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The economic comparison on yak production in two types of cold season grassland in Tianzhu, China

P. Xiaopen, Zh. Degang, X. Changlin and Ch. Jiangang

Department of Grassland, Gansu Agricultural University, Lanzhou 730070, Gansu, P.R. China


In cold season (winter and spring) grassland, overgrazing is increasingly becoming a problem. In these areas, Dasifora fruticosa shrub and Carex grassland are mainly used for yak grazing and Polygonum and Carex grassland for Tibetan sheep. In this case, both systems have very similar husbandry income in total but the net income from the former system was higher due to less inputs and much income from other sections.

Keywords: Cold season, economy, grassland, sheep, yak


Alpine shrubland, dominated by species, which have high resistance to arid and semi-arid conditions, covers an area of 116.4 thousand km2 in China (MoA 1994; Yu 1998). Dasifora fruticosa shrub community is one of the yak's main grazing resources and habitats on the alpine meadow, and it has the highest grazing value compared with the other two types of alpine shrublands, Rhododendron and Salix communities. It is necessary to study the economic benefit for yak production utilising these cold season shrub types on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau.

Investigation methods

This study was carried out in 1999 in Zhuaxixiulong township of Tianzhu, Tibetan Autonomous County (TAC), Gansu Province, China. Two villages were selected as the research area.

Grazing resources

The topography in the research area is quite complex due to the topographic effect of Maya Snow Mountain to the south and Leigong Mountain to the north. Jinqiang River goes through the valley from west to east. Various land forms and plant communities are distributed along the river and mountains. Our study sites, Daiqian village (3200 metres above sea level (masl)) and Nannigou village (3000 masl) are located in the Jinqiang river valley and belong to the Zhuaxixiulong Township. The two villages are neighbours, but possess two different types of cold-season grassland as grazing pastures. The grassland type was determined through routine vegetation investigation methods.

Animal production

Herders of the two villages use the shrubland as summer pasture for yak and Tibetan sheep. All animals are driven there for grazing from mid-June to mid-August. This shrubland is around 3600 masl and it is far away from herders' winter houses, so it has not been contracted to individuals and fenced. All animals in the village can have access to the pasture freely in the summer season.

In 1999, we visited 70% of herders in Daiqian and Nannigou and all of them completed the questionnaire we designed for this investigation.

Results and discussion

Grassland usage features in the two villages

Based on the comprehensive and sequential classification of grasslands, we surveyed and compared the pastures at Daiqian and Nannigou. The main vegetation types of alpine grassland are Rhododendron and Dasifora fruticosa shrubs, which are grazed by animals at Daiqian in summer and at Nannigou in summer and autumn. Meanwhile, the main vegetation type of subalpine grassland at Daiqian is Dasifora fruticosa shrub, which is distributed in the lower areas with an abundance of sunshine and usually used in cold seasons (winter and following spring). The accompanying component of Dasifora fruticosa shrub, Salix shrub, is distributed near the riverbed and used in autumn. On the contrary, the subclass of cold season grassland at Nannigou is alpine meadow, and its main vegetation types are Carex and Polygonum mixed with Carex. Under the natural selection, the alpine shrubland above 3200 masl is mainly grazed by yak, because yak have much stronger tolerance to cold. Meanwhile, the alpine meadow around 3000 masl is more suitable for sheep, because the tolerance ability of sheep to cold is weaker than yak although their productivity is higher than yak. There is no obvious evidence of degradation of summer and autumn grasslands in the two villages. As to the cold season grasslands, the degradation phenomenon is quite common, e.g. at Nannigou rodents seriously damage the vegetation.

By the end of August, herders return from the upper shrubland to the autumn pasture grasslands with their animals. The autumn pasture is much nearer to their houses, followed by movement to winter settlement areas, where they stay a relatively longer period of time. In this duration, they harvest their oat crop and make it into hay for winter supplementation. Animals are in good condition in fall and most adult animals are fattened quite well, so herders begin to sell a few for purchasing necessary commodities such as flour, vegetables and hay when needed.

Animal production in the two villages

Yak and Tibetan sheep are raised both at Daiqian and Nannigou, and the data concerning animal production are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Characteristics of pastoral production at Daiqian and Nannigou.




Area of grassland for cold seasons (ha/person)








Number of yak


Total (per capita)



Adult male yak (%)



Adult female yak (%)



One-year-old yak (%)



Reproductive efficiency (%)



Number of sheep


Total (per capita)



Adult male sheep (%)



Adult female sheep (%)



One-year-old lamb (%)



Reproductive efficiency (%)



Carrying capacity (sheep unit/ha)



Note: Normally, a yak equals to 3 sheep units on average (GAU 1985).

