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Heifer Project International's yak project and some proposals for the improvement of the yak industry in Sichuan Province

P. Jiabi, Sh. Yongjie and G. Jiyun

Heifer Project International (HPI), China Office, Chengdu 611731, Sichuan, P.R. China


Yak (Bos grunniens) is related to cattle and the two crossbreed successfully. The yak is adapted to the cold high altitudes of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. In this inhospitable territory above the tree line on the 'roof of the world', there is no cropping and no frost-free period. The yak provides the main means of livelihood for their keepers in an area that would not be occupied by humans without this animal. The yak produces meat, milk and fibre and is used for transport and draft. Despite the importance of the species, only limited amount of research has been done on it, especially in terms of how to improve its uses. This paper discusses ways to make full use of this unique animal in Sichuan Province, with a focus on activities, which have been undertaken by the Heifer Project International (HPI) in this area.

Keywords: Development, HPI, proposal, Tibetan area, yak industry

HPI's yak project in Sichuan Province

The yak is widespread in the cold high altitude area of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and its adjacent mountainous areas. They do not compete for land and grain with people but produce meat, fibre and sometimes are used for transport and draft. It is, therefore, an indispensable production resource for the local Tibetan people. Heifer Project International (HPI) chose the yak (and its crossbred the dzo) in this area.

Yak project in Ruoergai

The project started in early 1989. HPI gave each recipient household one to three 45 year old female yak or one 34 year old dzo. Each recipient farmer signed a 3-year contract undertaking to repay the loan to HPI within 3 years. HPI used the repayment to buy female yak to continue this 'passing on the gift' protocol. In the last 16 years, HPI has directly supported 357 poor recipients with 501 yak or dzo and passed on gifts to 346 needy Tibetan herdsmen with 413 yak or dzo. In addition, since the initiation of the project in 1989, HPI has held 52 terms of technical training courses for 2314 recipient farmers from the area.

In 1991, HPI rented a 333 ha piece of pastoral land in Ruoergai. This piece of land was used as a demonstration farm. A 300 m2 yak barn was built and more than 200 female yak were procured from inside or outside the county, to constitute the demonstration herd. The demonstration included such things as optimisation of herd structures, fencing of pastures, rotational grazing, seasonal fattening, silage making and storage, and supplementary feeding, hybrid improvement and protection of ecology and environment. A total of 360 improved hybrids were produced through insemination of the yak with frozen semen or natural mating. These were distributed or passed on as gifts to farmers as described above.

Yak project in Songpan

Songpan yak project started in 1996. HPI provided a 3-year loan of 20004000 RMB Yuan (US$ 1 = 8.2 Yuan during this study) to each recipient. The repayment in the first year would be 20%, the second year 30%, and the remaining 50% to be paid off in the third year. The recipients used the loans to buy female yak certified by local technicians as being of good quality. In the last 4 years, HPI has provided 120 thousand Yuan to 25 needy Tibetan or Hui herdsmen to purchase a total of 112 yak. All the recipients, according to the contract, repaid the loans at 6% interest. Now another 14 new recipients have acquired 108 gift animals (including 43 yak, 35 goats and 30 sheep) passed on by the initial loan recipients.

The project now has emphasis on natural resource management and encourages participating farmers (recipients) to keep lesser number of animals but of high quality. Only the best female yak are procured to join herds of participating farmers. The farmers are also encouraged to use organic manure to fertilise the crop and pasture, and to preserve as much animal feed as possible for use during the winter. The project also helps farmers with other aspects of farm management and assists with identification of market outlets, e.g. through tourism sites and hotels where the fresh milk sells 34 Yuan per litre. These initiatives have significantly improved the incomes of recipient farmers. Incomes have increased by an average of 800 Yuan, but some as high as 2000 Yuan per household.

Yak project in Rangtang

The Rangtang yak project started in 1996. HPI provided each recipient with 2 yak. According to the contract, each recipient had to repay a female yak and a male calf to a local project partner. The partner would fatten the young yak and sell it and buy a young female yak as a gift to be passed on to a new recipient. In last 2 years, the project has directly provided 128 yak to 64 households of Tibetans. According to available statistics, the gift animals increased incomes in these households by 480 Yuan per year.

