are commonly bred as livestock.
Sheep are commonly bred as livestock.

Livestock refers to domesticated animals, that may be kept or raised in pens, houses, pastures, or on farms as part of an agricultural or farming operation, whether for commerce or private use.

The process of breeding, raising and caring for livestock is known as animal husbandry and is an important component of modern agriculture. The raising of livestock can be traced to the beginnings of human civilisation, when instead of hunting wild animals, humans began to capture animals for breeding.

Throughout history, livestock have been considered to be a form of wealth. Livestock are mentioned in many parts of the Bible and were used as forms of trade and given as gifts 1. In many cultures, livestock have historically been offered as animal sacrifices to atone for sin and appease the gods.

Many forms of livestock are herbivorous mammals. Various types of livestock are reared depending on the local conditions: climate, consumer demand, land type, native animals, and tradition all influence the predominant type of livestock in any given area. Given that there are over a hundred large land-based mammals it may be surprising that so few types are domesticated in some countries. The reason for this relative paucity is that a lot of mammals do not meet the basic prerequisites necessary for domestication, such as having a readily available food source that can be controlled or supplied by humans, a rapid rate of reproduction, a moderate temperament2, and a social structure that meshes well with human intervention. However, some farmers overcome all of those difficulties if the animal produces something that is demanded by consumers. Such products can include pizzles (animal penises) and deer horn, used in eastern medicine.

In developed countries the question of the welfare of livestock animals has resulted in animal welfare laws which specify the minimum conditions of care, housing, and transportation. The animal rights lobby argue that these are inadequate and seek tighter controls, and in extreme cases seeks the banning of the ownership of animals and the making the consumption of meat, dairy and other animal products illegal. Some farmers have developed management techniques that they believe are more enlightened and progressive and that they feel address most of the concerns of lobbyists.



Missing image
The maze of livestock pens and walkways at Chicago's stockyards, ca. 1947.

Various types of livestock have been vital to agriculture throughout the world since the beginning of human civilisation. Some forms of livestock, such as goats and sheep, can be raised in areas inhospitable to cereal crops, allowing larger concentrations of people to live there.

In other areas, livestock could be used to supplement unreliable or uneconomical cereal crops. Raising livestock is less dependent on good weather and is less labour intensive than most forms of plant agriculture. Animals could graze on pasture unfit for human consumption.

For example, in Italy and Spain during the middle ages and early modern period, sheep were extremely important for the economy. The often dry weather and increasing numbers of crop failures during the 16th century encouraged landlords and other investors to switch from grain production to livestock-raising. Massive sheep migrations were regulated by the governments, and formed a large portion of the tax base for the Kingdom of Spain. Wool from these sheep formed the basis for the economy in Spain and was vitally important in Italy. The government established vast networks of sheep walks with sufficient pasture lands, in order to facilitate the winter migrations of herds of millions of sheep and thousands of shepherds. Government officials also regulated the rotation of shepherds on pasture to smooth their movement. These governments would then levy duties on the products, such as wool, cheese, hides, and meat, produced from sheep moved along the road. Sheep manure was also used as a fertiliser to augment grain harvests.

In other areas, including most of northern Europe, livestock was usually held in smaller numbers. In these areas, higher levels of rainfall allowed for larger animals such as cows to be raised. Many cultures had provisions for common grazing land.


Historically, livestock has provided the following benefits to humanity:

