Relatively warm temperatures, combined with ample rainfall, make New Zealand one of the world's richest pastoral areas. In 1996, pastures occupied 13.7 million ha (33.9 million acres), or 51% of the total land area. Even in the south, where winters may be quite severe, animals need not be housed. In 2001, there were 45.7 million sheep, 9.3 million head of cattle (half of which are dairy cattle), and about 355,000 pigs. Dairying and beef production are concentrated in the North Island, and sheep farming is more evenly distributed between the North and South islands. The natural tussock land in the mountainous areas of the South Island and the surface-sown grassland in the less steep parts of the North Island are used to raise sheep for wool. The extensive use of aircraft for the spread of top dressing has greatly improved hill pasture, most of which is not readily accessible to normal top dressing with fertilizers. Some 24,000 farms stock mainly sheep, occupying over 11 million ha (27.1 million acres), with an average flock of 1,800 head. Although fine-woolen Merino sheep have grazed in New Zealand since the 1830s, most of the clip nowadays comes from Romney sheep, whose coarser, thicker wool is ideal for carpet-making and knitting yarns.
Products of animal origin account for more than half the total value of New Zealand's exports, with meat industry products accounting for about 18% of exports. New Zealand is the world's largest exporter of mutton and lamb, second largest exporter of wool, and a leading exporter of cheese. The wool clip, which, having increased steadily since 1948, had fallen during the early 1970s, later rose to 380,700 tons in 1980/81; in 2000, 237,000 tons were produced. Exports of greasy and scoured wool were valued at NZ $347 million in 2001. Beef and veal production in that year reached 590,000 tons; and mutton, 562,000 tons. New Zealand accounts for over 50% of the world's mutton exports.
With many more cows than people to milk them, New Zealand pioneered and relies on mechanical milking. In 1999, New Zealand had 20,000 milking machines. Whole milk is pumped through coolers to vats where it is transferred to tanker trucks. In 2001, 13,162,000 tons of fresh milk were was produced. Milkfat production averages about 330,000 tons annually, of which 13% is consumed as milk or fed to stock. The balance is used for dairy products.
Although wild goats and deer were once regarded as vermin, over the last decade, the profitability of venison and mohair exports led to the domestication of both animals. About 1.2 million deer and 227,000 goats are being farmed. Alpacas, llamas, and water buffalo have recently been imported to improve the breeding potential as well as wool and meat production.