Livestock Production

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LIVESTOCK PRODUCTION. Domesticated livestock have played a pivotal role in the development of human civilizations around the world and continues to be an integral part of human culture, society, and the local and global economy. Domestic livestock has contributed to the rise of human societies and civilizations by increasing the amount of food and nutrition available to people in four ways: by providing sources of meat, milk, and fertilizer, and by pulling plows. Throughout history livestock have also provided leather, wool, other raw materials, and transport.

Livestock furnish high quality protein and energy foods, and function as part of integrated, renewable systems of plant and animal agriculture. The digestive systems of ruminant animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, llamas, and camels are specially adapted to convert plant materials that humans cannot utilize into proteins of high biological availability to humans.

Livestock and the Origins of Civilization

In his Pulitzer-prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond describes how the availability and husbandry of domesticated plants and animals enabled prehistoric peoples to produce and store sufficient food supplies to develop large, dense societies that did not have to wander in search of food. Agriculture generated the ample, dependable food supply needed to develop specialized, stratified societies, political organization, writing, and technology. Diamond argues that through close coexistence with domestic animals, people in these societies acquired some immunity to epidemic diseases that devastated other populations. His examples include the Spanish conquest of the Inca and other Native American populations, and the near extermination of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia and other regions by British and other European settlers.

Many questions remain about the origins of agriculture, but in most regions archaeologists have found evidence that domestication of plants preceded that of animals by several hundred years. Yet the herding of sheep and goats had become integral to the local economy in areas of the central Levant between eight and nine thousand years ago.

The pastoral societies of Central Asia and reindeerherding Lapps and Samoyeds of the Arctic are examples of cultures that domesticated livestock, but engaged in little or no cultivation of plants. Augustin Holl, a specialist on western Africa and the advent of food economies, believes pastoralismherding of animals for food without cultivating plantswas the first form of food production developed by post-Paleolithic groups in regions of the Sahara. Cattle may have been domesticated around ten thousand years ago in Northern Africa.

Evolution of Domestic Livestock through Animal Husbandry

The ancient Romans developed sophisticated agricultural systems that integrated livestock and crop production, with particular attention to use of animal manures and composts. They developed the art of animal husbandry and selectively bred well-determined breeds of livestock. Their capacity for food production enabled the building of the Roman Empire. Cattle were a significant source of wealth and prestige to the early Romans and to early Germanic peoples. Pecunia, the Latin word for money, comes from pecus, the word for cattle. The English word "fief" derives from the Old High German word for cattle, fehu, denoting the value of cattle for medieval noblemen. Life in the Middle Ages revolved around farming, as the majority of people lived off the land. When hunting became a privilege reserved for the nobility in medieval Europe, livestock became even more important as food sources. But compared to Roman practices, animal husbandry suffered decline during the fifth through the thirteenth centuries. Animals became smaller and less productive with the loss of Roman breeds and selective breeding techniques. Still, the lasting effects of Roman breeding kept medieval stock in the areas of the former Roman Empire superior to those in neighboring regions.

Bökönyi suggests deteriorating climate and crop conditions, changing lifestyles, and devastation of cattle populations by frequent wars as likely causes for the widespread dwarfing of livestock, most pronounced in cattle, which lost 20 centimeters in height at the withers. Beef was the primary meat consumed by the armies of Europethe origin of the name Beefeaters for the king's guard. Soldiers drove off any cattle they did not eat.

Bökönyi notes that cattle typical of the early medieval erasmall, slender, long-legged, and short-hornedare still found in areas of the Balkans, Anatolia, and the Near and Middle East where animal husbandry largely remains at a medieval level. Early medieval pigs were small, long-legged, and primitive, with skulls similar to the wild boar, with which they could interbreed since domestic pigs roamed freely, foraging in the forests. This approach to pig husbandry continued for centuries, and was common practice in colonial North America. Early medieval horses were more variable, with descendants of Roman horses mixed with large numbers of horses from the East. Horses were similar to modern Asian horses, with slender legs and light trunks. The first coldblood (heavy) horses were selectively bred in Central Europe to carry the weight of a knight in heavy armor.

