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Yak production and strategy for its further development in Naqu Prefecture of Tibet, P.R. China

Y. Xuqing

Animal Husbandry Office of the Naqu Prefecture, Naqu, Tibetan Autonomous Region, P.R. China

Summary

The yak, termed the 'boat of the plateau', has a unique adaptability to the high and cold environment of its habitat. The Tibetans also called it 'Nuo' (or Treasure). There is a very strong relationship between the yak and the Tibetan people living on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. The Tibetan eat yak meat, drink yak milk, use yak dung as fuel for cooking and heating, wear clothes made from yak wool and undercoat, live in tents made from yak hair, ride yak and transport goods with yak. Yak also has a significant influence on the Tibetan religion. Developing the yak can make an important contribution to the livelihoods of the people of Tibet and the overall economy.

Background of the Naqu Prefecture

Naqu is located in northern Tibet, between longitudes 84°N and 95°N and latitudes 30°E and 36°40'E. The total area of the prefecture is about 400 thousand km2 and the lowest lying area is at an altitude of over 4500 metres above sea level (masl). The climate is extremely dry, cold and windy. Annual average temperatures in most counties are lower than 0°C. The plant growing period is only 100 days in June, July and August. There is no absolute frost-free period in the prefecture. The rainy season is also in June, July and August when the temperatures are a little bit warm. The annual rainfall is 350 mm.

There are 11 counties in the Prefecture. In 1999, the agricultural population of the prefecture was estimated at 326,600 people owning some 6.9 million head of yak, horses, sheep and goats on a total of 34 million hectare of natural pasture. Income from animal husbandry accounts for 80% of the GDP of the prefecture.

Yak production in Naqu

The prefecture is vast, has low animal and human population density and is diverse in terms of agro-ecozones, pasture types, livestock production systems and economic activities. In this paper we have, for convenience, divided the prefecture into three areas:

  1. Eastern area, consisting of four counties of Biru, Suoxian, Baqin and Jiali,
  2. Central area, encompassing three counties of Naqu, Anduo and Nierong, and
  3. Western area, covering four counties of Bange, Shenza, Nyima and Shuanghu.

Generally, yak husbandry in Naqu is poor.

From Table 1 it can be seen that yak numbers decline with increase in altitude and decrease in annual rainfall from east to west in the prefecture. Male yak reach sexual maturity at 3 years of age and are used for mating from about 3.5 years to 9 years of age. Female yak are bred for the first time at 3 years of age and calve every other year, achieving a total of 4 to 6 calvings over productive life of 8 to 10 years. The sex ratio is 1 male to 20 females and the reproductive rate is about 55%, with a higher rate in the eastern part (Table 2). Because of the better ecological conditions and pastures in the eastern area of the prefecture, yak in this area have higher productive performance (except the production of undercoat) compared with those in western area (Table 3).

Table 1. Climate and yak distribution in the prefecture (1999).

Location

Livestock
(103 heads)

Yak
(103 heads)

Altitude
(masl)

Rainfall
(mm)

Temperature
(°C)

East

1250

541.5

4300

600

1.5

Central

2482.2

608.6

4600

410

2.0

West

3179

305.7

4700

250

3.0

Total

6911.3

1455.8

4500

350

1.9

Table 2. Reproductive performances of yak in Naqu (1999).

Location

Reproductive females

Calves survived
(103 )
Reproductive rate 
(%)
Marketing rate 
(%)
Number 
(103 ) 
Percentage 
(%)

East

185

34.16

127.7

69.03

12.71

Central

159.9

26.27

81.2

50.78

12.38

West

104.2

34.09

46.8

44.91

9.76

Total

449.1

30.85

255.7

56.94

11.92

Table 3. Average productive performances of yak in Naqu (1999).

Location

Beef 
(kg)

Milk 
(kg)

Undercoat 
(kg)

East

101.94

136.51

0.41

Central

102.04

74.51

0.54

West

99.09

41.79

0.73

Total

101.46

88.36

0.53

Traditionally, yak are herded on natural pasture for about 10 hours daily year round. They are not kept under shelter, nor are they given supplementary feeds, even in cold seasons. Breeding bulls are grazed far from the yak herds and herders' houses in the non-breeding season. They only come down to the herds in the breeding season during which they are herded together with the cows. The calving season is from April to July. In practice, cows are milked from the second month after parturition. To control suckling, calves are separated from cows during the daytime. Thus, suckling is only during the night following evening milking. In recent years, the pasture has been degenerating and biomass production has been declining thus adversely affecting the nutrition of the animals. Yak have inadequate nutrition for up to 8 months in a year. This is responsible for the poor body condition of breeding animals, resulting into lower reproductive and survival rates, smaller body size, and reduced overall productivity. Data from an investigation conducted to examine recent trends show that meat, milk and undercoat yields have decreased by 4.17%, 17.87% and 47%, respectively, over the last ten years (Table 4).

Table 4. Comparison of yak productivity in 1991 and 1999 in Naqu.

Year

Reproductive females
(%)

Reproductive
rate
(%)

Individual beef yield
(kg)

Individual milk yield
(kg)

Individual undercoat yield
(kg)

1991

31.79

46.58

105.88

107.58

1.00

1999

44.91

56.94

101.46

88.36

0.53

Change (%)

+41.27

+22.24

4.17

17.87

47

Measures to improve the yak husbandry in Naqu

The following measures are suggested as means to improve yak husbandry in Naqu:

  1. Establish a performance recording system including pedigree related breeding programmes which can be implemented on a sound basis.
  2. Determine optimal marketing and culling ages: The breeding bulls must be castrated and packing animals must be culled before they attain an age of 8 years; the breeding females and draft animals should be culled before they are 10 years old.
  3. Adjust the herd structure: An optimum herd structure is 65% females, 12.3% breeding bulls and 22.7% castrated males. This should yield a sex ratio for all breeding animals of 1 male to 15 females. The age structure should also be considered.
  4. Encourage the exchange of breeding bulls between herds in different villages to avoid inbreeding.
  5. Set up fenced reserve pastures to provide feeds in the winter and spring seasons: 2 mu (15 mu equals 1 hectare) fenced natural pastures and 0.2 mu artificial pasture per animal are recommended.
  6. Build shelters for pregnant cows and young animals for use particularly during the cold seasons.
  7. Improve veterinary and disease control programmes using both traditional and modern approaches and medicines.
  8. Set up small demonstration programmes to enhance animal and pasture management, including such elements as artificial insemination and skills for setting up artificial (improved) pastures. The aim of such programmes should be to show local farmers what the benefits of these interventions are so that they can have the interest to try themselves on their herds.

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