Yaks used to be everything for Tsering Thondup, 51, an ethnic Tibetan and formerly a nomadic herder from northwest China's Gansu Province.
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Booming yak industry brings new way of life to herders on plateau

He once raised some 40 yaks in the pasture, barely making ends meet by selling the meat and milk they produced. Now, all his yaks are managed by a breeding cooperative near his home, and he is employed by the cooperative and earns a steady income.

Thondup’s hometown, the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, has developed yak husbandry as one of its leading industries. The yak population there now exceeds 1.2 million, accounting for some 7.5 percent of the national total, according to Wang Wei, director of the animal husbandry technical services center in Gannan.

As a major source of revenue for herding households, the yak industry accounts for 42 percent of the average disposable income of local farmers and herders. However, traditional breeding methods were not only inefficient but also caused serious grass degradation.

“Almost every household in the nearby villages raises yaks. The soaring numbers of cattle and sheep have affected the quality of the grass and reduced incomes in the long run,” said Kunphel Lhagyl, manager of the breeding cooperative and a former herder.

In 2014, with the support of the local government, Lhagyl set up a breeding cooperative in Luqu County, which is equipped with modern facilities.

The cooperative now manages nearly 700 yaks. During the warmer seasons, its workers herd yaks in the pasture, while the yaks are bred in sheds during the colder seasons.

Wang said the semi-intensive breeding and grazing method has more benefits than just being environmentally friendly. “It also helps increase efficiency.”

Many of Thondup’s neighbors have chosen the same path, entrusting their yaks to the cooperative and receiving bonuses as a result. “With the cooperative taking care of our yaks, we can leave the nomadic life. Some go out to find jobs, and some run family inns or restaurants,” Thondup said.

The yak industry has gained support from the government of Gannan. The local government has encouraged enterprises to extend industrial chains for goods such as yak meat, milk and leather.

At a yak milk trading center in Gannan, a huge screen shows the real-time information on yak milk prices and stocks in regions such as Gansu and Sichuan provinces.

Trucks carrying fresh yak milk collected from herders can often be seen entering the center established by Hualing Dairy Co., Ltd. The milk is then processed into various dairy products, such as milk powder, milk candy and casein.

Min Shaohua, manager of the company, said the production lines have increased the incomes of nearly 30,000 households in Gannan.

“The organic dairy products are greatly favored by urban consumers,” Min said, adding that the company will deepen its technical cooperation with universities and research institutes to add more value to the products.

Organic dairy farmers are in crisis due to drought, market consolidation, and skyrocketing energy and feed costs brought on by unstable global markets and inflation.

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