Sheep and Beef Lose Ground to Dairy Cattle

21 February 2003 - For Immediate Release

New Zealand's total sheep and beef populations have dropped in the past three years. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry says that this reflects recent land use changes, including conversions to dairy and forestry.

The provisional results from the 2002 Agricultural Production Census shows that the total sheep count has declined from 45.7 million head in 1999 to 39.2 million in 2002. The national beef herd stood at 4.5 million cattle as at 30 June 2002 (down 3 percent on 1999 when the herd totalled 4.6 million beef cattle.)

The estimates, released today by Statistics New Zealand, also reveal declines in the national ewe flock and the beef breeding herd. Compared to 1999, when the last livestock survey was held, the sheep breeding population has fallen by 10 percent to 28.9 million head and the beef breeding herd totalled 1.3 million cattle (down by 13 percent on 1999.)

MAF Senior Policy Analyst Rod Forbes says that the provisional figures from the 2002 agricultural census are lower than previous Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry's estimates, and confirm a continued decline in sheep numbers.

While livestock numbers have declined, there have been significant productivity gains, particularly for sheep. The numbers of lambs tailed as a percentage of mated ewes and ewe hoggets, have increased over time, as have the carcass weights of lambs slaughtered.

Mr Forbes says that the influence of the expansion of the national dairy herd goes beyond the increase in the number of dairy farms or milking 'platforms'.

"There is also an increase in the number of young dairy stock being grazed all year round and dairy herds being grazed on sheep and beef areas during winter. Dairy farmers are also sourcing hay and silage from other farms," Mr Forbes says.

The conversion to forestry has led to a reduction in livestock. MAF estimates that new forest planting in the last three years has resulted in 400,000 fewer stock units* being grazed. A total of 3.7 million stock unit equivalents have been converted to forestry since 1970.

The total number of stock units on New Zealand farms at June 2002 is estimated at 94 million. Of this, sheep made up 37 percent and beef cattle 24 percent. Since 1994, the proportion of sheep and beef cattle stock units has declined steadily.

The sheep and beef cattle industries are significant contributors to economic activity and exports. Meat and wool generated $4.7 billion gross revenue on farms for the year ended March 2002. This is 27 percent of total gross revenue ($17.8 billion) for the agricultural sector.

Pastoral-based exports totalled $14.1 billion for the year ended June 2002, or 45 percent of total merchandise exports. Sheep meat and wool exports contributed $3.2 billion and beef and veal exports $1.8 billion. New Zealand also derives revenues from co-products such as hides, skins and offal.

The 2002 Agricultural Production Census is the first to be held since 1994 and provides important information about what has been happening in the agricultural, forestry and horticultural sectors in recent years. Final statistics from the census will be released in May of this year, including detailed data at regional and district level, and additional information on farm types, forestry and land use.

*A stock unit is a measure used to compare the nutrition requirements of different pastoral livestock. For example the standard stock unit is based on one breeding ewe of 55 kg liveweight producing one lamb. A dairy cow in calf equals seven stock units.

For further information please visit the MAF website at or contact Rod Forbes, Senior Policy Analyst, MAF Policy Phone 04 474 4222 Email:



Last Updated: 30 September 2010

Contact MPI

for general enquiries phone

0800 00 83 33