Oat hay fields in the two villages are similar, and their grass yield is around 12 t dry matter/ha. However, the area of natural grassland at Daiqian is 4 ha/capita, which is 130% of that at Nannigou. The edible grass yield of artificial grassland is 1.1 t/ha (Hu 1984; Yu 1998), which is higher than 0.9 t/ha of the average yield in China (MoA 1996). The reserve rate of grass yield of shrubland and grassland are 60% and 55%, respectively (Chen 1996). The number of yak and sheep is 9.42 and 5.14 heads/capita in Daiqian, and 5.21 and 11.94 heads/capita in Nannigou, respectively. This translates to 33.47 and 27.57 sheep units per capita at Daiqian and Nannigou, respectively. The current carrying capacity of grassland in the two villages would be 8.09 and 8.62 sheep units per ha within 150 days' cold-season grazing. It means that each sheep units of the two villages can only share 0.71 kg and 0.79 kg grass per day, respectively. According to the research results, the amount of diet supply for sheep should be at least 1.5 kg/head per day so that the body loss could be avoided during the cold season (AGEG 1979). The forage shortage for animals in the two villages, therefore, would be 52.7% and 47.3% of estimated feed requirements, respectively.

It is indicated that the reproductive efficiency of yak at Daiqian is 50.21% higher than that at Nannigou in spite of less adult females. This might be due to the lower carrying capacity at Daiqian. On the contrary, the reproductive efficiency of sheep at Daiqian is 31.51% lower than that at Nannigou in spite of more adult females. This is because the reproductive age is 1 month late at Daiqian than Nannigou and the proportion of local sheep is quite high at Daiqian. It is suggested that the yak is more adaptable to the shrubland than sheep since the yak has stronger resistance to harsh conditions (Wu and Tu 1986).

Comparison of the economy of the two villages

The main annual income of herders comes from: a) selling wool, butter, and live animals; b) salary as casual labourer at the nearby gold mine; and, c) digging and selling medicinal herbs. The normal annual expenditure of herders includes: a) education fee for their children; b) cost of medicine for people and livestock; c) cost for daily life (flour, plant oil, vegetables, wine and tea etc.); and, d) cost for grassland reconstruction (fence, oat seeds etc.).

It is concluded from Table 2 that the main income of the two villages comes from yak and sheep selling. The income from yak and butter selling at Daiqian is 123.4 RMB Yuan (US$ 1 = 8.2 RMB Yuan during this survey), which is 200.8 Yuan more than that at Nannigou. However, the income from sheep and wool selling at Nannigou is 114.1 Yuan, which is 119.8 Yuan more than that at Daiqian. This results in a similar income between the two villages.

Income from casual labour and medicinal herb collection at Daiqian is 267.7 Yuan per capita, nearly 3 times that at Nannigou. The total income at Daiqian is thus increased by 19.2% compared with Nannigou.

The cost for daily life, children's education and healthcare is similar in the two villages, but the proportion of yak at Daiqian is more than that at Nannigou and the cost of yak raising is much less than sheep. Meanwhile, the cost of input for pasture fence at Nannigou is more than that at Daiqian, so the total cost at Daiqian is much lower than Nannigou. The total net income of herders in Daiqian is twice that of Nannigou.

Table 2. The economic situation at Daiqian and Nannigou (RMB Yuan1 per capita).




Income from animal production

1,786.1 (82.12%)

1,725.8 (93.44%)


136.2 (6.26%)

256.0 (13.86%)


425.0 (19.54%)

224.2 (12.14%)

Live yak sale

841.7 (38.70%)

718.3 (38.89%)

Live sheep sale

383.2 (17.62%)

527.3 (28.55%)

Income from other sections

388.9 (17.88%)

98.9 (6.56%)

Medicinal herbs

125.1 (5.75%)

30.3 (1.64%)

Casual labour

263.8 (12.13%)

68.6 (4.92%)

Total income



Total expenditure



Net income



1. US$ 1 = 8.2 RMB Yuan during this survey.

Closing remarks

The proper carrying capacity of alpine meadows is just 0.98 sheep units/ha per year (MoA 1996). But the actual stocking rates of the two villages, Daiqian and Nannigou, are 8.09 and 8.62 sheep units/ha per year, respectively, in the grazing period (from January to May), which is far beyond the standard. This would imply that the grassland in the research area is heavily overgrazed in winter and spring, a situation not readily observed during this research project.

According to the estimate of carrying capacity, the shortage of forage supply during the cold season at Daiqian and Nannigou would be 52.7% and 47.3%, respectively, therefore, the body weight loss of livestock cannot be avoided under the present situation.

The adaptability of yak to harsh conditions is much stronger than sheep, and alpine shrubland is more tolerant to grazing than Carex grassland, so the traditional yak production system possesses higher development potential than Tibetan sheep production system. Referring to those economic benefits, the two production systems show no much difference due to similar market system, the income of herders at Daiqian from yak raising is higher than Nannigou, and the income of herders at Nannigou from sheep raising is higher than Daiqian, so the total benefit from animal production in two systems is similar. However, the total income and net income at Daiqian is much higher than Nannigou since the partial income comes from non-animal production sectors.


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GAU (Gansu Agricultural University). 1985. Grassland surveying and planning. China Agriculture Press, Beijing, P.R. China. pp. 112–113. [in Chinese].

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