tibet as 660 000 in 1999, the demands for pork, poultry and eggs were more than 8 700 tonne, 3 100 tonne and 3 000 tonne, respectively; more than 70 percent of this is currently imported. Milk and butter are much in demand by the urban population, reflecting the improvement in their living standard, but most of the butter in the market comes from Qinghai and Gansu, or even from Inner Mongolia. Specialized and intensified livestock production in urban and suburban areas has great potential. Feed processing and supplying concentrate feed and forage is the essence of further development of livestock production in this area. Currently, there is no feed processing plant that can produce and supply large quantities of concentrates, forage or hay. Special attention should be paid to the possibility of developing scattered, small household-based small dairy farms, poultry farms and pig farms near urban areas, which are linked to the urban market. Development of greenhouse vegetable production near urban areas is developing rapidly. Combining greenhouse vegetable production with poultry and swine production for small-scale farmers has been successfully promoted.

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