About 54% of Australia's land is used in stock raising. Animal husbandry is concentrated in the eastern highlands, but it spreads across the wide interior spaces and even to low-rainfall areas, in which up to 12 ha (30 acres) are required to support one sheep and from which cattle must be taken overland hundreds of miles to coastal meat-packing plants.
Sheep raising has been a mainstay of the economy since the 1820s, when mechanization of the British textile industry created a huge demand for wool. In 1800, there were 6,124 sheep in Australia; by 1850 there were 17.5 million; by 1894, some 100 million; and in 1970, a record high of some 180 million. Sheep numbers fell to 120 million in 1994/95 (the lowest since 1953/54) due to severe drought. Australia's flocks, some 119.6 million in 1999, now constitute approximately 11% of the world's sheep but produce about 30% of the world's wool supply. Wool production, the largest in the world, was an estimated 931,000 tons in 1999. About 95% is exported (mostly to China); nevertheless, wool, which represented 50% of Australia's merchandise exports (by value) in 1957/58, constituted only 6% by the mid-1990s. Since 1990, wool production has fallen by 35%, due in part to declining world demand. Australia produces about one-third of the world's wool, and accounts for 75% of the world's exports of wool apparel. During periods of great drought, such as the early 1980s, the number of sheep has diminished by 40 million or more. (A drop of 60 million occurred in the droughts of 1993/94.) In the better lands, however, animal husbandry ranks high on a world scale. Large, scientifically managed stations have produced some of the world's finest stock. Sheep of the Merino breed, noted for its heavy wool yield, make up about three-quarters of Australian flocks.
In 1999 there were an estimated 2.7 million hogs and 26.7 million head of cattle. In the same year, meat production totaled an estimated 3,606,000 tons. Of these, beef and veal constituted 2,009,000 tons; poultry, 603,000 tons; mutton and lamb, 608,000 tons; and ham, pork, and bacon, 362,000 tons. Butter production in 1999 (in factories) amounted to an estimated 161,000 tons; whole milk was estimated 9.7 million tons; and cheese (factory production) was about 308,000 tons. In 2000, the government implemented a dairy deregulation plan removing price supports. Egg production is around 190,000 tons per year, predominantly for domestic consumption. Australia produces some 25,000 to 30,000 tons of honey per year, half of which is exported. Beef exports in 2001 were $2.38 billion. Nearly 60% of total beef production is exported annually, most of it going to the United States, South Korea, and Taiwan.