Sustainable Livestock Grazing Systems on Chinese Temperate Grasslands

    Impact: Environmental Impact, Economic Impact, Social Impact

    Impact summary

    The degradation of Chinese grasslands has been acknowledged by the Chinese Government since last century, in their No. 1 Policy Document released each year. They now spend $2b p.a. to alleviate herder poverty and rehabilitate grasslands. Often their policies involved grazing bans for part or whole years. Herders are given a small subsidy per hectare, to not graze, which is constant irrespective of the environment. Across China there are 16m herders and 1b sheep equivalents in grazing animals. In comparison Australia has about 200m sheep equivalents on a similar area of grazing land (400m ha). The beneficiaries of this research include the 16m herders and others dependent upon grazing livestock for their livelihoods and millions of people across north Asia, including Beijing, affected by dust storms.

    The challenge is to optimise use of current grassland resources, as it is not realistic to try and return the grasslands to some pristine state, nor is it realistic to replant them. We have shown, in all the areas studied, using farm surveys, modelling, farm demonstrations and field experiments that stocking rates can be reduced by 50%, to then enable the plant species composition to move towards an optimal proportion of desirable species and this in turn maintains or increases the amount of animal product (meat, milk, wool, cashmere) such that net household incomes are maintained or increased. Grazing bans are not the better solution. Further income increases can be obtained by culling the least productive animals, improving their genetics and improving the feed supply, especially through winter when use of warm sheds helps animal survival. Improving the market system is a key factor that provides herders with an incentive to change. Reducing stocking rates means the grasslands retain more ground cover and this in turn reduces the dust storms that plague north Asia each year. Over time it is anticipated that the desirable species will become more important in the grasslands and ground cover will increase. Herders and experiments indicate this is happening, but the available research suggests it could take 20 years or more to achieve an ideal grassland state, similar to what have applied many decades ago.

    A 50% reduction in stocking rates maintains net household incomes, but as grasslands then recover it is anticipated that animal productivity will improve and incomes rise. Estimating this depends upon adoption rates into the future, but it is not unreasonable to anticipate that herder households could see a 50% improvement in household incomes in the next ten years, after reducing stocking rates, along with other changes in marketing, animal genetics, feeding practices and better use of warm sheds for winter. These gains are already evident among the herders at Siziwang, who have been a core group in this program. Because of the work done at Siziwang over the years, all herders had reduced stocking rates to around half that of five years before, but those that implemented other changes in marketing, feeding of animals and improved genetics, had almost doubled the income per sheep, which meant a similar net increase in household income compared to earlier years. When these effects are extended across China, the potential benefits are probably in the billions.

    The leading Chinese research staff involved in this program, all now occupy prominent positions within their Institutions (Deans, Academicians or higher) and especially in groups such as the Chinese Grassland Society, the International Grassland / Rangeland organisations and in leading national programs funded by the Chinese Government. They have built more systems analysis into their teaching and research programs and are regularly invited to give Plenary and Keynote papers at International meetings. The students involved in the program are having worthwhile careers. Progressively through this program an increasing number of papers have been published in international journals. The group have over 300 communications, promoting the work done.

    Throughout this program we focused on regular contact and discussions with herders to ensure we understood how they managed their livestock on grasslands, how they were adapting to change and what they thought of our ideas. We helped develop the principles, general directions and main system components for change, while herders, officials and our Chinese collaborators worked on the details of practices. We regularly met with officials across the six layers of Government in China to keep them informed of our main results and to help them develop policy changes. Policy Briefs summarising the main outcomes of the program were presented to the key officials and to herders in 2017. There is now more discussion about the merits of reduced stocking rates Vs total grazing bans.

    In acknowledgment of this program, Program Leader, Professor David Kemp has received the Dunhuang Award from the Gansu Government, the Golden Steed Award from the Inner Mongolian Government and the Friendship Award from the Chinese Government. Some 50 Friendship Awards are given annually from the 650,000 foreign experts who visit China each year. These Awards were given to Professor Kemp for contributions to rural and academic development.

    Specific benefits include:
    • 16m herder households in northern and western China – those most closely involved in this program now see a future in herding. In Siziwang, Inner Mongolia, (one of our study villages) 2000 households have reduced stocking rates by 50% and increased their incomes, demonstrating benefits of the strategies recommended. Over the program there has been 20,520 person days of training at 120 events, about half on farms and the rest in mixed venues, including trips to Australia (292 people).
    • Officials at the six levels of Government in China who manage the grasslands and poverty alleviation programs – we met with them at intervals through the program and presented them with Policy Briefs on the program outcomes in 2017, based on the work till 2016.
    • Universities and Research Institutes, who specialise in grasslands, now understand the process of systems analysis and of finding sustainable solutions. Their graduates will be better equipped to manage these regions in the future. The Chinese Government provided $40m in grants to our collaborators, as part of this program.
    • At least 37 postgraduate students (9 PhD 28 MSc) worked on aspects of the program while studying at Chinese Universities.
    • The program has now expanded into Mongolia where similar problems exist and it is anticipated that we will be able to help their herders.
    • National Governments in China and Mongolia spend a lot of money ($2b p.a. in China) on grassland programs and the new phase of this work aims to advise them on how to do that more efficiently.
    • Throughout Central Asia, the same problems apply and discussions with people from those countries suggest similar solutions would work
    Impact date2004
    Category of impactEnvironmental Impact, Economic Impact, Social Impact
    Impact levelBenefit


    • poverty alleviation
    • environment improvement
    • grassland rehabilitation
    • herder household incomes
    • Policy

    Countries where impact occurred

    • China
    • Mongolia