In many agricultural societies, livestock replaced wild game as the primary source of animal protein. Livestock frequently eat forage and other food sources that humans are unable (or prefer not) to eat and convert them to types of food that humans can eat.
Dairy products 
Mammalian livestock can be used as a source of milk, which can in turn easily be processed into other dairy products such as yogurt, cheese, butter, ice cream, kefir, and kumiss. In advanced dairying countries the number of products made from milk range in the 20 to 30 types. Using livestock for this purpose can often yield several times the food energy of slaughtering the animal outright.
Honey and wax 
Bees collect pollen and honey from plants and process them into products that are useful to human survival. Honey is a food and a medicinal product (for external application and internal use), beeswax is still used for expensive candles.
Raw materials 
A variety of useful materials are produced by livestock. Some animals, such as sheep, grow thick coats that can be shorn and used in textiles. Animals, such as cows, deer and sheep have a tough skin which can be made into leather. The bones, hoofs and horns of livestock have also been employed in a variety of industrial, cultural and decorative uses. Most animal offal and non-edible parts are transformed into products such as stock-feed and fertilizer (see scrapie and prion). Larvae make silk that is woven into fabric.
Livestock leave behind manure, which, after being spread on a field, can increase crop yields many times. This is an important reason why historically, plant and animal domestication have been intimately linked. Parts of animals that have been slaughered, or animals that die on farms, are rendered into a variety of products, the main one being blood and bone.
Livestock often serves as an important source of mechanical energy. Before the advent of steam power, livestock was often the only source of non-human labour available. Livestock can be used to pull ploughs and other agricultural equipment (again increasing farm yields), transport goods across large distances and to serve important military functions. Draft animals are often bred for desirable qualities such as endurance, strength and, in military usage, aggression.
Land Management 
The grazing of livestock is sometimes used as a way to control weeds and undergrowth on an area of land. For example goats and sheep are used to eat dry scrub in areas prone to wild fires in order to remove combustible material and reduce fire risk.

Types of livestock

There is no universally accepted definition of livestock. In many jurisdictions, the legal definition is any animal that has value to a farmer or other person. Such animals may include goats, sheep, beef or dairy cattle, horses, dogs, hogs or pigs, donkeys or mules, bees, poultry, rabbits or 'exotic' animals (those raised outside their indigenous environs) such as camels, llamas, emus, ostriches, or any animal, including reptiles, kept in an inventory that may be used for food, fiber or pleasure. The U.S. state of Nevada is an example of a jurisdiction where the legal definition of livestock is limited to the traditional categories of cattle, horses, sheep and pigs and "exotic livestock" is limited to deer and elk. In a broad sense, the term may also include cats, members of the weasel family or even butterflies [1] ( While honey bees or bee keeping have not been classically thought of as livestock, their importance to the agricultural community in the United States was recognized by being included in the definition of livestock for crop insurance purposes in H.R. 2559, the "Risk Management for the 21st Century Act", which was passed in 2000 [2] ( [3] ([4] ( [5] ([6] ( [7] (

Generally, aquaculture (the raising of fish, mollusks, shrimp or other water-borne invertebrates) is not included within the term livestock.

NOTE: The information below deals with the use of certain animals in the specific area of livestock. For more general information on these animals, such as their biology, evolution, habitat, etc, please see their corresponding main articles.

Animal / Type Wild ancestor Domesticated Area first domesticated Current range Uses
Mammal, herbivore
Guanaco   Andes Andes, North America wool
Mammal, herbivore
Wild buffalo Late 19th Century North America North America, Australia meat, leather, dairy
Mammal, herbivore
Wild Dromedary and Bactrian camels Between 4000 BC and 1400 BC Asia Africa, Asia, Australia Labour, dairy
Mammal, herbivore
Auroch (extinct) 6000 BC Southwest Asia, India, North Africa (?) Worldwide Meat (beef, veal, blood), dairy, leather, labour
Mammal, herbivore
Wild deer 1970 North America North America, Australia, New Zealand antler velvet, antlers, meat (venison), leather
Mammal, carnivore
Wolf 12000 BC Worldwide Labour, meat
Mammal, herbivore
Wild ass 4000 BC Egypt Worldwide Labour, meat, dairy
Mammal, herbivore
Bezoar goat 8000 BC Southwest Asia Worldwide Dairy, meat, wool
Guinea pig
Mammal, herbivore
Cavia tschudii 5000 BC South America Worldwide Meat
Mammal, herbivore
Wild horses of Southern Russia (extinct) 4000 BC Ukraine Worldwide Labour, military, meat, dairy
Mammal, herbivore
Guanaco 3500 BC Andes Andes, North America Labour, meat, wool
Mammal, herbivore
Sterile hybrid of donkey and horse     Worldwide Labour
Mammal, omnivore
Wild boar 8000 BC Southwest Asia, China Worldwide Meat (pork) and bacon, leather
Mammal, herbivore
Wild rabbit between AD 400-900 France Worldwide Meat, wool
Mammal, herbivore
Wild reindeer 3000 BC Russia Arctic Meat, leather, antlers, dairy, labour
Mammal, herbivore
Asiatic mouflon sheep 8000 BC Southwest Asia Worldwide Wool, dairy, meat (mutton and lamb)
Water Buffalo
Mammal, herbivore
Wild water buffalo 4000 BC China (Tibetan Plateau) Asia, South America Labour, meat, dairy
Mammal, herbivore
Wild yak   Tibet Tibetan plateau Meat, dairy, wool, labour

