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Chapter XIV - Bhutan case study 1: Transhumant cattle raising in western Bhutan - Tsering Gyaltsen and B.N. Bhattarai


Naja geog has thirteen villages and is between 2 600 and 3 000 m altitude; livestock are very important in the economy but summer crops are grown on restricted areas. Cattle and cattle × mithun (Bos frontalis) hybrids are by far the most significant; small ruminants are few. Summer grazing is on high altitude pastures up to at least 4 200 m (which are also winter pastures for yak belonging to another group), and winter grazing is in low altitude forests, down to 300 m. Grazing rights to specific areas are registered and hereditary. Many herders have more than one pasture, often in different zones. Migration routes are traditional and herders have no right to linger. A system of entrusting the care of stock to other groups for part of the year is described - in this case for the winter. Grazing and forest loppings, according to season, are the main feed but supplements of meal and oilcake are fed to milch cattle and calves. Herders plant fodder trees near winter camps and there is some sowing of pasture in higher areas. A transect of the transhumance routes is described.

Problems include heavy grazing of summer pastures, landslides and floods on the summer journey, and severe overstocking around winter camps. Toxic plants are a problem at high altitudes when unaccustomed stock arrive for the first time. Butter and local cheese are the main products marketed from summer pastures; when winter camps are close to towns, then fresh milk is sold; there is a growing urban demand for milk and herders are increasingly settling in lower areas and keeping Jersey stock.

Study area

There have been many studies on various aspects of livestock production in Bhutan, but this is the first integrated study covering the overall transhumant system, including forage resources, grazing management and herders’ socio-economic status (for study site, see Site V on the map in Figure 9.1). This study took a broad view of transhumant livestock production systems and focused on herders’ movements between seasonal quarters. Most movements are over many kilometres, in some cases hundreds. The study attempts to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the system so as to guide appropriate research strategies and demonstrate how the system could be improved rather than how it could be done away with, as is sometimes suggested. Transhumance is embedded in local tradition and is an efficient way of making use of seasonally available forage.

Naja is a geog, between 2 600 and 3 000 m elevation, in Paro Dzongkhag [administrative region], with most records of transhumance in the western Dzongkhags. It has 276 households, with a population of 2 162 (1998-1999) and comprises 13 villages. The major source of livelihood is sale of agriculture produce: butter, cheese, potatoes and vegetables. Crop land comprises: wetland - 12.1 ha; dryland - 302.1 ha; orchards - 194 ha; and gardens - 19.7 ha. The study area covered five districts of Western Bhutan, with both summer and winter grazing sites of the migratory cattle.

TABLE 14.1
Crop areas and yields - Naja geog, Bhutan.


Area (ha)

Production (kg)

Yield (kg/ha)



755 328

5 941



6 9512




4 183




261 414

13 369



(18 257 deys)(1)

2, 531

Chilli (dried)


19 300

5 243

Pea (green)


78 300

4 380

Apple (fruit bearing)

1 917 trees

178 040

NOTE: (1) 1 dey of paddy = 1.5 kg.

TABLE 14.2
Najap stock numbers.


Jersey cattle

Mithun crosses





1 071







1 728




SOURCE: Livestock Extension Centre, Naja.

Potatoes, wheat and barley are the main crops, but vegetables are also very important (see Table 14.1). Crops are looked after by women, in summer, while their partners tend the herds.

There were 1 137 farmers in 13 villages in Naja; village populations varied between 290 and 52. Those not directly involved in farming were civil servants and shopkeepers. According to the 1997-1998 census, Najaps [people from Naja] attach great importance to stock rearing and are those who migrate with the herds. The figures shown in Table 14.2 is their share only; partners (nothoue) who belong to another area record their share separately in the livestock census.

The nothoue arrangement

Since nothoue figures throughout this section, some explanation is in order. It is an age-old, traditional relationship between herders for transhumance, organized such that both partners function symbiotically. Nothoue is intricate and requires the trust of both parties. It is common in Chukka, Haa and Paro Dzongkhags. Only limited information was collected.

Nothoue arrangements are commonest within the district of Paro; a few farmers of Naja, being closer, have nothoue with Haa Dzongkhag. A few Naja keep cattle for summer grazing (May to August) in Jodokha, Nabina, Chambithang, Nalikha, Montongmo, Tseplengha and Tsentong, where they have their registered pastures about half a day away.

