Mongolia: Nomadic Pastoralists, their Livestock, and their Landscape


Fig. 12 Herd of sheep in the Middle Gobi 

3. Livestock Herding

Herding is central to the economy of Mongolia. Livestock keeping provides food, transportation for humans and goods, clothing, items of exchange for the marketplace, and fuel for cooking and heating. Approximately 100,000 families care for their herds on Mongolia's 300 million acres of pastureland.

The geography and climate of a particular region determine which combination of animals is raised there.


Geography and ecology are important factors that impact the density of livestock and the species selected to graze in a particular area. Ecological factors that influence the utilization of land by herders include: climate, distribution of forage plants, distribution of saline soil, and water supply.

Mongolia has five ecological regions:

  • Mountain steppe
  • Forest steppe
  • Grass steppe
  • Desert steppe
  • Desert

    Each region is defined by rainfall, dominant vegetation type, and topography. Dominant forage plants for livestock include species of Orostachys, Cobresia, Koeleria, Artemesia (wormwood), Poa (grasses), Agropyron (steppe wheat grasses), Cyperacea (sedges) and Festuca spp (fescue grass).

    Areas that are very rocky (Fig. 12) and lack fertile soil have sparse vegetation for grazing, so these regions support smaller, more dispersed herds. Valleys tend to have the deepest soils and the most fertile grazing land.


    Fig. 13 Bactrian camels in the Gobi 

    Saline soils help provide the necessary dietary salt for the animals. Camels thrive in the most saline areas and they do best when their food includes the halophytic plants that grow there (Fig. 13).

    Elevation is very important in terms of the placement of seasonal camps. The best spring pasturage is typically on the south face of a mountain between middle altitude and the foothills.

    Access to water is most important in the summer (Fig. 14), but biting insects such as mosquitoes, midges, and horseflies tend to hover near water sources, so summer pasturage tends to be on high ground adjacent to rivers and lakes. For this reason, herders spend much of the summer near the mountain crests where there is fresh pasture and wind to reduce the problems with insects. However, in the Khangai and Khentii Mountains, the deep-lying areas and foothills are preferred for summer camps. Despite its low annual precipitation, the country has high levels of surface (lakes and streams) and ground (springs) water. Because of the short summers and severe winters, some rivers remain frozen until June. Rivers and lakes can serve as useful boundaries, especially in the geographically uniform steppe region. The Orkhon is the longest river in Mongolia.


    Fig. 14 Yaks bathing in Terhiyn Tsagaan Lake 

    In the autumn, when there are fewer insects due to lower temperatures, camps can be located right on water resources. Salty lowlands are best in the autumn, especially in the steppe and desert steppe.

    Winter camps (Fig. 15) are usually between the higher and middle mountain ranges, on a southern slope or in a cleft away from the prevailing winds. Areas where there is water tend to be colder, so winter camps are situated away from these sources.


    Climate is a critical factor for nomadic pastoralists. Even though the country averages 260 days a year of sunshine, the climate of Mongolia can be quite severe at times. Summer all over Mongolia ranges from hot to moderately warm, but the subarctic winters are universally extremely cold, with average temperatures dropping to -34°C (-88°F) in January and early February. There is an altitudinal as well as a latitudinal gradient for temperature.

    Mongolia is known for its dramatic annual, seasonal, and diurnal temperature fluctuations. Precipitation is relatively low (averaging 230 mm per year) and all but 10% of that evaporates.

    Exposure to wind is critical in determining where seasonal camps will be built. Wind chill can be very detrimental to herds and can lead to serious frostbite in humans. However, in the summer, wind is beneficial in keeping the biting insects from plaguing the herds.

    Nomadic pastoralism is almost totally dependent on natural pasture, so the economy is highly sensitive to climatic fluctuations. Periodic climatic events or shifts can result in dramatic losses in productivity. Droughts, ice storms, and even global warming can have a tremendous impact on the herds and therefore the human population.


    Fig. 15 Winter camp in hills around the Khanuy Valley 


    Up until the past century, the normal response to climatic stress would have been long-distance migration to better grazing lands, sometimes by thousands of people at a time. Chinese chronicles dated 470 BCE–1790 CE show a strong correlation between dust storms or winter thunderstorms and the immigration of Mongolians into China. In Mongolia, there are fewer detailed records, but three serious droughts, each lasting for years, were reported around 1740, 1800, and 1850.

    Even as early as this, territorial boundaries drawn up in the 17th century made migration difficult. Emperors rewarded princes and nobility with land and grazing rights. As Buddhism gained a stronger grasp in Mongolia, Buddhist dignitaries also gained control of land. With the ever-increasing control over land, natural disasters could lead to competition and even conflict.

    In recent years, the rigidity of national political boundaries has made adaptation to climate stress through long-distance migration a less viable option. By the juncture of the 19th and 20th centuries, migration distances had diminished significantly. In 1900, migration distances over the country as a whole averaged 8-10 km. At that time, migration in the northwest was generally between 15-20 km. In the Khovd region of the Altai Mountains, it averaged more than 50 km. In the Zassagt Khan Aimag it was as much as 200 km and in the Zorigt Khan Aimag, between Khovd River and Lake Uvs, it sometimes extended to as much as 250 km. Today average distances are less and maximum distances are considerably reduced. It is frequently the case that families only move between 1-4 km between summer and winter camps and 70 km is considered an unusually long annual migration.


    Fig. 16 Petroglyph of ibexes at Shiveet Khairkhan, in the Altai Mountains 


    There is still much to be learned about the prehistory of Mongolia. The part that concerns pastoralism begins in the Bronze Age, when domestic livestock, including horses, sheep, goats, and cattle, begin to be herded there. All of these animals were introduced from the outside. Although indigenous species included the Asiatic horse (Equus przewalskii), the Argali sheep (Ovis ammon), and the ibex (Capra ibex) (Fig. 16), the domestic herds of Mongolia did not develop from these wild species. Instead, they came in with migrating peoples, probably from Russia and Kazakhstan to the west or from China to the south. The yak was probably first domesticated on the Tibetan Plateau, where its wild ancestors can still be found. Although it is possible that camels and reindeer were first domesticated in Mongolia, since their wild progenitors did live there, archaeologists have yet to determine the precise localities where these animals were initially brought under human control.



    1. Introduction 
    2. People and Landscape 
    3. Livestock Herding   
    4. Characteristics of Livestock: Horses, Sheep, Goats 
    5. Characteristics of Livestock: Cattle and Yaks, Camels, Reindeer  
    6. Sharing the Labor 
    7. Suggested Reading  


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