Farming practices

At the most basic level some kinds of animals are kept in enclosures of some sort, are fed by some means (given access to natural or human-provided sources of food), are usually bred (preferred breeding times, methods, and suchlike all depend on local conditions and tradition) and are either slaughtered for meat and animal by-products, or are milked or shorn for animal fibre.

Livestock may be kept in confinement in very small areas (cages or pens), as with poultry, rabbits or veal cattle, in sheds or barns, in fenced pastures or on large open ranges where they are only occasionally collected in "round-ups" or "musters". Herding dogs such as sheep dogs and cattle dogs may be used for mustering as are cowboys, musterers and jackaroos on horseback or in helicopters. Since the advent of barbed wire (in the 1870s) and electric fencing technology, fencing pastures has become much more feasible and pasture management simplified. In some cases very large numbers of animals may be kept in indoor or outdoor feeding operations (on feedlots), where the animals' feed is processed, offsite or onsite, and stored onsite then fed to the animals. Because of their size, the quantity of waste involved, fly and odour problems, potential for groundwater contamination, animal welfare and other factors these feedlots are highly regulated and are controversial in some areas.

See: factory farming, feedlot, hog lot

Livestock may be branded, marked, or tagged to denote ownership or for inventory, breeding, health management, product identification and tracing, or other purposes.

Modern farming techniques mainly focus on the automation of the various tasks involved and human intervention to increase yield and improve animal health. Successive improvements of traditional techniques have mostly focused on these same goals. Economics, quality and consumer safety all play a role in how animals are raised. Drug use and feed supplements (or even feed type) may be regulated, or prohibited, to ensure yield is not increased at the expense of consumer health, safety or animal welfare. Practices vary around the world, for example growth hormone use is permitted in the United States but not in the European Union or in countries selling meat/produce in the EU such as Australia and New Zealand.


Livestock constitute a major source of epidemic diseases in humans; these diseases have had a significant impact on history. When an agricultural society, that raises livestock, comes in contact with a non-agricultural society their diseases often spread to the latter (who lack any resistance), which can have devastating consequences.

The following table lists diseases which originally infected livestock and can now infect humans:

Disease Source animal
Smallpox Cattle
Tuberculosis Cattle
Measles Cattle
Influenza Pigs, ducks
Pertussis Pigs, dogs

Other diseases can be transmitted from animals. Mad cow disease is transmitted between cattle which are fed food containing cattle brains and spines. It is postulated that the disease vector causing mad cow disease can also be transmitted to humans who eat infected cattle, causing the fatal disease known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). Though this connection has not been conclusively proven, over 95% of identified cases of vCJD are in Britain, which suffered a mad cow disease epidemic in the mid to late 1980s. Mad cow disease has led to a ban on using cattle by-products in cattle feed.

Other diseases may be transmitted from livestock to humans include bird flu and some may originate from the bacteria E. coli O157:H7. Also, anthrax was called the woolsorter's disease because the skin form of the disease could be contracted from handling raw wool. Anthrax may be contracted from cattle, sheep, goats, camels and antelopes as well as directly from infected soil.

The use of antibiotics in animals that end up in the human food chain is controversial. The issue of antibiotic resistance has limited the practices of preventative dosing such as antibiotic-laced feed.

Livestock are also subject to other diseases. Veterinary certificates are often required before transporting, selling or showing animals. Disease-free areas are often rigorously enforced. Foot and mouth disease (FMD) led to a massive government sheep and cattle kill in the north of England in 2001. Six million animals were killed to stop an outbreak with 2000 confirmed cases. Bison which wander out of Yellowstone National Park are routinely shot to prevent the possible spread of brucellosis to Montana cattle.

