Argentina is one of the world's preeminent producers of cattle and sheep, possessing approximately 4% of the entire world's stock of the former and 2% of the latter. Livestock and meat exports play an essential part in the nation's international trade. Annual meat exports (including meat extracts) were 598,900 tons in 1978, but fell to 394,900 tons in 1981 and 301,390 tons in 1997. Because of extremely favorable natural conditions, Argentina, with about 55 million head of cattle in 1999, is one of the world's leading cattle-raising countries.
Cattle were introduced into Argentina by Pedro de Mendoza in 1536, and these cattle, together with those brought by other explorers, quickly became wild and began to multiply on the lush grasses of the pampas. There was no attempt to control the vast herds; when the inhabitants wanted meat and hides, they would merely kill the animals at random and take the desired parts. The most important single advance was the invention of refrigeration, which enabled ships to transport meat without spoilage. The policy followed by foreign-owned meat-packing firms of purchasing cattle by quality rather than weight led to the introduction of new breeds and selective crossbreeding, which have brought the cattle industry to its present advanced state.
Argentine pastures cover an estimated 142 million hectares (350.9 million acres) and are most productive in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Santa Fe, Córdoba, Entre Ríos, and Corrientes. The most important beef-producing breeds are Shorthorn, introduced in 1823; Hereford, 1858; Aberdeen Angus, 1879; and in recent years, zebu and Charolais.
The dairy industry has shown steady development. In 1999, the following quantities were produced: milk, 9,750,000 tons; cheese, 425,000 tons; and butter, 55,000 tons. The most important dairy breeds are Holstein-Friesian, Jersey, and Holando Argentino. Córdoba, Santa Fe, and Buenos Aires are the three major dairy provinces. Argentina's dairy sector has received the most investments in recent years, especially foreign investments. Egg production was 236,000 tons in 1999. The number of poultry in 1999 reached 60 million.
In sheep raising, Argentina ranks third in South America after Uruguay and Brazil, with an estimated 14 million animals in 1999. Before World War II (1939–45), Argentina accounted for 14% of the world's wool production, but in the 1970s, its production declined; the wool clip (greasy basis) was 65,000 tons in 1999. In 1999, production of mutton and lamb was 45,000 tons. Patagonia has approximately 40% of all the sheep in Argentina.
Total meat production was 3.7 million tons in 2001, of which2.45 million tons consisted of beef. Beef exports for 2001 were valued at $528 million.
In 1999, Argentina had 3.3 million horses, placing it among the top five countries in the world. Argentine horses, especially favored as polo ponies and racehorses, have won many international prizes. Other livestock in 1999 included 3.2 million pigs and 3.4 million goats. In 1999, Argentina accounted for 5% of the world's production of cow hides. Argentina is South America's largest producer of honey, with an output of 85,000 tons in 1999.