From September to April, the counterparts from Haa take over the cattle and move to Samse Dzongkhag, where they have tsadrog [registered grazing land or pasture rights] at Dorokha and Setina (three days journey from Haa). For the rest of the time, the Naja farmers take over the cattle and migrate to Chukka Dzongkhag (September to April), where they have their registered pasture land. General parts of the arrangement include:

Feed and fodder resources

In summer, migratory herds graze meadows in the alpine tsadrogs; in winter, they are in forest, grazing trees and shrubs and given loppings of fodder trees in the tsadrog. Supplements, such as salt, maize flour and mustard cake, are fed to milking cows and calves in both summer and winter. During migration, salt is fed weekly or fortnightly at 250 g per adult; milking cattle are given about 1 kg daily of a mustard cake and maize meal mix, as a porridge; whey is fed to calves.

Plate 60. Transhumant cattle (mithun crosses and siri) on summer pastures at 3 200 m in August in Naja geog, Paro, Bhutan, just before the downward trek, when cattle will be handed over to partners for the winter 8-month period under the nothoue system.

Sedentary cattle are kept for draught, manure and milk; their feed comprises forest grazing, cut-and-carry from improved pastures, stubble grazing, fodder trees (Quercus spp.), straws and stovers, common grazing, crop by-products, cabbage, weeds, hay, brewing residues, salt, maize flour, mustard cake, and winter fodder (maize and soybean).

Fodder seed is distributed free by the government. At Naja, most households grow improved pasture for the improved cattle (these are outside the nothoue system), mainly on rainfed land or intercropped in orchards; farmers mow the pasture four to five times yearly. Maize and soybean are grown for working bulls, which migrate later than the herds, following preparation of the wheat land. In Naja geog, there was an average of 770 m2 of improved pastures in 1996-1998. For the fodder cultivars used and the recommended seed rates, see Table 14.3.

Seed requirements are estimated by the Dzongkhag [District] Animal Husbandry units; seed is produced by the National Fodder Seed Production Centre, through contract growers. Rhizobial inoculant is distributed with the seed as required.

Samples of native fodder shrubs and trees were taken at all sites visited and their vernacular names, production potential and suitable growing sites were discussed. At the Omna winter site, 22 out of the 41 species reported during interviews were found. Herders plant fodder trees in their tsadrog in April-May. Saplings are collected in the forest, and the choice of species takes into account their palatability. Preferred trees are: Dagpo (Ficus roxburghii), Omshing (Ficus nemoralis), Tashim (Ficus cunia), Dumsi (Sauruai nepaulensis), Jogsa/Jathshang (Ficus sp.), Sisi (botanical name uncertain), Besum (botanical name uncertain), Dapchu (Ficus lacor) and Chemla (Bauhinia purpurea); lopping begins after three years. Herders indicated that these trees were all palatable and digestible, increased milk production, were fast growing and good yielders of green forage, with figs considered the best.

During migration, improved stock get paddy straw and concentrates as well as tree loppings and salt. Maize flour and oilcake, usually bought in Phuentsholing or Jaigoan (India), are fed as porridge at the rate of 1 kg/head daily. Five bundles of straw (2 kg each) and salt at 200-300 g/ month are also given.

Most herders own one or more pastures, individually or as part of a herding community. They pay a nominal fee to the government, irrespective of size or area of registered tsadrog. In the winter grazing areas of yaks, yak herders own winter grazing rights, while cattle herders (rarely of the same community) own summer grazing rights for the same pasture.

Some grazing land is owned by a community, or a section of a community, especially around settlements. Most herders treat pasture as a family inheritance; however, the Land Act (1980) clearly states that grazing land belongs to the state and herders only have grazing rights. Rights to tsadrogs are important household possessions and are passed down from generation to generation.

TABLE 14.3
Pasture cultivars, seed rates and costs.



Seed for mixture (kg/ha)

Cost (Nu) (1)



Trifolium repens





Festuca arundinacea





Lolium multiflorum

Lipo and Defo




Dactylis glomerata










NOTE: (1) Bhutanese ngultrum (Nu), on par with Indian Rupee.
Exchange rate: Nu 45 = US$ 1 at time of reporting.

Summer grazing sites include registered tsadrog in blue pine (Pinus wallichiana) forest clearings and extend up to or above the tree line (4 200 m). The meadows are extensively grazed by migratory stock (mithun, mithun crosses and siri cattle). Some tsadrog between 3 000 and 4 000 m belong to the group or to others and are grazed by cattle in summer and yak in winter. Cattle from Chentok geog share yak pastures at Soe Thombu in summer at an altitude of 4 300 m. Some pastures (Plate 61) that serve as winter grazing for yak and summer grazing for cattle are dominated by dwarf bamboo (Yushania microphylla).