The Renaissance of Animal Husbandry

The demographic expansion and rise of urban centers in the Middle Ages could not have happened without an increasingly productive agricultural base, Sweeney argues in his introduction to Agriculture in the Middle Ages. The Renaissance in Europe brought the reintroduction of intentional, conscious animal husbandry and breeding, based on classical sources. Farmers and scholars also began to rediscover the value of manurewell documented and practiced by the classical Romansin fertilizing and rebuilding soils.

Livestock animals grew in size, and increased in productivity, efficiency, and quality. From the fourteenth century to the early modern era (later in Eastern Europe) cattle regained the twenty centimeters in height lost in the early Middle Ages. New breeds of lasting economic consequence were developed, and growth in trade, migration, and exploration brought new domestic species and breeds to various regions around the world. Improved breeds of sheep and cattle yielded higher quality wool and more milk. The excellent meat and stamina for long drives of Hungarian gray steppe cattle, the standard breed in Hungary and neighboring territories by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, gained the breed quick popularity through Central and Western Europe, Bökönyi reports.

Livestock and the Agricultural Revolution 17501880

The growth of animal husbandryincluding greater use of manure from livestock as fertilizer, was the first of four factors contributing to the Agricultural Revolution that ended the cycles of dearth and hunger that had afflicted Europe for centuries (Chambers and Mingay, The Agricultural Revolution, p. 4). The Renaissance openness to scientific discoveries, new crops, improved animals, and the resulting productivity gains in agriculture, set the stage for the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions and the rise of the great cities.

The spread of Merino sheep from Spain is an example. Before the end of the 1700s, Merinos were found throughout the sheep-breeding centers of Western and Central Europe. The first Merinos were brought to New England in 1811. Within two decades the Merino and related Saxony imports, prized for their long-fiber wool, dominated the rising New England woolen industry. Howard S. Russell describes how skilled breeders increased fleeces from only 6 percent of a sheep's live weight in 1812, to 21 percent by 1865 (A Long Deep Furrow, p. 352). Prize breeding stock from Vermont sold for prices in the thousands of dollars. Russell describes how the kinds and populations of domestic animals changed over time in response to market, economic, technological, and social trends and needs in a specific geographical region.

New fodder cropslegumes such as clover, and root vegetables such as turnipsgreatly increased the supply and nutritive value of livestock feed. Improved feeding and selective breeding accelerated gains in meat, milk, and wool production. As late as the early 1700s, cattle and sheepeven castrated steers and wetherstook four to five years to fatten, or put meat on their bones. Improved feeding and breeding cut fattening time in half, and by 1800 progressive farmers recognized the value of quality breeding in livestock.

Progress in knowledge and husbandry skills led to specialization in livestock types and breeds, crops, and products. In the 1720s Daniel Defoe described in his Tour of England and Wales how farmers in different locales specialized in particular crops such as cereal grains, fruit or hops, on fattening livestock, or dairying. He reported on how the cow-herders of the village of Cheddar cooperated in making their already famous Cheddar cheese.

By 1800 agriculture had become specialized in areas of the United States. Southern New England and eastern New York were already dedicated to dairying, and Connecticut was a center of butter and cheese production and export. Progressive farmers and their associations began importing prize breeding stock from Europe in the early 1800s. Feeding and shelter for livestock improved, especially for milk cows.

Livestock in the Modern Era

Trends established by the late 1880s continue into the twenty-first century. Lower-priced imports of grain, dairy products, and meat kept prices low, even in times of crop failure, as in 1870s Britain. Yet escalating demand for meat, cheese, and other dairy products encouraged investment and expansion in livestock enterprises. Progress in the art and science of breeding, feeding, health, and care of livestock continues to bring gains in livestock productivity and efficiency. Transportation improvements allow the raising of food-producing animals at greater distances from population centers. Sheep, cattle, and hog numbers have fluctuated in response to market demand changes and regional comparative advantages.

