Livestock – The engine and inspiration of mountain economy

Traditionally pastoralist communities, with easy access to community resources, managed farming and livestock seamlessly. But with gradual loss of ownership on common resources, they are adapting to changing situations by altering their livestock numbers and management practices.

For the pastoralist communities of the Indian Himalayan region, livestock is the sole source of livelihood. Livestock is considered as ‘the engine and inspiration’ of the mountain economy as a source of food security in the form of milk and meat, providing supplementary income for rural household and reducing the vulnerability of livelihoods. Moreover, livestock manure is an important and valuable resource used to fertilize agriculture land. In the mixed crop–livestock farming  systems of the Central Himalaya, livestock and food production systems are closely integrated.

Traditionally, mountain communities managed pastures and forests together. Majority of the households, with marginal landholdings, had easy  access to the common resources to complement their private resources for sustaining their livestock. Nutrients from forests, grasslands and crop residues are fed to the animals and are recycled back to the cropland as manure. This complex inter-relationship between forests, grasslands, livestock and crops in mountain farming systems has contributed to the sustainability of mountain agriculture for generations (Fig. 1).

Livestock management

The pastoral communities in the higher altitudinal zones of the Himalaya, such as the Bhotiya, Bakarwal, Van Gujjar, Gaddi, Lepcha, and Monpas have traditionally been practicing livestock herding by migrating to more suitable pastures from one ecological zone to another on seasonal basis. In Uttarakhand region, Bhotiya tribes (sheep and goat herders) as well as forest dwelling Van Gujjars (buffalo herders) migrate from foothill forests to alpine pastures. Livestock are allowed to graze on naturally available forage resources on the marginal lands, which are otherwise inaccessible for other land use.

The annual livestock management in the higher Himalaya villages is based on the traditional practices. Sheep and goats are left in open areas and forests under the supervision of shepherds (anwals) for grazing throughout the year. They are moved from alpine pastures to lower valleys during winter and back to the alpine pastures during summer. The  shepherds feel that fodder availability, both in quantity and quality, is currently poor in the lower valleys, and thus mortality rates for animals increase during their stay in lower valleys in winters. The poor nutrition is said to be the reason for the poor quality and quantity of wool produced during shearing in March. The cattle and horses of settled villages are taken to common lands for grazing during the spring, summer, and rainy seasons and stall-fed in winter (December–February).

Gender and age both play critical roles in determining labour allocation patterns. Generally, women collect green grass/ herbs, feed grazing animals, clean animal sheds, collect and carry fodder and litter to the house and are actively involved in composting of animal waste. Elderly women milk the animals and prepare butter and ghee. Elderly men make decisions regarding the breeding of animals and marketing animal products. Involvement ofwomen is more than 60%  for stall feeding, forage collection and more than 88% in litter collection, cleaning cattle sheds, making compost etc. However, in transhumant pastoralist communities about 90% work is contributed by men.

Sheep and goat populations have declined drastically during last two decades due to conservation policies and restrictions imposed on grazing rights by the Forest department.

Managing the numbers of sheep and goats is essential for managing stock densities. Local people manage the animals by reducing their numbers, either by selling them to other consumers for meat production or by using them for local meat production. The number of animals reduced per year is about 35% of initial stock in the villages. However, the number of animals sold account for only 20%. Local inhabitants report that effective management of an average herd of about 400 animals, consisting of about 200 goats and 200 sheep and about 4–6 horses or mules, requires a 2-member shepherd team. If we exclude the uncertainties of livestock rearing, about Rs 1300 is the net benefit for each goat or sheep (Table 1). The sheep and goats show a high output–input ratio in monetary terms followed by pack animals (horses or mules), dairy cattle whereas bullocks had the lowest monetary output–input ratio.