Livestock transportation and marketing

Since many livestock are herd animals, they were historically driven to market "on the hoof" to a town or other central location. During the period after the American Civil War, the abundance of Longhorn cattle in Texas and the demand for beef in Northern markets led to the popularity of the Old West cattle drive. This method is still used in some parts of the world. Truck transport is now common in developed countries. Local and regional livestock auctions and commodity markets facilitate trade in livestock. In other areas livestock may be bought and sold in a bazaar, such as may be found in many parts of Central Asia, or a flea market type setting such as the First Monday Trade Days in Canton, Texas.

Stock shows and fairs

Stock shows and fairs are events where people bring their best livestock to compete with one another. Organizations like 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) encourage young people to raise livestock for show purposes. Special feeds are purchased and hours may be spent prior to the show grooming the animal to look its best. In cattle, sheep, and swine shows, the winning animals are frequently auctioned off to the highest bidder and the funds placed into a scholarship fund for its owner. The movie Grand Champion, released in 2004, is the story of a young Texas boy's experience raising a prize steer.

Animal welfare and rights

The intensive rearing of livestock has led to practices that some people consider repugnant and unethical. This has resulted in laws that specify minimum welfare levels and in political campaigns by those who wish to see them extended. Animal welfare groups campaign for tighter laws and more enforcement. Animal rights groups may go even further and seek the end to all exploitation of livestock.

Animal husbandry practices that have led to legislation in some countries and that may be the subject of current campaigns

  • Confinement of livestock in small and unnatural spaces:
For economic reasons animals may be kept in the minimum size of cage or pen with no space to turn or exercise. Mostly applied to chickens and pigs.
  • Restricted and unnatural diets:
Feed companies produce pellet-feed with little visibility of its contents or origin or both. This led to herbivores being fed the processed protein of other animals and including their own species and led directly to BSE.
  • Unnatural living environments:
Even when allowed to move, animals may be denied environment essential to their health. For example ducks may be kept in free-range barns but have no access to water in which to swim.
  • Gratuitous use of pharmaceuticals and hormones:
The stressful conditions in which some livestock are kept, in turn, leads to a deterioration of their health and the necessary large-scale use of antibiotics to prevent disease. Antibiotics and hormones are also fed to livestock simply to produce rapid weight gain.
  • Overwork and exhaustion of animals:
Where livestock are used as a source of power they may be pushed beyond their limits to the point of exhaustion. The public visibility of this abuse meant it was one of the first areas to receive legislation in the nineteenth century in European countries but it still goes on in parts of Asia.
  • Unwarranted modification to the bodies of living animals:
Broiler hens may be de-beaked, pigs have teeth pulled, cattle de-horned and branded, dairy cows have tails cropped, merino sheep mulesed, many types of male animals castrated.
  • Long distance transportation of livestock:
The advent of the railway, ship and road transport have meant that to find the best price the farmer may send livestock long distances to market and slaughter. Overcrowded conditions, heat from tropical-area shipping and lack of food, water and rest breaks have been subject to legislation and protest. (See Live Export)
  • Slaughter of livestock:
Slaughter was an early target for legislation. Campaigns continue to target Halal and Kosher religious ritual slaughter.

Environmental Impact

Livestock can have an enormous impact on its local environment. Since livestock is often kept in huge numbers, or unnaturally concentrated numbers, their most basic needs can place huge burdens on ecosystems. The most obvious problem is with their waste matter. If improperly handled it can seep into groundwater with devastating results. Browsing species, such as goats, sheep and deer can completely defoliate certain areas, destroying rare plants and the animals that depend on them and sometimes leading to erosion.

Most environmental impacts can be eliminated or lessened by regulating the numbers of animals in a given area and by other animal husbandry techniques.


  1. For example, in the Book of Genesis, Jacob gave the following as a peace offering to his estranged brother Esau: "Two hundred female goats, twenty male goats, two hundred ewes, twenty rams, thirty milk camels with their colts, forty cows, ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten foals".
  2. Livestock are among the most docile animals on earth. Bovine, an English word meaning "cow-like", also means "dull, sluggish, and patient".

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