Plate 61. Winter grazing for yak (and also summer grazing for cattle) at 3 500 m near Pelela Pass in Bhutan. Ground cover is dominated by dwarf bamboo (Yushania microphylla).

Pastures at Thombu

Preliminary vegetation surveys of alpine meadows were carried out in western Bhutan by Harris (1987) and in eastern Bhutan by Miller (1989). The dominant grass genera in summer pastures above 3 900 m are Agrostis, Festuca, Bromus and Poa. Carex and Juncus are widespread in alpine pastures. Among the many genera of broad-leaf forbs, Potentilla, Bistorta, Bryophyta, Gentiana, Primula and Iris are the most prolific. Rumex nepalensis is the commonest weed and is especially obvious around camp sites, from the subtropical zone up to over 4 000 m. Eupatorium adenophorum is a serious weed in the subtropical zone; it soon dominates other plants.

Thombu is an open valley at 4 100-4 400 m; it has good grazing land, about 5 km long. The environment offers a considerable challenge for pasture development; the growing season is short and the quality of the vegetation generally low. Growth starts between April and June, and finishes in September or October (4-6 months). Winter sites are subject to very high, probably worsening, grazing pressure. Yaks graze almost all the Thombu (Soe Yasksa) complex, from April to June and September to October; in July and August it is grazed by cattle from Paro. It is owned by seven herder families, of whom two are from Soe Yaksha and others from Chentog Paro, a yak tsadrog. Cattle from Bida, Changlam and Chib Phub Tshering graze the same pasture.

Sites for measuring production were selected in keeping with stress caused by yaks and cattle. Two locations, representative of the whole area of Thombu, were chosen. Botanical composition and vegetation cover were measured by 1.5- m transects with 30 point readings. Each site had a circular area of 12 m radius, with an iron pin at its centre. Eight metal cages, with a base of 70 cm × 70 cm, and 60 cm. high, were installed on 11 April 1999 at both locations for recording herbage production. Cages were rotated, avoiding previously harvested areas. The first location represented about 40 percent of Thombu tsadrog, at an altitude of 4 300 m with a slope of 30 percent and aspects south and southwest. The second site represented the plain areas of Thombu, about 60 percent, at an altitude of 4 200 m and with a south and southwest aspect.

Forage was to be harvested twice yearly, but in 1999, due to the weather, it was only possibly to clip once, on 6 October. The results are summarized in Table 14.4. Analytical data from grazed and ungrazed samples are shown in Table 14.5. From the first year’s results, it is clear that grazing pressure was very high.

Winter pastures in Chukka Dzongkhag were visited and herders interviewed at Omna in Lochina geog, Dungna geog, Sadhumandhu in Phuentsholing geog, Kamzhi in Geling geog and Metab geog. Winter tsadrogs are in subtropical broadleaved forest with open areas and clearings in and around camp-sites. Cattle are fed lopped fodder - branches are usually lopped recklessly and sometimes the tree is felled. About a quarter of the trees belong to the following group (from a study by Dr Lungten Norbu (Norbu, 2000) in Gedu and Geling geog): Aïsandra butyracea, Brassaiopsis hispida, Cordia obliqua, Eriobotrya petioklata, Erythrina stricta, Euodia fraxinifolius, Ficus neriifolia, Glochidion thomsonii, Ilex sp., Macropanax undulata, Pentapanax recemosus, Saurauia nepaulensis and Turpinia pomifera. Cattle also browse, and so the undergrowth is practically devoid of seedlings of palatable fodder plants. Fodder trees are more common near camp sites than in far-off forest areas, confirming that herders plant them.

TABLE 14.4
Herbage yields at Thombu.

Location of cage

Dry matter (kg/ha)

Average height (cm)

Inside cage

Outside cage

Inside cage

Outside cage

Thombu 1





Thombu 2





TABLE 14.5
Nutrient contents of grazed and ungrazed herbage (percent).








Thombu 1 - inside cage







Thombu 1 - outside cage







Thombu 2 - inside cage







Thombu 2 - outside cage







NOTES: (1) CP = crude protein.

According to Dr Lungten Norbu’s study, the decline in forage can be attributed to overgrazing, since census data suggest that cattle numbers have been increasing. Herders from Naywkha used to migrate to Suntolakha, near Geling, but have settled in Suntolakha, probably due to the remoteness of their previous area and the damage caused by wild animals to their crops and livestock.

