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Sustainable Livestock Grazing Systems on Chinese Temperate Grasslands


China considers 90% of their grasslands are degraded from over-grazing, resulting in increasing, less-desirable species, lower productivity and more dust storms. Herders who depend upon them for their livelihoods are among the poorest people in China. In the early 2000’s Professor David Kemp was invited to China to develop a project designed to improve the degraded grasslands, resulting in an initial ACIAR project (LPS/2001/094 “Sustainable Development of Grasslands in Western China” – finished 2010). That project analysed how the herder, grassland, livestock system functioned using models, did initial farm demonstrations on the benefits of changed practices, & commenced experiments designed to understand different management options for the grasslands and livestock. Analyses and farm demonstrations indicated that a reduction in stocking rates could increase herder incomes and reduce pressure on the grasslands enabling rehabilitation, but further work was needed to understand the system changes that would consistently achieve sustainable outcomes. This second phase of the program reported here (2011-2018) expanded that initial research and provided the leadership, mentoring, coordinating, modelling and analyses, of a large number of Chinese funded projects ($40m). The goal of this program was to improve herder household incomes, alleviate poverty and rehabilitate the degraded grasslands, while reducing environmental damage. The Australian team, from Charles Sturt Universities Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation, joined with groups at China Agricultural University, Inner Mongolia Agricultural University, Institute of Grassland Research (China Academy of Agricultural Science), Gansu Agricultural University / Gansu Academy of Agricultural Science and Lanzhou University to do the work.

Key findings are:

  • China has ~400m ha of natural degraded grassland, mainly in the north and west (Mongolian, Tibetan & Loess plateaux); growth is limited to 3-4 months/year, precipitation is 50-500mm/year & winter temperatures are <-20C. Similar conditions apply throughout Mongolia and Central Asia.
  • Stocking rates across China’s pastoral provinces have increased four-fold since 1949, from 0.6 to 2.4 sheep units/ha (250m to ~1b sheep units, equivalent; with now 380m sheep & goats, 115m beef cattle, 6m horses and other grazing animals). In the 1960-70s, the stocking rates were half that of today & opinions suggest that may have been sustainable for the grasslands.
  • The collective results across the range of studies done all support the view that a 50% reduction in stocking rates would be beneficial for incomes and the grasslands in most districts.
  • An analysis of the principles linking stocking rates to productivity, identified that the highest net income results when animal production per head and per hectare, is about 75% of the potential possible. The actual optimum depends on local financial conditions, but is often around that point.
  • Herders and officials have aimed to increase incomes by increasing their animal numbers. Instead it was shown that a focus on optimising net income per head leads to higher net household incomes. This then directly leads to a 50% decline in stocking rates in many cases. This result applies if reductions were based on the average flock response, or on culling the less productive animals. Income per head has more meaning to herders than income per hectare.
  • Herders need training and demonstrations to move from being ‘survivors’, their current ‘style’ for which they have great skill, to ‘producers’, through demonstrations of the income and grassland benefits they can achieve. Knowledge of how to improve productivity and to get the best from developing markets is limited. Allied to this is the need to improve markets.
  • Herder household surveys found that across all the grassland types there was considerable variability in net income per head, which strongly correlated with net income per hectare and modest feed costs, but not with stocking rates. Stocking rates decline as farm size increases, but neither terms are related to profitability. Higher net incomes were generally on farms with stocking rates below average. The opportunities to improve herder household incomes, depend strongly on improved markets and value-adding chains that provide sufficient incentives for herders to change.
  • Grasslands are managed better if grazing is restricted to summer and the average herbage mass is managed above critical values.
  • A long-term grazing management experiment on a degraded desert steppe grassland, found that management should aim to increase the shrub Artemisia spp., as that was more palatable than the dominant grass Stipa breviflora. After eight years the treatments started to differentiate and grazing at 50% of the district stocking rate with a 10% forage consumption rate, maintained the better botanical composition and optimised livestock production. This treatment meant the average herbage mass was ~0.5t DM/ha over summer, providing a management guideline for herders and officials. This experiment also found that heavy grazing in winter reduced growth the next summer by >50%; & a grazing ban for five years, as often used in China, did not improve the grassland, it took 8-9 years for any clear change to occur, but no grazing was no better than using the sustainable stocking rate.
  • A grazing management experiment on a reasonable typical steppe, grassland showed that a desirable botanical composition (>70% Leymus chinensis & <10% Artemisia spp.) could be maintained if the average herbage mass through summer was above 0.5t DM/ha while optimal animal production required a herbage mass of 0.75t DM/ha. The optimum stocking rate was then 50% of the then current district stocking rate. At the sustainable stocking rate carbon sequestration was optimised; & the forage consumption rate by sheep was 20%. This experiment was the key study in a national project designed to develop methodologies and identify the optimal grazing management practices for the various common grassland types.
  • Modifying an existing farm shed to provide a warmer environment in winter, showed small but significant gains in lamb numbers and growth. Weight loss in ewes started when temperatures were below 5C, reflecting the typical low quality supplements fed through winter. Better shed designs and management would result in greater benefits for the animals.
  • A national program of farm demonstrations at nine sites across northern China, tested the benefits of reduced stocking rates and other tactics including more fodder conservation, better animal nutrition and different lambing times. The combined data showed that the main effect was that lower stocking rates resulted in higher net incomes on demonstration farms compared to the controls; incomes only became equal with controls when the stocking rate reduction reached 50%.
  • Detailed farm surveys in Siziwang Banner, Inner Mongolia, (desert steppe) where this program has had a long involvement, evaluated the benefits of reduced stocking rates and re-organised livestock systems, to optimise returns from lamb production. District stocking rates are now ~40% of the stocking rates that applied in the early 2000’s. Herders consider the grassland condition has significantly improved. There were large differences in profitability between households. Those who had joined the local Farmer Association and who took advantage of the training, better nutrition advice and better livestock breeds, combined with improved marketing, had the highest incomes. Several hundred households in this district have now changed practices and the program is promoted by local and national officials. Improved markets are a critical part of this success.
  • Models of the grassland/livestock system were developed as a central part of this project, used to evaluate options for improved livestock management, before testing in farm demonstrations and for evaluating system changes over the medium to long-term. The first two models (StageONE, StageTWO) are now in a Chinese version & are being more widely used.
  • A new dynamic model (StageTHREE) was developed. A model of a typical farm on the desert steppe found that a consumption rate of 10% maintained >60% desirable species and the herbage mass >0.5t DM/ha, reduced soil erosion from 180t/ha over ten years to 40t/ha on summer grasslands, minimised methane output per kg of sheep meat, maximised gross margins/ha, and cash flows. These benefits were at ~50% of current stocking rates. A modelling study on the Tibetan Plateau at Gannan, indicated that reducing stocking rates by 30-40% would stabilise the grassland and lead to higher incomes. This model showed that policies to increase animals numbers would be deleterious to the grasslands and herder incomes. This model is now available for wider use with trained staff in both Gansu and Inner Mongolia.
  • Policies need revision. Medium-term grazing bans were no better for rehabilitating grasslands than grazing at sustainable stocking rates. Herders need policies to increase their ‘farm’ size and to sustainably manage their land as an asset, as this results in lower stocking rates.
  • Meetings have been regularly held with officials and herders in Beijing, Gansu and Inner Mongolia to present project results & provide briefings to help develop Government policies, throughout the course of this project. Policy briefs were formally presented to officials in April 2017 at a National Workshop sponsored by the Ministry of Science & Technology.