To improve the understanding by the recipients of HPI and its operations, project information has been published in Chinese and Tibetan languages. These include information on 'passing on the gift' contract and technical information related to animal management. To pride and be self-confident, a board stating 'HPI project recipient' is hang up on the door of the participated house and the local Buddhist monks are invited to visit such farmers and to assist in the supervision of the project.

HPI's role in promoting yak research and development

Heifer Project International has actively supported and participated in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd International Congresses on Yak. Heifer Project International China Office co-operated with the former chief editor of 'China Yak Journal' and 'Sichuan Yak Development Institute' to set up a 'China Yak Science and Technology Database'. More than 300 abstracts indexed from the journal are included into the database in both Chinese and English. Furthermore, this information has been made available for yak researchers and scholars through the internet (

Proposals to the development of Sichuan yak industry

It is estimated that there are slightly more than 4 million head of yak in Sichuan Province, mainly distributed in the north-west plateau and mountainous areas of the province. This represents 30% of the total yak population in the country and places the province only second to Qinghai Province. Sichuan has several yak breeds, including the Maiwa and Jiulong. The province has more than 20 years experience in the use of artificial insemination as a means of improving yak through hybridisation with frozen semen of cattle. Because yak production is 'organic', with no chemical inputs in form of animal feed additives, veterinary drugs etc. yak products have a huge market potential.

There are also some problems, which need urgent attention if the yak industry is to flourish:

  1. There is very little attention currently being given to the genetic improvement of the yak.
  2. Due to the small herd sizes, inbreeding is a problem in most herds. This is considered to be responsible for falling production levels in many herds.
  3. Overstocking is leading to environmental deterioration, which, in turn, will affect the overall production of the system.
  4. Yak products are not well developed and the traditional ones are not competitive. There is need to further develop these products and to adopt packaging and brand-naming to facilitate targeted marketing.

In view of the above problems, some proposals are presented below:

Carry out a general development plan for yak industry

A plan for the overall development of the yak industry should be initiated. Such a plan should address all components of the industry and measures, which need to be taken in the province to improve each component, along the lines suggested above.

Further stepping up research co-operation in yak

Strengthening the overall yak research in the country geared towards addressing problems affecting the industry is considered as a key requirement if the industry is to develop. The research should include aspects of technology development for the production of the yak and processing of products, and genetic improvement. The HPI China Office is already involved in supporting yak research. Additional measures are needed to consolidate and co-ordinate these efforts and those of all research organisations in the country

Yak selection and improvement

More efforts should be directed at selection and improvement of Maiwa and Jiulong yak. In addition, different systems of crossing and hybridisation with cattle should be studied. It is considered that when dzo represents only 25% of the total yak population, or the female dzo population is 30% of all the females in the overall population, the overall reproduction is not compromised. Moreover, the ratio of males and females in a herd should be maintained at 1:1520, and not current 1:2530 in most herds.

Improving yak husbandry

Measures should be taken to further improve the management of pastures. Fees for use of pastures is suggested as one intervention. It is necessary to fence the pastures to provide better management. Grassland and wetland should be protected to improve the overall health of the yak production system. Settlement of herdsmen, intensification of grazing and stall-feeding, commercialisation of farm production and popularisation of technologies such as seasonal fattening, supplementary feeding skills and culling old, weak and non-productive yak etc. are all important interventions that should be incorporated into the overall yak husbandry.

Speeding up the development of yak resources

It is suggested that the current breeding areas of the Maiwa and Jiulong yak be targeted for development. Specifically, the western part of the country should be used for this purpose. Policies should be formulated that aimed at promoting yak products to become the choice at home and abroad and among tourists, as healthy and 'green' foods.

In conclusion, the yak is the window of economic development for the large number of people who keep it. There is an opportunity to make this happen and to substantially improve the livelihoods of the yak keepers by developing the animal and its production system.

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