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Decoupling livestock and crop production at the household level in China


Animal manure used to be the major source of additional nutrients and crucial for maintaining soil fertility and crop yield in traditional farming systems. However, it is increasingly not recycled, wasting vital resources and damaging the environment. By using long-term (1986–2017) data from a rural household survey (>20,000 households) across China, here we show that the share of rural households with both crop planting and livestock raising (CPLR) has sharply declined from 71% in 1986 to only 12% in 2017. Compared with households with only crop planting, the CPLR households apply less synthetic fertilizer and more manure per cropland area. However, manure production in one-third of CPLR households has exceeded the nutrient requirement of crop growth on their croplands. Rebuilding the links between livestock and croplands at a regional scale thus provides vital opportunities for the sustainable intensification of agriculture in China.

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Fig. 1: Decoupling of livestock and cropland.
Fig. 2: Temporal changes of shares of households and draught animals and machinery use.
Fig. 3: Temporal changes of fertilizer and manure use.
Fig. 4: Farmland size, animal-stocking density and synthetic N fertilizer use.
Fig. 5: Spatial variations of share of CPLR households and draught animals in all surveyed villages across China.

Data availability

Data of the main findings can be found in the Supplementary Information, and any further data that support the findings of this study are collated from literature sources as cited or available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request. Source data are provided with this paper.


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This study was supported by the National Key Research and Development Project of China (2016YFD0201304, 2018YFC0213300), National Natural Science Foundation of China (41822701 and 41773068), National Social Fund of China (18ZD48) and the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (2019XZZX004-11). S.R.’s contribution was supported by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) National Capability programme SUNRISE (NE/R000131/1).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



S.J. and B.G. designed the study. B.W. prepared the data. B.Z., Y.H., C.R., C.Z. and B.G. analysed the data and prepared the figures. B.G. wrote the paper, and S.R. revised the paper. All authors contributed to discussing the results and writing the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Baojing Gu or Jie Chen.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Locations of the selected villages of the Fixed Observation Rural Survey (FORS).

Base map produced using GADM data (

Extended Data Fig. 2 Locations of the selected counties of Fixed Observation Rural Survey (FORS).

Base map produced using GADM data (

Extended Data Fig. 3 Examples of daily account.

The daily account of rural household on all their production and consumption activities related to agriculture.

Extended Data Fig. 4 The proportion of household and industrial livestock farming systems in 2010s.

a, production proportion; b, farm number proportion. Fixed Observation Rural Survey (FORS) normally can cover household livestock farms, but not industrial farms which are operated by independent companies. But due to the number of industrial farms is less than 1% of total livestock farms in China, normally not survey but statistical counting of industrial farms is used.

Source data

Extended Data Fig. 5 Spatial variations of manure and machinery use in all surveyed villages in 2017 across China.

a, manure share in crop-only households; b, manure share in Crop planting and livestock raising (CPLR) households; c, machinery use in crop-only households; d, machinery use in CPLR households. Base map produced using GADM data (

Extended Data Fig. 6 Temporal changes of fertilizer use in Crop only and CPLR households.

a, application rates of synthetic phosphorus (P) fertilizer; b, application rates of synthetic P fertilizer in Crop planting and livestock raising (CPLR) households with different livestock density; c, application rates of synthetic potassium (K) fertilizer; b, application rates of synthetic K fertilizer in CPLR households with different livestock density. Crop - only crop planting; Livestock - only livestock raising; CPLR - crop planting and livestock raising; <15, 15-30, 30-75 and >75 refer to livestock raising density with pig equivalent per ha cropland in CPLR households. Error bars refer to standard errors (SEs).

Source data

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary methods and Table 1.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 2

Statistical source data.

Source Data Fig. 3

Statistical source data.

Source Data Fig. 4

Statistical source data.

Source Data Extended Data Fig. 4

Statistical source data.

Source Data Extended Data Fig. 6

Statistical source data.

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Jin, S., Zhang, B., Wu, B. et al. Decoupling livestock and crop production at the household level in China. Nat Sustain 4, 48–55 (2021).

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