What is Livestock?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The word “livestock” is an umbrella term used for domesticated animals raised in an agricultural environment, with the intent of providing food, textiles, labor, or fertilizer to their owners. Common examples are horses, pigs, goats, cows, sheep, and poultry, although numerous other semi-wild animals including reindeer, yaks, camels, and emus could also be considered livestock. Humans have coexisted with domesticated animals for centuries, and the rise of farming and keeping animals probably contributed to a major shift in human culture.

Cattle, which are usually classified under the species name Bos primigenius, are livestock that were domesticated over 10,000 years ago.
Cattle, which are usually classified under the species name Bos primigenius, are livestock that were domesticated over 10,000 years ago.

The word can be taken to have several meanings, depending on interpretation. Livestock is sometimes referred to as “stock,” in shorthand, reflecting the idea that the animals are property in addition to living beings. These animals are both living stock, or inventory, and the stock, or basis, of life for farmers and the people who rely on them. Raising animals is an important part of life for people all over the world.

Barley, which is often used to feed livestock.
Barley, which is often used to feed livestock.

Purely domesticated animals such as cows and horses are radically different than their wild counterparts. In some cases, the wild ancestors of domesticated livestock are actually extinct, because humans have selectively bred domesticated versions for so long. Domesticated livestock would probably have difficulty surviving in the wild, because it has been bred to be smaller and more docile than a wild animal would be. Semi-wild animals used as livestock, such as rabbits, have thriving wild populations in addition to domestic ones.

A young goat.
A young goat.

The uses for livestock are myriad. The most obvious is food, in the form of meat, dairy, and egg products. Few animals, however, are raised purely for their meat; the most notable exception to this is the pig, which is primarily a food animal. Most animals also contribute something else to the farm. Sheep, for example, have thick wool coats which are annually sheared to make textiles, and cows can provide physical labor as draft animals in addition to being a source of food. All livestock also produces plentiful amounts of manure, in the form of excrement, thus helping out in the farm garden as well.

A young pig.
A young pig.

Some of these animals are also kept as pets, and enjoy privileged positions in human society. Horses, for example, are widely ridden and used as work animals, and in many cultures they have a status which borders on the sacred, while others have no difficulties eating their horses. In areas where living conditions are difficult, such as Tibet, a single livestock animal like the yak may provide the bulk of food, shelter, and companionship; therefore, the animals are highly valued.

Rabbits are semi-wild animals that can be kept as livestock.
Rabbits are semi-wild animals that can be kept as livestock.
Camel are a type of livestock that is used for transportation, carrying burdens, and food in arid climates.
Camel are a type of livestock that is used for transportation, carrying burdens, and food in arid climates.
Horses are an example of livestock.
Horses are an example of livestock.
Sheep are common livestock found on pasture farms.
Sheep are common livestock found on pasture farms.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I also do livestock, and I really enjoy it because I can employ two to three people in my farm and that can also serve as an income generator for their families, too.

There are many advantages to having your own livestock, but one of the biggest disadvantages is the lack of freedom you have.

Any time you are going to be away for more than a few hours, you have to figure out how you are going to get the livestock fed.

We have some neighbors who only live on a few acres, but they have chickens, goats, emus and honeybees. They rely on family members to help them if they are going to be away.

I would not want all this responsibility, but I do enjoy buying fresh eggs from them. These are brown eggs that have bright yellow yolks and thick shells.

I know these are free-range chickens, because they make it down to my place every now and then!

I try to buy organic food when I can, and I also like to buy organic meat. It can be pretty expensive if you buy this in the health food store.

I found a man who raises his own livestock and sells the organic meat. I pay for the meat and for the processing fee, but when I buy a large amount at a time, it ends up being way cheaper than I could buy in the store.

You can really tell a difference in the quality of meat when the livestock has been raised organically.

I have a big freezer to keep this in, and usually order from him once every 6 months. In addition to his organic livestock, he has organic vegetables that his wife grows in her garden.

I am thankful I found a source to buy some healthy, organic food without paying such a high price for it.

I live close to some Amish and Mennonite communities where they still use horses as a means of transportation and to help in the fields.

If you pull up to one of their country stores, you will usually always see several horses tied up at the fence.

It is also not uncommon to see them transporting people from place to place pulling them in a buggy.

If you aren't around this very often, it really seems like a novelty, but there are many groups of people who still use their livestock this way.

I grew up in an agricultural state, so I think nothing about driving around seeing cows and sheep grazing in the field.

You also see many hog farms and horses in every corner of the state. For many people where I live, the livestock industry is a major portion of their income.

If you ever come to our state fair, the livestock that the kids show for their 4-H projects is always a big attraction. Growing up around the noise and smell of different livestock is a normal part of life for us.


I know a guy who lives down the road and raises sheep strictly for their wool. He has a large herd of livestock and two Great Pyrenees dogs to serve as shepherds.

Those sheep are fluffy and white during parts of the year and nearly bald during others. The sheep dogs are equally white, and they blend in so well that you don't notice that they are dogs until they begin to chase you. They chase cars that drive by, thinking that they are protecting the sheep from them.

I know that in the days of old, people had to tend to the sheep to keep them from wandering off and being eaten by wolves. Today, most sheep are kept in pens, and special dogs keep the coyotes away.


My neighbor raises chickens for food, and I used to be terrified of them when I was a kid. I often went over there to play with a girl my age, and one time, she took me into the chicken pen.

The hens were okay, because they just clucked and darted here and there. The rooster was the bully. He had sharp claws, and my friend had warned me that if he gave chase, we should run to the barn loft.

He angrily began chasing us, so we climbed up into the hay-filled loft. This seemed to satisfy the rooster.

After that experience, any qualms I had about eating cute little chickens went away. I felt no guilt while munching on a fried chicken sandwich.

@StarJo – It must have been nice for them to be so self-sufficient. You rarely find people who make their entire living from their own farms anymore.

Every person I have met with a herd of cattle in my lifetime just uses them to make money. They don't do any slaughtering or milking themselves. They just sell them at an auction to the highest bidder, who then will see to the unpleasant tasks of using the cattle.

It makes me a little sad to see a clueless herd of cows happily grazing in a field. They have no idea that they are just there to be fattened up and murdered.

Livestock provided everything for my grandparents when they were starting a family. They lived on a farm, and they tended to the animals and worked the garden all day.

The cows provided the three M's – milk, meat, and manure. Pigs and chickens provided breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Chickens were really useful, because you could use them to make various soups, meals of fried chicken, and scrambled eggs for breakfast.

The cow manure really helped out in the vegetable garden. My grandparents told me that they produced large, juicy tomatoes and bountiful corn because of the fertilizer.


you mention nothing of the environmental impacts attributed to raising livestock.

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