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Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world; livestock outnumber people ten-to-one and pastoralism is one of the key economic activities, employing almost half of the population and accounting for 90 per cent of agricultural output.

Mongolia has one of the largest concentrations of indigenous animal breeds in Asia. With a population of some 30 million head of cattle, horses, yaks, goats and camels – often referred to as the “five animals” (tavan khoshuu mal) in Mongolia. Most herding households are self-sufficient in meat and milk products and earn an income from selling live animals, milk, meat, skins and hides, wool and cashmere. (New Agriculturist)

Only one per cent of Mongolia is cultivable, and arable farmers are generally located in the northern river valleys where irrigation is possible. Yields tend to be low with a short growing season of about 100 days. The main crops are wheat, barley, potato, cabbage and carrots, mainly grown in the central provinces. Some fruits, such as watermelons and berry varieties are also grown, generally on a small scale in urban areas.

Mongolia’s harsh climate severely impacts all forms of agriculture. Temperatures can fluctuate from as low as minus 50°C in the steppe in winter, to 40°C in the Gobi desert in the summer. Dzud, a Mongolian term, refers to a range of severe weather conditions, including severe summer droughts and exceptionally cold winters, that can prevent access to, or destroy, pasture causing significant loss of animal life and devastating the livelihoods of herding families. Consecutive dzuds from 1999 to 2002 killed about one-quarter of the livestock, forcing many people to migrate to urban areas. Since then, herd numbers have recovered, but the increase in numbers of goats for cashmere has resulted in widespread overgrazing.

The traditional livestock are all, of necessity, well adapted to the harsh climate. They can regain condition and build up fat reserves rapidly during the short growing season.

Livestock numbers in Mongolia 2011

Horses           2.093.000

Cattle             2.315.000

Yak                   610.100

Sheep          15.509.000

Goats           15.809.000

Camel              279.600

Livestock numbers in Khovsgol 2013 (Infomongolia)

Horses              165.500

Cattle               316.800

Sheep            1.722.800

Goats             1.402.100

Camel                    1.900





Kvæg 1Cattle
The small local breed of cattle is the basis of the pastoral beef industry. In many areas signs of admixture with exotic blood (Alatau, Simmenthal and White-faced Kazakh) are obvious, but in harder areas pure Mongolian prevails.

They are very hardy but poor milkers and most dairy products are reserved for domestic consumption. Cows are dried off as the feed supply diminishes in late autumn.
At the colder limit of the range cattle-yak hybrids are used.





milking_cow_01Cow milk
Milk production is influenced by natural conditions and nutritional level, as well as by calving (lactation) number and stage of lactation. Cows may produce about 3 l of milk daily (A Danish produce about 25 l daily), 600-800 kg of milk in a 5-month lactation with good nutrition in the grass-growing season.
Cows are being milked from May-June (when they have given birth to a calf) to around October, when they dry out.
Daily milk yield is highest in the first month, then gradually declines during the 5-month lactation period.
Cow milk contains, on average, 3.4% protein, 3.6% fat, and 4.6% lactose, 0.7% minerals.
Stalde 4Local cattle are poor milkers and exotic dairy cattle require good, warm housing to survive the long winter. Provision of feed for housed dairy stock is expensive and forage for the eight-month winter has to be saved during a three-month growing season. This is a typical winter camp with primitive stables for the animals.






DSC_0466-Herding-animals-MongoliaYak and hybrids
Yaks and their hybrid with cattle, the khainag, are kept in the higher areas. There are no named breeds, polled animals are common and are preferred. Yak are an indispensable part of the animal husbandry in the high mountain regions where yak are used both for transport and for their productive capabilities. The yak represents a high degree of adaptation to the ecosystem.
No other domestic animal can utilize the vegetation available at 2 000 – 4 000 m.



milking_yakYak milk
Yak make an important contribution to the supply of milk and milk products in Mongolia.
Lactation length is determined by the date of calving, as the end of milking coincides with the end of the grazing season.
For the sake of their calves, cows are not milked at the beginning or end of lactation, thus reducing the milk off-take to less than the potential.
The main milk production period is from June to October.  (Around 2 l of milk daily)
In addition to milk, butter and cream, cheese and yoghurt are also made.
Traditionally in Mongolia, yak milk is also fermented in a leather pouch and distilled as a “milk wine” (Archi) into a clear alcoholic drink.
Yak milk average 6.5 to 7.0 % fat (golden colored and with
large fat globules), 5.3 % protein, 4.6 % lactose and 17.4%
total dry matter it is about twice as rich as cow’s milk.

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. Average production from adult sheep is 2.0. to 2.4 kg of greasy wool.





20120225_sheep_20Sheep milk
Depending on the breed, Mongolian sheep produce 200-1000 ml of milk per day, with an average of 300-600 ml. 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 milk contains, on average, 5.6% protein, 6.7% fat, and 4.8% lactose.



Mongolian goats are renowned for the quality of their cashmere. Goats were traditionally kept in drier areas with plentiful browse – now they are increasing in areas where, previously, they were a minor component of the herd.
Sheep and goats are often kept together because the goats will guide the sheep and make the herd easier to control. Both are milked once a day and cheese is made from their milk.


Goar milkingGoat milk
Goat milk naturally has small, well-emulsified fat globules, which means the cream remains suspended in the milk, instead of rising to the top, as in raw cow milk; therefore, it does not need to be homogenized. Indeed, if the milk is to be used to make cheese, homogenization is not recommended, as this changes the structure of the milk, affecting the culture’s ability to coagulate the milk and the final quality and yield of cheese. Goat butter is white because goats produce milk with the yellow betacarotene converted to a colorless form of vitamin A.
Goat milk contains, on average, 2.9 %, protein, 3.9 % fat, and 4.1 % lactose.
Sheep and goats are often kept together because the goats will guide the sheep and make the herd easier to control. Both are milked once a day and cheese is made from their milk.
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.


Bactrian Camel
Camels are very valuable for riding and carrying loads. Over a four-day period, a camel can carry 170-270 kg at a rate of about 47 km per day and 4 km an hour. Camel hair is a highly valued product, that is spun into a soft yarn and woven or knitted into a variety of types of clothing. Their hides, sinew, and bones are also used for making various articles. Because they are so valuable, a camel will be killed and eaten only when it is necessary.




Mongolie-Mongolia-Milking camel, half of milk to owner, half to babyCamel milk
The average lactational yield of the Bactrian camel is about 800–1.200 ml, although it can reach 5.000 ml a day. They are milked twice a day for 9-18 month. In Mongolia camel milk is consumed as a product at various stages of the curd-making process. Their milk is fermented, like mare’s milk, for consumption.
Camel milk contains, on average, 3.8% protein, 5.3% fat, and 5.2% lactose.





Horses of the local breed are small but hardy. They are extremely important as part of the herders’ essential equipment as well as for sport, meat and milk – fermented mares’ milk (Airag) is a favourite, and highly saleable, beverage.

Horse milk
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. Mare’s milk is extremely
lean (1-2% fat) and is therefore normally not used to make milking-horse1
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 Mongolian 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 200-250 ml of milk at each milking and
an average of 1000 ml a day.

The Tsaatan people who live in the northern Khovsgol province of Mongolia, in the mountains and forests in the Darhad valley and around Lake Khovsgol are reindeer herders. The Tsaatan exploit the reindeer antlers, skin, milk, and meat. Their herds are useful for their ability to be ridden, pull sleighs, and carry small packs. Cheese is made from their milk. The Tsaatan only slaughter their reindeer when necessary, since they are so useful alive. The meat is often cut into strips and hung from the tipi frame to dry for preservation.