Government Protection of Animal and Human Health

To combat severe outbreaks of sheep-rot and of cattle plague (rinderpest) brought by infected cattle imported from Europe in the 1860s and 1870s, the British government restricted the movement of animals and compensated owners for animals slaughtered to control the spread of the diseases, programs first tried in the mid 1700s. In the first half of the 1900s the United States intervened to eradicate livestock diseases such as hog cholera, tuberculosis, and brucellosis in cattle that were transmissible to humans. These tactics remain mainstays of animal disease control efforts.

Commercial pasteurization, introduced in 1895, greatly increased the safety of milk. Improvements in refrigeration and containers further enhanced milk's safety and shelf-life. The serial publication in 1905 of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel about the meat-packing industry, helped lead to government regulation of the food industry. The U.S. Congress passed both the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906, the beginning of federal food safety inspection and regulatory programs.

Modern Agricultural Trends and the Environment

In response to market demands for lower-cost production, livestock agriculture continues the trend to fewer and larger operations. The U.S. poultry industry became highly intensive and vertically integrated in the last quarter of the twentieth century, with a handful of companies dominating the industry and contracting with growers to raise flocks owned by the companies. The swine industry is experiencing similar restructuring and vertical integration. Intensification and specialization has separated crop production from livestock-raising in many regions, resulting in heightened concerns about environmental impacts, primarily related to manure runoff into water bodies in some areas of Europe and North America. Soil fertility, health, and structure have deteriorated in some crop-intensive areas from lack of livestock manure.

The United States and Europe have increased technical assistance and environmental regulation of livestock operations in response to these concerns. The Clean Water Act legislation of 1972 and 1977 set higher standards of water quality. Less-developed countries have not evolved regulatory or technical assistance programs to address livestock-related pollution.

Sustainable agriculture advocates have sought ways to reintegrate and balance animals and crops to promote soil health and protect natural resources, and have promoted the environmental benefits of practices such as intensively managed grazing. Some dairy, beef, sheep, and other livestock producers have adopted these scientific grazing systems in major livestock-producing regions including North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Government farm programs and subsidies have been increasingly linked to plans and practices to protect soil, water, and wetlands.

Global Livestock Expansion and Trade

World meat production including poultry totaled 236,991,142 metric tons in 2001, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The United States produced 16 percent of the world supply, and the European Union produced 15 percent, while the nations of the Far East produced 35 percent. World milk production in 2001 was 584,651,111 metric tons. The European Union produced over one-fifth, and the United States produced one-eighth of the world milk supply.

China is one of the world's top producers of hogs, beef, poultry, corn, and soybeans. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's February 2002 Agricultural Baseline Projections projected strong growth for the next decade in world beef production, especially in China, Mexico, Canada, and the countries of the former Soviet Union. Brazil, Mexico, China, and Canada are expected to expand pork production. In 2001 Russia was the world's top volume importer of poultry meat, second-highest of pork, and third-highest importer of beef. But Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan have the resource potential to develop into agricultural powerhouses once they establish market economies.

Australia's small population offers a limited market, but its low-cost production capacity limited only by water gives it a competitive advantage in export markets. Australia's herds and flocks fluctuate dramatically in response to world markets.

Brazil and Argentina are major livestock and feed producers. Argentina's exports were temporarily set back by a foot and mouth disease outbreak in 2001. Brazil is expanding livestock production capacity and adopting new technology to increase yields.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran import grain to support expanding livestock production. Most Moslem countries prefer meat from home-grown livestock to ensure animals are slaughtered in accordance with Islamic rites.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects global trade in livestock products will continue to expand, based on ample global supplies and steady growth in demand. Livestock production is expanding globally to meet demand for meat and dairy products in the growing economies of Asia and Latin America. Livestock development will continue to be a part of economic progress in the developing world.

See also Cattle; Goat; Mammals; Meat; Pig; Sheep.


