Bayin Village sits high on the Mongolian Plateau, part of northwest China’s vast grasslands. This region is inhabited by ethic minorities who graze sheep, goats, and cattle, selling meat to southern and eastern China, where there is greater affluence.
Since the mid-20th century, when the Chinese government decided grasslands were an underutilized resource, overall livestock numbers have increased dramatically. “When we were young, we had trouble seeing the cattle in the grassland,” say older herders in the region.” Now we can see the mice.”
By some estimates, 90 percent of China’s grasslands have problems with too little ground cover, increased erosion and plant communities that are changing from more palatable to less palatable species. The quality of livestock is often poor, farmers have trouble putting weight on them, even in the summer. Household incomes are at or below the poverty levels, with many in the region make less than $2 per head per day.
A new study suggests it doesn’t have to be this way. A team of plant and animal scientists, policy economists, and others from China and Australia present a case study from Bayin Village, where it has been possible to boost household incomes by dramatically decreasing stocking levels. Their results appeared this week in PNAS Early Edition.
By grazing fewer animals, grasslands are recovering, livestock is healthier and fatter and farmers are receiving better prices. Based on early pilot studies, the local government of Siziwang Banner, which oversees the regions around Bayin, implemented a program in 2009 to encourage the reduction of stocking rates, with dramatic results. The 560 herders involved in the program report a net increase in income of approximately 50 percent, compared with control farms, by reducing their stocks by 45 to 65 percent.
Further work is needed to firmly quantify the net benefits, write the authors, nevertheless “recent interviews with herders indicate they do believe the strategy is working and they have no wish to return to former practices.” The herders are pleased, by and large, to run fewer livestock and believe the condition of their grassland is improving.
The authors are hopeful this strategy can be exported to other regions, where overgrazing has also become a major problem, such as in Central Asia and Africa.