In the context of national level trends, there are major spatial differences in the diverse Chinese cattle and beef industry. These can be partially captured by disaggregating the industry into beef zones. Figure 4 highlights the density of beef cattle n 2013 distributed by five zones and 25 provinces (some provinces such as Beijing and Tianjin are exclude). Cattle are concentrated in the intensive cropping areas especially in the Central Plains (Shandong and Henan) and the Northeast (Jilin and Liaoning). There are low densities of cattle in the “other” Southeastern provinces because of the low cattle numbers, while in the more extensive grazing systems of the Northwest large cattle herds are distributed over large distances. Beef cattle densities in the Southwest are formed by diverse areas of intensive crop-cattle systems and grazing systems on more mountainous areas.
Figure 4. Beef cattle distribution by province in China, 2013
Source: Map generated by authors. Data from China Livestock Yearbook (2014). One dot equals 10,000 beef cattle. Bovine numbers are distributed evenly over the provinces in the map, whereas in reality they are usually concentrated in particular pockets in the province. Southwest provinces are Guizhou, Sichuan, Guangxi, Yunnan, Jiangxi, Hunan and Chongqing; Other provinces are Shanghai, Guangdong, Hainan, Zhejiang and Fujian; Western provinces are Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia and Xinjiang; Central Plains systems provinces are Hubei, Henan, Anhui, Shandong, Jiangsu, Shanxi, Hebei and Shaanxi; Northeast provinces are Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang.
Figure 5 shows changes in the relative importance in the number of all bovines (not just beef cattle) between 1980 and 2013. The broadest trends shown in the figure are that bovine numbers increased and then decreased rapidly in the Central Plains areas between 1980 and 2010, with inverse trends in Western areas. Developed parts of China (Central Plains and especially ”other” provinces play a small and diminishing role in the cattle industry, while relatively undeveloped areas play a significant and growing role. There have been more gradual changes in other regions. Interestingly, the relative importance of the regions appears to have stabilised since 2010 to 2013 (although this is a short period in the overall reporting period).
Figure 5. Percentage of Chinese bovine herd in five regional beef zones (1980-2013)
Source: Derived from China Livestock Yearbook (various years)
In the still relatively undeveloped zone of Southwest China, cows are still used for draught and transport purposes in cropping systems, which are often hilly areas not suitable for machinery or large framed cattle. The small cows are fed on a low grade diet which results in some of the lowest productivity (i.e. turnoff and carcass weight) indicators and the lowest scale of production indicators in China. While the relative importance of the region dropped from 1980 to 1995, the Southwest has maintained about one-third of the bovines in China over the last 15 years, although this includes a significant number of buffaloes.
From a small base, the Northeast zone has grown at the fastest and most consistent rate to account for 13% of China’s bovines. This reflects resource advantages in the region, especially in feed grain (mostly corn). The Northeast has by far the highest average carcass weights and the highest scale of production, and a relatively high proportion of cattle are turned off through feedlots.
The Northwest zone and provinces like Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet have traditionally been associated with extensive grazing systems. However few cattle are produced in “pure” extensive pastoral systems and even these pastoral areas have undergone intensification (i.e. pen feeding) due to grazing bans design to arrest grassland degradation in the region (Brown et al., 2008). Most cattle are raised in semi-pastoral systems and in cow-calf systems and turned off to agricultural areas for further feeding or slaughter. The relative importance of the region has increased over the last decade (24%) due to an increase in beef cattle numbers in Ningxia and Gansu, and dairy cattle in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang in the early 2000s.
Bovines are most densely concentrated in the Central Plains zone, especially in Henan, Shandong and Hebei. From a modest production base of draught cattle and crop residues, the region grew to hold 36% of China’s cattle through the 1990s. However, farmers in the region have relatively good access to labour and urban migration opportunities. This diminished the relative importance of the region to 25% of China’s cattle in 2010. The farmers that remain are becoming increasingly commercialised, as suggested by the highest turnoff rates in the country.
Other provinces such as Guangdong and Fujian are abandoning cattle production, although peri-urban areas in cities like Beijing have significant abattoir and vertically integrated structures promoted in the name of local food security and safety. Hainan has sought to develop a local production and processing sector. However, some of these coastal provinces (Zheijiang, Hainan) with port facilities or with islands for quarantine are the mooted destinations for Australian live cattle exports.