Variability in aboveground herbaceous biomass and its quality were studied in response to three different stocking densities during a 2-yr grazing experiment with sheep on a montane summer pasture in the Chinese Altay. We determined herbaceous cover and aboveground biomass in 16 paddocks of 0.25 ha each. Vegetation cover showed high spatial variation, prompting us to implement a randomized block design. Forage intake of one male sheep per paddock was quantified four times per grazing season by collection of total feces and estimation of diet digestibility. Sheep weight was recorded every 3 wk. Aboveground herbaceous dry mass (DM) was characterized by pronounced annual variation. Biomass quality declined with progressing season and increasing sheep density. Daily organic matter intake per sheep ranged from 0.7 to 1.4 kg, which was paralleled by a biomass removal of 710–1 560 kg DM/ha at densities of 8–24 sheep/ha. At 8 sheep/ha, animals gained weight throughout each grazing period, whereas weight losses of 40–100 g/d occurred at higher densities. These results challenge the presently followed concept of a fixed stocking density for summer pastures in Altay Prefecture, Xinjian, China. Such practice may result in low herbage allowances and thus deficient sheep nutrition in one year, as well as underutilization of forage resources in another. Flexible adjustment of stocking densities is also advisable for montane pastures where spatiotemporal variability, although less pronounced than in desert steppes of the Altay foothills, is nonetheless highly relevant.
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