Migrating herds follow traditional routes; herders know that they can stop for a night at others’ tsadrogs without payment. If they cannot move the next day, due to rain or other unforeseen events, they must approach the tsadrog owner, inform him, and give him some foodstuffs. At stopping places in transit, herders pitch tents; they only have permanent shelters in their summer and winter tsadrogs. On the migration to winter pastures from Naja, cattle grazed meadows until their first halt at Chaye, 2 700 m, and thereafter browsed bamboo (Yushania microphylla), nettles and trees, with little or no grazing. They usually set out early, at or before 06.00 hours, and reach the halting place around 11.00; a day’s journey is usually less than 15 km.

On the return journey in summer, even small streams as well as rivers are in flood, and landslides common. A herder recounted that he lost 26 cattle swept away in a stream in 1993. The Kazonochhu stream on the main migration route has to be forded twelve times; herders have to cross many other streams before reaching Dunga, all difficult to cross after or during rain. Herders often wait for hours until cattle can ford the stream. A further problem is the narrowness of the tracks that pass along steep cliffs and contribute to stock losses. Leeches, sand-flies and other bloodsucking pests damage livestock health.

The major migration route, which was also the main trading route before a vehicular road was made to Phuentsholing, still serves as the main transhumance route for Naja, Dopsari and other geogs of Paro Dzongkhag, and Wanakha geog of Chukka Dzongkhag; 80 percent of herds in the western dzongkhags use it.

The longest route takes about 10 days each way, with altitudes ranging from 300 m to 3 420 m.

Herders must carry movement permits issued by the Livestock Extension Centre or Veterinary Hospital of their Dzongkhag when travelling to other dzongkhags. The permit gives records of vaccinations, etc. A new permit must be obtained for the return journey.

Although milk and milk products are mainly used domestically, some are sold at Phuentsholing. The herders buy Jersey cattle at Ron Jaigoan and Hashimara if business turnover is good; Friesians were found to be unsuited to high altitudes. Jerseys are much more profitable; prices vary from Nu 6 000 to Nu 12 000. The Government has supplied a Jersey bull to Naja to improve and promote the breed. Herders collect non-timber forest products (NTFPs) in winter and sell them in Phuntsoling. Seasonal sales included cane shoots (Nu 600); Od Dumru (Elatostema lineolatum) (Nu 200); fern (Nu 300); Pan (betel leaf; Piper betle) (Nu 600); and brooms (Nu 200). In summer, Naja farmers get cash through sale of livestock products and horticultural crops. Butter and cheese are sold through intermediaries, who in turn sell in Thimpu. Butter prices were Nu 130-150/kg, and cheese was Nu 6-10 per ball; income from dairy products (excluding domestic consumption) averaged Nu 5 818 per household.

The reasons for transhumance

Herders state that transhumance is a well established, deeply-rooted tradition and an inseparable part of their life and that of the community. They, with their family, move to lower altitudes in winter to manage land holdings, do business (plantation crops) and have better grazing for their stock in their inherited tsadrog. Herders gave the following reasons for migration:

Yaks do not graze below 3 000 m in winter nor above 5 000 m in summer. Cattle do not venture above 4 200 m in Thombu and in summer graze between 2 600 and 3 700 m; their lowest winter grazing is at 300 m. Herd composition on the high pastures of Soe Yaksa (Harris, 1987) was yak - 88 percent; cattle - 1 percent; horses and mules - 10 percent; and goats - 1 percent. Jersey cattle do not travel with the herds; they are taken by truck to Phuentsholing and are kept around the Torsey river bank and Norgey Cinema. These herders are occupied in orange business from October until the beginning of February. Transport from Naja to Phuentsholing is Nu 3 000-4 000 per truck.

Almost every herd had its own bulls; noblang (siri) bulls are individually owned. The government supplies Jersey bulls to remote communities; both mithun and Jersey crossbreeding facilities are readily available through artificial insemination where there are motorable roads. Mithun bulls are supplied by the government but are managed at communal level and migrate with other cattle. The government has mithun breeding farms at Chukka in western Bhutan and Arong in eastern Bhutan. The price of a bull is currently Nu 10 000. Wild mithun are undergoing gradual degeneration, perhaps due to inbreeding and the degradation of their habitat, even in Aranachal Pradesh (Tshering, 1994).

TABLE 14.6
Average milk production parameters of bovine species in Bhutan.


Lactation (days)

Lactation yield (kg)

Fat percentage

Siri cows




Mithun cow cross




Jersey cross








The mithun or gayal, locally known as bamey, is the domesticated form of the gaur, Bos frontalis or Bos gaurus. It is indigenous to neighbouring parts of India (Aranachal Pradesh and Assam), Bangladesh and Myanmar. Mithun cross freely with cattle; the male of the cross, the jathsa is a huge and very strong draught animal compared to indigenous cattle; it is usually sterile. The female - jathsam - is a good milker with high butterfat. They are liked for ease of maintenance in Bhutan’s difficult terrain, and are good at grazing on steep hills and slopes and feeding on native pasture and browse. Traditional practice is to mate female hybrids back to Siri bulls for four successive generations. If a jathsam is mated with a mithun bull she frequently fails to conceive or aborts and calves born of such a cross (menchi) are weak and die early, so they are of little use.

