A yurt stands solitary, its presence signaling human habitation on an otherwise untouched plain. The home, called a ger in Mongolia, is surrounded by open rangeland in every direction, the panorama stretching for hundreds of acres until grassland greets the base of the Khangai Mountains. Cattle, yak, sheep, goats, and horses, often totaling 500 or more per family, graze the steppe, painting a tranquil picture of nomadic life in this fabled country with centuries of stories to tell — stories that began long before the rule of Genghis Khan in the 13th century.
David Notter and Shayan Ghajar are familiar with the country’s history, but now, after spending time in Mongolia they are more intimately acquainted with its rangelands and nomadic inhabitants. The Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty members and Virginia Cooperative Extension experts are also well-versed in animal husbandry and the grazing needs of livestock, which is why they were nominated by the college’s Global Programs Office to visit Mongolia for the Farmer-to-Farmer Program.
Notter, professor emeritus in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences, has made important global contributions to animal genetics through his work with organizations including the United Nations and World Bank.
“Herding families are losing ground,” said Notter, explaining that in recent years Mongolian rangelands, which comprise three-quarters of the country, are especially vulnerable. The country’s nomadic way of life is threatened by a fluctuating economic landscape coupled with climatic and environmental change.
For millennia, Mongolia’s pastoral herders grazed their livestock on lush grasslands. Today, due to ongoing drought, harsh winters, and chronic overgrazing, the once verdant steppes are disappearing. At the same time, the sheer number of number of livestock has doubled over the last decade, reaching an estimated 85 million in 2016. Consequently, herders are moving longer distances, and with greater frequency to secure sufficient grazing for their livestock.
The good news is that an increasing number of organizations, including Virginia Tech, are committed to preserving herding traditions and to safeguarding one of the world’s last remaining nomadic cultures.
“International service provides an opportunity to engage in different cultural contexts and to practice incorporating local knowledge when working to address complex problems,” said Ben Grove, assistant director for strategic partnerships and engagement for the college’s Global Programs Office and Virginia Cooperative Extension.
The Farmer-to-Farmer program, sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development, was established to provide technical assistance from U.S. volunteers to farmers, farm groups, and other agricultural institutions in developing and transitional countries. The goal of the Mongolia project, administered through Development Solutions International, a northern Virginia-based nonprofit organization dedicated to working with people in Mongolia, is to improve the productivity and profitability of herders through targeted technical assistance and training by volunteers from Virginia Cooperative Extension, the College, and other partnering organizations in the U.S. and Mongolia.
Shayan Ghajar is a first-year doctoral student in the Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences specializing in grazing and ecological stewardship of grasslands and livestock production. The former Virginia Cooperative Extension program coordinator worked for two years as an equine extension program associate at the Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension Center, located in Middleburg, Virginia. Ghajar, who earned his master’s at Colorado State University, studied under advisor Maria Fernández-Giménez, an authority on Mongolian grasslands and community-based natural resource management.
During his two-week visit, Ghajar was asked to offer solutions to overgrazing in central Mongolia’s Övörkhangai province – a geographically diverse region with mountains in the north, classic grasslands in the center, and desert in the south.
“The country has an ancient system of user rights,” said Ghajar. “Everyone knows their grazing lines. Defined boundaries are implicit and are based on a nomadic lifestyle. This approach is pragmatic and sensible given the environment.”
However, the difficulty according to Notter and Ghajar, is controlling how land is used. Nomadism means you cannot predict where people will be in the event of a drought or other catastrophe. During a drought, herders must gain permission to move their herds.
“They send people from their communities to a new area to request permission. Generally the request is granted,” he said. “There is an established system of reciprocity.”