Prior to the uplift of the Ordos Plateau, all of this region was part of a large lacustrine sedimentary basin. Today, half of Ningxia is covered by usable grasslands; it has the highest density of livestock of any province or region in northern China. Much of the herding is done by the Hui minority, which accounts for nearly one-third of the population.
According to scholars in the provincial capitals of Lanzhou and Xining, the animal herds of Gansu and Qinghai and the natural resource on which they rest are in trouble. The rangelands of Gansu supply too little winter forage, and agriculture in the Hexi Corridor has never been integrated with animal husbandry in the neighboring rangelands. Many animals are said to starve to death in severe winters, and serious weight loss occurs each winter, while agricultural by-products in the valley go unused. Meanwhile, the transformation of land for the expansion of agriculture in Gansu and Qinghai is said to have caused the natural grasslands to deteriorate. Since 1949, 380,000 hectares of rangeland have been converted to agriculture in Qinghai, but because of the deterioration of the soil, 278,000 hectares have been rendered useless for farming. Soil erosion and the formation of gullies in the loess plateau of eastern and central Gansu have been particularly serious. In the former "grain bank" of Dunzhiyan, 70% of the area is now classified as gully land, while only 30% remains usable upland. Soil fertility has also declined—in most soils, the organic matter content is less than 1%. In 1980, grain production per unit area was only one-third the national average, and in 1987, grain production per capita in the loess plateau of Gansu was no higher than the level of the early 1950s.5
The Haibei Research Station in the Menyuan Hui Autonomous County, 160 krn north of Xining, provides an example of an alpine meadow ecosystem. Menyuan County lies in a mountain basin (elevation 3200 m) south of the Qilian Mountain range and astride the Xining-Zhangye highway, the major trade route between Qinghai and Gansu provinces. The mean annual temperature in this area is –2.0°C and the mean annual precipitation is 500 mm. The soils are alpine shrub, alpine meadow, and swamp soils, rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Vegetation consists mainly of Kobresia meadows with Potentilla fruticosa shrubs, which have an aboveground net primary production of 190–340 g/m2 per year. Plant nutrient content is reputed to be high.
The Haibei station is located in the center of an agricultural/pastoral collective, the Menyuan Horse Farm, which was organized into a brigade (the level below a commune) during collectivization in the 1950s. The brigade, formerly a stud ranch set up in the 1930s to provide horses for the Chinese Nationalist army, covers approximately 400 km2, of which 260 km2 are dedicated to rangeland livestock (mostly yak and sheep), and nearly 46 km2 to hay (oats and barley), with additional land in rape (Brassica campestris). This area is home to 40 pastoralist households, mainly Tibetan, and a smaller number of Hui people, most of whom are engaged in agriculture.