Daily milk yield of the various breeds and crosses was estimated by herders to be 2-3 bottles for jatsham, 2 bottles for thabum and yangkum and 2-3 for quarter- cross Jersey. In a study on Bhutan’s high altitude ranges by Pema Gyamthso (1996), the milk production of the various species was as shown in Table 14.6.

There are no fixed rates for produce: prices vary according to the scale of production, season and place. Herder produce is sold in the open market or on demand; price ranges are Nu 120-140/kg for butter and Nu 7-8 per ball of cheese. Herders usually sell butter and cheese in winter in the most convenient markets: Phuntsholing, Phuntsholing-Chukka roadside sites of Kamzi and Suntolakha, Gedu and Chimakothi.

Foot-and-mouth disease and black quarter are the most serious problems in cattle. Haematuria is also sometimes seen. Predators, parasites and toxic plants are subjects of concern. Cattle graze to the Indian border and there is a worry about contact with infected stock. Poisonous plants are common at higher altitudes; mainly newborn and newly-introduced stock from lower areas are likely to be poisoned. Poisonous plants, including Senecio sp. and Ligularia sp., are found at the highest pass on the migration route, Lumilakha and in most summer pastures (between 3 000 and 4 000 m). Ticks and leeches are the most serious external parasites; because of distance it is often difficult to obtain medicines from the Dzongkhag extension service, so traditional treatments are used:

TABLE 14.7
Transhumance system constraints and herder suggestions for improvement.


Suggestion for mitigation

Fodder scarcity in March-April

Improve tsadrog management by controlling grazing; plant good quality fodder trees; improve pasture in clearings; cull unproductive stock.

Natural calamities in May (heavy rain, landslides, rivers in flood)

Modify timing of transhumance to summer pastures; research intervention to improve fodder supply at that season.

Bad tracks and narrow cliff-side routes for migration

Improvement of main track by community and the Dzongkhag authorities.

Diseases, parasites, predators and toxic plants

Improve contacts with local Livestock Extension Centres (LEC); timely vaccination and deworming; promotion of vigilance groups at village level to provide feedback; documentation of toxic plants and awareness campaigns.

Lack of information on cattle movements during migration

Pass information from LEC to LEC through herders (movement permit/health certificate); inform herders of information need.

Bush encroachment by Juniperus, Rhododendron, etc., in high altitude meadows

Research is needed on the dominance of non-fodder over fodder species.

Transect walk

To study grazing sites from Sadhumadhu Phuntsoling geog to Omna in Lokchina geog, a transect walk was undertaken.

During the transect walk, big, well established orange orchards were seen in the tsadrog; one was at least 50 years old as a herder, now 73, was 20 when it was established. Almost all the herders were met and samples were taken of the fodder trees they use. In discussions with herders, some constraints of the system were indicated; these, together with suggestions for their mitigation, are listed in Table 14.7.

General recommendations

After considering the information gathered during the study, a number of conclusions and recommendations emerged.

Traditional transhumance benefits farmers and has advantages

These include registered tsadrogs in warm areas; ownership of rainfed land, wetland, orchards and cardamom; fodder available seasonally at high altitudes; access to markets for sales and purchases; better prospects for income generation (oranges and NTFPs); manuring of fields and orchards; nothoue develops very strong bonds of friendship and mutual partnership; herders are exposed to development activities in other centres and areas whereas high areas have few field activities in winter.

Disadvantages of the system

Loss of grazing through conversion of tsadrog pasture into orange groves; bare patches are appearing in forests due to constant, uncontrolled lopping and overharvesting of NTFPs; damage due to trampling in forest, especially when wet; spread of diseases due to animal movements; difficulties of access to animal production and health services, including vaccination and training; in some areas farmers have settled in warmer areas, abandoning registered land at higher altitudes.

Strategies suitable for immediate implementation

· Improve forage production in tsadrogs. Encourage further planting of fodder trees and develop pasture in clearings and within orange groves. Improve management of natural pasture and fodder trees.

· Support regular training programmes for herders regarding the rational use of fodder resources.

· Develop adapted extension programmes applicable to transhumant herders, including livestock production and health, grazing and forest management.

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