Contemporary Mongolia: Nomadic Pastoralists, their Livestock, and their Landscape 


Fig. 12 Herd of sheep in the Middle Gobi 

4. Characteristics of Livestock

According to ancient tradition, the Mongolians refer to their five major groups of livestock as the five "snouts." These include: sheep, goats, cattle, horses, and camels. Yaks are also raised in the mountains and reindeer are herded in the high forests of the north by the Tsaatan people. Pigs and fowl have never been important in Mongolia, largely because they are ill suited to a nomadic life. Interestingly, the ratios of the five major types of livestock have remained essentially the same since the 13th century.

Table 1. Modern Proportions of Livestock Types in Mongolia 
Sheep  Goats  Cattle  Horses  Camels 
12.3 million 11 million 3.6 million 2.7 million 300 thousand
41.1% 36.7% 12% 9% 1%


Fig. 17 Leopard Appaloosa horse at Naadam event at the "Roaring Hooves Festival," North Gobi 


It is horses we most often associate with Mongolia, because the people have been famous for their riding skills for hundreds of years. Today's Mongolian horses come in a wide variety of colors and patterns (Fig. 17). They are still important modes of transportation. Mongolian horses are small (the average withers height is just 12-13 hands), but very sturdy. One horse can be comfortably ridden 11-17 km per day and the average rider typically will have 2-5 horses to trade off and prevent one horse from getting too tired. Children begin to ride at age three, but women ride much less than men do today.

Horses are also used to transport supplies and even the ger. They can carry about 1/3 of their total body weight. For pulling carts, four Mongolian horses can pull 2,000 kg up to 50-60 km a day.

Important to the Mongolian diet is airag, or fermented mare's milk. Airag contains five times more vitamin C than cow's milk, and also yields vitamins A, B1, B2, B12, D, and E and contains 1-2.5% ethyl alcohol (Kosikowski 1982: 43). Mare's milk is extremely lean (1-2% fat) and is therefore normally not used to make yogurt, kefir, cheese, dried curds, or other dairy products. It is said to have many health benefits and is used to treat tuberculosis and other lung ailments. Because the people have few vegetables in their diet, airag is an important dietary staple. Airag is available for at least 6 months out of the year, starting in May when the foals are born. Both men and women milk the mares and it must be done about five times per day. The fermentation is done in a butter churn today and it can be accomplished in a day's time. In the past the milk was put in large horse skin bags for fermentation. The bags could be put on a horse to jostle the milk to facilitate fermentation, or hung up in the doorway of the ger so that family members could swat it every time they entered or exited the home. The mares produce 50 gm of milk at each milking and an average of 300 kg per year.


Fig. 18 Winter stable for sheep with a roof insulated with dung 

Unlike the Kazakhs, who consume quite a bit of horsemeat, the Mongolians usually only eat horsemeat for early winter festivals. At this time of year, the quality of the meat is good because of the stored fat in the tissue.

Rope is made from horse mane and tail hair and horsehides are made into clothing, containers, tackle, and other leather and rawhide objects.

Horse dung, like cow dung, may be used for fuel in the stove and as an insulating material for roofs and walls of stables (Fig. 18).

Sheep and Goats

Sheep (Ovis aries) and goats (Capra hirca) are often kept together because the goats will guide the sheep and make the herd easier to control (Fig. 19). Both are milked once a day and cheese is made from their milk (Fig. 20). Because their herds are so large, the women tie all the sheep or goats together, with a rope around each animal's neck, prior to milking. As each individual milking is completed, that animal is set free. When all the animals are free, the woman knows she has successfully milked the entire herd.


Fig. 19 Herd of Mongolian sheep 


Fig. 20 Daily goat milking  

Mongolia has many breeds of sheep, but generally they are fat-tailed carpet wool sheep. They are extremely well adapted to the harsh regional climate and subsist year-round on poor quality pastures with no fodder provided.

There are five sheep breeding zones:

  • Northern mountain and grassland zone;
  • Central steppe zone;
  • Southern semi-arid zone;
  • Southernmost, semi-desert zone of the Gobi
  • Altay Mountains in the west.

    Mutton is the preferred meat for Mongolians and it is prepared in a variety of dishes. The native coarse wool fat-tailed sheep fattens rapidly when new grass appears on the pasture, storing 4-6 kg of fat. Sheep fat is greatly prized in the Mongolian cuisine. As the name implies, much of it is stored in the tail. This diminishes in the winter and spring.

    Depending on the breed, Mongolian sheep produce 200-1000 g of milk per day, with an average of 300-600 g. Some breeds are not milked at all, however. In the past, more Mongolians drank sheep's milk, but now that cow's milk is plentiful, this practice is much less common. Sheep produce only about 1/4 as much milk as goats, so sheep cheese is less important than that of goats.


    Fig. 21 Truck hauling a load of wool for felt making 

    Sheep wool is used to make yarn for clothing and felt for the ger walls, for shoes, carpet, and other purposes. Most Mongolian sheep produce a rough wool that is well suited to felt and carpet making, but more and more fine wool sheep breeds are being developed and introduced into Mongolia today. Sheep are shorn in June and again in September (Fig. 21). The women do most of the labor-intensive felt making, chiefly in the autumn, from the more desirable second shearing. The first shearing removes the winter coat, which is of poorer quality because of the inferior winter fodder.

    The Cashmere goat is a critical part of the economy, since Mongolia is a world leader in cashmere exports (Fig. 22). Mongolia produces the finest raw cashmere in the world. Cashmere products are the fourth most important export for the country and Mongolia's largest agricultural export. Per annum, Mongolia produces about 2,500 tons of cashmere, which grosses almost $80 million. The local population, however, rarely wears attire made of cashmere, because it is expensive and too delicate to be practical.


    Fig. 22 Cashmere goats and their kids 

    The cashmere yield of the Mongolian goat averages 250-270 g for females, 290-310 g for young males (2 years old), and 290-310 g for breeding males. However, high breed Mongolian goats can produce 1.5-2 times more than the average. All goat breeds produce some fine guard hairs of cashmere quality, but the Cashmere goats produce far more than other breeds. The guard hairs are combed out and collected rather than being sheared, as sheep's wool is.

    Goat meat isn't eaten as much as mutton because the fat solidifies at air temperature, but the milk is preferred over that of sheep and is important for making cheese. Goat dung is used in the ger stove for cooking and heating the ger.


    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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