Maral Had a Little Lamb

Let’s talk about livestock in Mongolia. You should know by now that nomadic pastoralism is the traditional way of life in Mongolia, and animal husbandry remains a key element of life outside of the big cities. It was important before Mongolia joined the USSR, remained important through those decades, and continues to be important today, post-socialism. As of December 2019, there were 70.9 million head of livestock. That’s a lot of animals for a country with 3.2 million citizens.

Photo by Nick Bondarev on

Sheep, goats, horses, cows, yaks, and camels are the most commonly raised animals. Of these six, sheep are the most common (~45% of the livestock), followed by goats (~41%). Meat and dairy products come from these two animals, but in addition to food stuffs, they also provide wool, leather, and cashmere. In fact, all of these animals provide this kind of range of products. Horse meat, which is quite tasty, is as readily available as beef. You can find yak cheese and camel yogurt curds in the dairy aisle at supermarkets. Leather goods are readily available, and it’s easy to buy them off the rack or have custom items made. Camel wool (from the bactrian camel) is especially warm during the long winters. I have both camel and yak wool socks, and they are delightfully cozy.

Mongolia has a good deal of steppe grassland for grazing for all of this livestock. Those picturesque images of the Mongolian countryside? Yeah, those are usually photos taken of herders’ gers (aka yurts) and their livestock. Anyone who has been involved in agriculture or ranching knows that it’s hard work, and there are some particular woes that plague Mongolian herdsmen. The first and most prevalent issue is the dzud, an especially harsh winter season. Animals can freeze to death in great numbers during dzuds, which is something that drives people to abandon their flocks and herds to try to make a living in UB instead. Natural predators like wolves or, in some places, snow leopards, can take animals, especially the young. Like I said, it’s a hard way of living.

If you have the opportunity to visit Mongolia, I would highly recommend you look at purchasing some of these goods–cashmere garments, leather boots, warm woolen socks, and so forth. In addition, if you’re not a vegetarian or vegan, do try the wide variety of dairy and meat products available as well. The “Mongolian grill” restaurants in UB are a good option for trying horse meat in a somewhat familiar way. 😉


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