Mongolian cattle graze the hills near Ulaanbaatar


Mongolia, country of wide skies

In the world’s least-populated country, nearly three million people are scattered across a land which, border to border, could squeeze Texas, California, Montana, and South Carolina inside. From the open plains and sloping steppes of the north sprouts a blanket of wild grass, where horses, sheep, cattle, yaks, goats, and Bactrian camels graze with their semi-nomadic herder families never far away. To the south, the massive Gobi Desert covers 30 percent of the country’s nearly 604,000-square-mile territory.

There is a saying in Mongolia that goes, Listen to the foreigner. The tightly landlocked country, whose borders touch far vaster China and Russia, had almost no access to the outside world for the long years it spent under Chinese, then Soviet, rule. Even today, its ability to export, import and connect with other cultures is limited. So in the vast, stepped landscape, you’ll find that the occasional ger—a portable hut Mongolia’s herders call home—has its south-facing door open, ready to welcome any local or foreigner who might bring previously unheard news, ideas, or wisdom.

grazing fenceless plains

Veterinarian Dr. Glenn Gaines became one such foreigner in 2001 when he began making trips to Mongolia, eventually moving there from Texas in 2007-2010. Dr. Gaines worked with the country’s 1,100 veterinarians, whose task it is to treat 2.3 million cattle, 400,000 yaks, and other herd animals.

About one-third of Mongolia’s population depends completely on livestock for their diet, income, and way of life. Mongolia’s pastoral cattle industry is strongest to the north and west of its capital city, Ulaanbaatar, but “even the Gobi desert has animals,” Dr. Gaines says. Herdsmen milk all of them daily for sustenance, slaughtering one per year to eat, and selling the rest for a small income. Although the fattier mutton is the meal of choice for many herders, beef is becoming increasingly popular in urban areas.

The herders can dismantle a ger quickly and move on to other lands—which are government-owned and without fences. “The Mongolian herder is going to move an average of two to six times a year,” Dr. Gaines says. Foraging for grass and seeking water sources—from lakes, rivers, and community wells—is enough to keep the cows moving about two to four kilometers a day. Therefore, there tends to be less weight gain on Mongolian animals than in the U.S. Cows typically top out at a tough and muscled 650 pounds.

Mongolian winters are ferocious. About 20 percent of livestock have to survive long, cold months on foraging alone, while the rest receive an inadequate amount of hay, causing a 25 percent loss in body weight. No shelter is available on the plains, and it is not unheard of for the herders to open their ger to the weak and young to protect them from the elements. A word that contains much dread for the countrymen is zud, which is a devastating winter that results in the loss of life for many animals. The last zud was the winter of 2009-10, during which an estimated 9 million animals died.

meeting environmental & political challenges

The lack of fences makes for a stunningly beautiful and photographic landscape, but it also presents a disease-control problem. “Foot and mouth disease, as well as brucellosis, spread easily in these plains where roaming herds intermingle with others,” says Tserendorj Lhagvasuren, a native veterinarian who worked with Dr. Gaines and currently runs the VetNet large animal clinic outside of Ulaanbaatar. These diseases hurt the nascent beef export industry. “That’s a huge factor in the reputation of this country,” Tserendorj says.

Other threats to the beef sector’s performance include infrastructure—Mongolia depended enormously on the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991, and is still transitioning to a market economy—poor supplemental nutrition for the animals, the tough nomadic life, high stocking density leading to overgrazing and desertification, and late slaughter age. Culture can be one of the most stubborn obstacles in the way of change, and Mongolians wait to slaughter an animal until after two years old—sometimes long after. It makes for meat that “you know you’re going to chew the dickens out of without tearing it apart,” says Dr. Gaines with a laugh. This is a mere taste preference, but one that Mongolians share with few.

Mongolia’s underdeveloped landscape presents another challenge. With only about 930 miles of paved road, veterinarians struggle for access to supplies, while herders find difficulty getting animals to the markets and slaughterhouses.

Solutions are on the horizon. In 2008, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. governmental organization, entered a five-year compact with Mongolia to improve vocational training, access to market via roads, the environment, and create a land registration program. The World Bank has an assistance strategy that focuses on improving the public sector and market efficiency.

Rapidly developing Ulaanbaatar paves the way to better opportunities for education and professional training, allowing veterinarians to improve their practices. As Mongolia continues to ease its way—culturally, politically, economically—out of the loss of support from the failed Soviet system, the cattle industry increases its chances for success. Marketing one’s business, building barns as shelter, slaughtering an animal while the meat is still tender, or cultivating a piece of private property are all foreign concepts. But Mongolians do listen.