Table 1: Annual cost of rearing a standard-size flock using the services of shepherds

Particulars Cost (in Rupees)
Cereals (750 gm/day) in rearing 200 sheep/goats                               9950.00
Salt, spices, oil, etc.                                 850.00
2 sheep as gift (Rs. 2800/sheep)                                5600.00
2 pairs of shoes                                  900.00
2 blankets and 2 pairs of woolen dresses                               4500.00
Smoke (Rs 190/shepherd/ month)                               2280.00
Salt for sheep (2 kg per sheep or goat)                               2400.00
Tax (Rs 5 per sheep/per goat)                                1000.00
Total expenditure                            27480.00
Sale of 55 sheep or goat (20%) @ Rs 4200.00/sheep                       2,31,000.00
Wool (1.7 kg/sheep)                            56,000.00
Gross income                        2,87,000.00
Net income from 200 ruminants                         2,59,520.00
Profit per sheep/goat                                1298.00

Challenges and changing practices 

Sustainability of the pastoralist community has consistently been threatened by the growing anthropogenic activities. Livestock grazing has been constrained in many forests. Pastoralists are facing uncertain future due to pressure from ‘conservation’ lobbies that want ‘exclusive conservation’.

Reduction in grazing area, traditional rights on protected areas and reduction of forage have made it difficult to maintain the productivity of large numbers of animals. Sheep and goat populations have declined drastically during last two decades due to conservation policies and restrictions imposed on grazing rights by the Forest department. The average sheep and goat population declined by about 75.11% in the last 30 years (Table 2). The number of families rearing bullocks decreased in the villages of three valleys and this is because the people have abandoned their agriculture. In higher Himalayan villages, scarcity of fodder (especially in winter) is a major problem for raising livestock and the primary reason is the shrinking per capita landholding. Moreover, with modernization, socio-economic changes and fast expansion of education and the lure of government services, the present generation is now less willing to pursue such occupations.

Table 2: Change in livestock population in some selected valleys of the Uttarakhand in three decades (1980-85 to 2010-15)

Lovestok categories Name of the valleys
Niti valley (10 villages) Johar valley (13 villages) Upper Mandakini valley (10 villages)
1980-85 2010-15 1980-85 2010-15 1980-85 2010-15
Cattle 1260 318 939 215 2860 1860
Buffalos 318 201
Horse/mules 430 160 590 188 436 415
Sheep/Goats 17090 5310 15390 2319 4655 1610

Along with declining numbers of livestock, there have also been changes in livestock management practices. The most important is the increase in stall feeding in some areas, particularly for improved breeds of cattle. This has been brought about by both the shrinkage in grazing resources and incentives to rear high-yielding animals, e.g. improved buffaloes and cattle. These improved and cross-breed animals require better management and nutrition as well as stall feeding. There is also a lack of artificial insemination facilities in the villages to retain breed quality.


The lifestyles of traditional societies and particularly transhumant pastoralist populations in the Himalayan region are undergoing changes. For effective management of available resources in the region, continuance of transhumance by villages within the limits of carrying capacity is required. Revitalizing the production system and reducing grazing pressure would provide opportunities to continue the sustainable livelihood of transhumant pastoralists in the high altitude as well as in settled villages situated adjoining to protected areas.

In hill and mountain areas, where mixed crop–livestock production systems operate, livestock production makes a positive contribution towards sustainable agriculture, through its role in nutrient cycling and maintenance of soil fertility. Promoting suitable trees on open lands will help addressing the issue of fodder deficits. Also, strengthening research and extension linkages is necessary for promoting sustainable livestock management and development in the region. In view of women’s significant role in livestock production, it is vital to address gender concerns in the sustainable management of livestock in mixed crop– Livestock livestock farming systems and in marketing. A sound policy, with an emphasis on ecological adaptability, is urgently needed.


Authors would like to thank the Director, G.B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment and Sustainable Development (GBPNIHESD), Kosi- Katarmal, Almora for providing facilities.


Maikhuri R K, Rao K S, Semwal R L., Changing scenario of Himalayan agroecosytem: loss of agrobiodiversity, an indicator of environmental change in central Himalaya, India, 2001, Environmentalist. 20, 23–39.

Nautiyal, S., Rao, K S., Maikhuri, R K., and Saxena, K G., Transhumant Pastoralism in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, India, 2003, Mt. Res. Dev. 23(3), 255-262.

R K Maikhuri, L S Rawat, P C Phondani, Ajay Maletha and Y M Bahuguna

R K Maikhuri, L S Rawat, P C Phondani,
Ajay Maletha and Y M Bahuguna
G.B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment
and Sustainable Development
Garhwal Unit,
Srinagar (Garhwal) – 246 174

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