Climate change, feed prices decimating Mongolian herds

Climate change and the increased frequency of zuds is destroying Mongolian pastures and the country's underdeveloped compound feed industry is unable to support its livestock industry.


The breeding of cattle, small ruminants, horses and camels in Mongolia is not just business, it’s also a way of life for thousands of families across the country. In fact, almost 40 percent of all Mongolian citizens are engaged in the livestock industry, which constitutes about 18 percent of the country’s GDP.

Unlike its neighbors, Mongolian producers have not gone through a consolidation trend, and private farmers account for 97 percent of all animal breeding.

Mongolian Farmers Manages Herd 1607 Mongolia1

Mongolia relies on grazing for feeding, because most agricultural animals in the country are cattle and small ruminants. | Batyur Avaasakursen, local farmer

Mongolia has almost fully relied on grazing to sustain its livestock industry. The country produces about 1.2 million metric tons of hay annually and only 140,000 metric tons of compound feed at the 39 mills across the country, according to Ministry of Agriculture and Light Industry statistical data.

With the overall livestock population of 56 million head, this makes only about 0.7 kg of compound feed per animal per year.

However, the situation is about to change. Mongolians may soon have no choice but to invest in increased compound feed production due to reductions in the size of its pastures.

Climate conditions take their toll

The loss of pasture is primarily connected with climate changes and natural phenomenon locals called zud (or dzud). Zuds are unique to the country and take place after strong summer droughts with heavy snowfalls from November to April when temperatures can get below -40C.

For centuries, zuds took place only once in a decade and the local livestock industry was well adapted to these conditions. However, since mid-2000s, this phenomenon started to take place every two to three years, allowing neither nature nor farmers enough time to recover.

Mongolian Farmers Stock Hay 1607 Mongolia2

Farmers stock hay to survive the winter months. Thirty percent of feeding needs are provided with hay and compound feed production. | Ministry of Agriculture and Light Industry.

This trend has led to the deterioration of 70 percent of pastures across the country. Nobody really knows why the frequency of the zuds increased, but many believe the country should be ready if these conditions continue into the future.

Farms are slowly dying with their pastures  

According to Batyur Avaasakursen, a local farmer, one of the main problems of the Mongolian feed industry is that farmers cannot predict zud winters, so they are unprepared almost each time they take place.

“With no sufficient hay resources, animals are simply dying from starvation during winter,” Avaasakursen explains. “In the winter months it is impossible to purchase feed as, even if you find some available batches at the market, the price would be five times higher than in summer months, so after purchasing it I will die from starvation myself.”

According to Avaasakursen, heavy winter frosts have caused the bankruptcies of several dozen farmers in central Mongolia with perishing of up to 60,000 heads of cattle — including the farms of his neighbors who lost their entire herd. Most of the bankrupt farmers are moving to the country’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, for a better life, but some farmers simply cannot live with that, as there were several generations of their ancestries who were running the farm they lost. 

Abandoned Mongolian Goats Starve 1607 Mongolia4

The most recent zud claimed 60,000 animals in central Mongolia. | Ministry of Agriculture and Light Industry

According to Enkh-Ireedui Shoovdor, secretary of Commission Environment and Food, last season was especially tough, as initial forecasts said that losses of hay could reach 50 to 60 percent. The final figures amounted to 35 percent of the total crop, but even so, the livestock industry was severely damaged.

Shoovdor indicated the need to apply for some measures to constrain the rise in prices for compound feed and hay, while some other market participants note that farmers simply cannot afford to purchase feed.

Mongolian Livestock Market 1607 Mongolia3

Marketplace for purchasing of agricultural animals not far from Ulaanbator. Prices for livestock and meat in the country are lowest in decades. | Ministry of Agriculture and Light Industry.

“Livestock prices are lower than they have been for the past five years, which means that people will not be able to buy food and fuel,” stated Dr. Davaajargal Baasansuren, health promotion program officer at the Mongolian Red Cross. “They will also not be able to afford feed for their animals and won’t be able to save them without help.”

Export potential drives government intervention

According to the World Bank, most Mongolian feed mills are located in the central region close to the majority of raw feed resources; however, there are also mills in the eastern region, the Khangai and the west. Local company Altan Taria owns the main commercial feed mill in Ulaanbaatar, where it produces chicken feed, swine feeds and beef/dairy supplements.

The situation has changed slightly with the Livestock Fodder Program that the country applied to between 2007 and 2015. It involved state subsidization of up to 50 percent of feed equipment purchases in plants and to aid farmers who planned to establish their own production lines. The program provided that, given the effects of the zud, 70 percent of feeding should be met from natural pastures while the rest should be supplied through hay, green fodder and compound feed.

According to country’s Agricultural Minister Randaa Burma, Mongolia may really benefit from increase of export supplies of beef to Russia and China in coming years, establishing export supplies of up to 100,000 tons of meat per year.

At the same time, market participants note that the need to boost compound feed production is obvious.

The "estimation is that we can establish [meat] export supplies abroad of the total value of US$300 million,” Avaasakursen says. “However, for small farms which almost fully apply for pasture feeding, it is hard to obtain permission [from] foreign veterinary bodies for establishment of some supplies, as in this case demands are stricter. We should become more sustainable on feed if we would like to succeed in international trade.”

Compound feed production crucial

The Agricultural Ministry representatives expressed the same opinion, indicating that the development of a compound feed industry should be included as an amendment for the Livestock Development Program for the 2015-21 period. But still the ability to increase the volume of feed production is very limited because the country produces only 350,000 tons of cereals annually.

Mongolian Grain Stocks 1607 Mongolia5

Mongolia lacks the ability to increase grain resources. | Ministry of Agriculture and Light Industry

“We really consider some measures for support of feed producers in terms of expansion of their production capacities, but this is not a panacea for resolving all issues, since compound feed in the short term cannot replace hay, due to the lack of raw materials,” said Enkhjargal Jurcheraasten, spokesperson for the country’s Agricultural Ministry. “In terms of cereals supply, we are also very limited in ability to increase it, since zuds also negatively affect harvests and lead to desertization of previously sowing areas.”

The zud of the 2015-16 season already forced Mongolian government to apply for international aid for the first time in six years, while local farmers have to apply for purchasing of feed abroad.

In May 2016, Siberia-based firm JSC Soyuz conducted the first Russian deliveries. It is expected Mongolia can import up to 2,000 tons of compound feed from Russia this season. In addition, the country may import some amount of compound feed from Kazakhstan and China, but the issue of price still remains crucial. 

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