Chambers, J. D., and George E. Mingay. The Agricultural Revolution 17501880. New York: Schocken Books, 1966.

Dal Maso, Cinzia. "Stonehenge in the Desert," Galileo, April 18, 1998. Found at 980418/2_art.html.

Defoe, Daniel. A Tour through England and Wales. London: Everyman's Library, 1928.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York and London: Norton, 1997.

Gebauer, Anne Birgitte, and T. Douglas Price., eds. Transitions to Agriculture in Prehistory. Madison, Wis.: Prehistory Press, 1992.

Holl, Augustin. "The Dawn of African Pastoralisms," Special Issue Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 17, no. 2 (1998).

Kunzig, Robert. "Exit from Eden," Discover 21, no. 1 (January 2000): 84-96.

Russell, Howard S. A Long, Deep Furrow: Three Centuries of Farming in New England. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1976.

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Lorraine Stuart Merrill

Definition of Domesticated Animals

Domesticated animals have been modified from their wild ancestors through being kept and selectively bred for use by humans who control the animals' breeding and feeding.

Just five major species of large, plant-eating mammals have been widely domesticated by people for use around the world: sheep, goat, cattle, pig, and horse. Another nine minor species have been domesticated for use in smaller numbers or in restricted geographical areas. These minor species include the Arabian and Bactrian camels, llama, alpaca, donkey, reindeer, water buffalo, yak, Bali cattle of Southeast Asia, and mithan (another bovine descended from the wild gaur) of India and Burma. Under domestication cows, sheep, and pigs have become smaller in size than their wild ancestors. Sheep and alpacas have been selectively bred for fleece characteristics, while cows have been bred to increase milk production. Pigs, cattle, and some sheep have been bred for meat quantity and characteristics. Horses have been bred for specialized purposes including work, war, speed, and riding. Breeds or strains of all the major species have been developed and adapted for specific climatic, physical, and cultural conditions and needs.

Did an Early Symbiosis of Cows and People Lead to the Civilization of Ancient Egypt?

Anthropologists Angela Close and Fred Wendorf (in Transitions to Agriculture in Prehistory ) have uncovered a storyof humans and cattle surviving together where neither could likely have survived alone, in the harsh conditions of early Holocene Southeastern Saharathat illustrates mutually beneficial relationships between humans and cattle. The cattle needed people to find and dig water sources in a region with no standing water. The humans could not have survived without the protein provided by the cattle. Archaeological evidence suggests the cattle were not kept for meat. The authors point out that wild or tame, animals do not have to cooperate with their slaughter for meat, but animals must cooperate for humans to collect animal milk or blood.

People and cattle were able to migrate together to a new area with more resources. Close and University of Rome anthropologist Barbara Barich maintain, as outlined in the January 2000 issue of Discover, that these Neolithic Saharans fleeing the desert brought the rudiments of agriculture and of organized, hierarchical society to the Nile Valley, giving rise to one of the earliest great world civilizations. This theory challenges old assumptions about the source of Ancient Egyptian culture and development, and has sparked considerable discussion among scholars in the field.

Twentieth Century Brings Bonanza in Productivity Gains

The twentieth century brought stunning productivity gains, perhaps best illustrated by dairy farming. In 1905 New England was a center of dairy farming, with nearly one million dairy cows on farms throughout the six-state region (Russell, p. 496). In that era, cows produced an average 5,354 pounds of milk in a year. By 2001, the New England milk cow population had declined to 265,800 cows, just 3.1 percent of total U.S. dairy herd. But at over 17,500 pounds of milk per cow per year, the modern cows averaged more than three times the production of their ancestors a century earlier. In the 10 years from 1992 to 2001, milk per cow increased 16 percent in the U.S., while cow numbers declined 6 percent, resulting in a ten-percent increase in total milk production. Over this same ten-year period, the number of dairy farms in the United States decreased by 43 percent, from over 170,000 to fewer than 100,000 dairy farms. (See USDA graphics)

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