Kazakhs raise large numbers of sheep, horses, goats and cattle, but less than they dis in he past. Sheep yield wool and meat. Goats are raised for milk, meat, wool and pelts. Animals are typically slaughtered in the fall. The meat is preserved through curing and smoking. Horse meat sausage is particularly valued because it keeps a long time without spoiling.

Livestock numbers: Cattle: 6.1 million; chickens: 32.5 million; pigs: 1.3 million; sheep: 14.7 million; and goats: 2.7 million. [Source: World Almanac, 2013]

The high number of pigs is noteworthy because Kazakhstan is a predominately Muslim country. Bactrian camels are also raised. In some areas of Kazakhstan—including the Mangyshlak Penninsula— shubat (the sour milk of camels) is the preferred drink. Among Muslims, camels are sometimes considered sacred animals because of their association with Mohammed.

Deer breeders raise deer for their antlers which are cut off, dried and made into powders for the traditional medicine market in China and Korea. The fuzzy, blood-filled antlers are harvested in the spring.

Nomads, Semi-Nomads and Livestock

Kazakhs have traditionally raised sheep, some horses, cattle and camels in rich pastures. Those that have stuck to their nomadic ways generally raise sheep and earn money by selling mutton, lamb, wool and sheepskin.

During the winter seminomads and their animals live in mud-brick structures and the animals survive off any grass they can find and fodder. In the spring the Kazakhs take their sheep to the low pastures, where the ewes give birth. Later the animals are moved to higher summer pastures. According to a Kazakh saying, "the snow leads the sheep."

The use of summer pastures has traditionally been under the jurisdiction of individual clans. Among nomads, winter pastures are shared by small communities. Semi-nomads have rights to land around their homes They also generally have rights to certain hay-growing areas where fodder is produced for the winter. These are generally spread out near the winter pastures.

Semi-nomads engage in varying degrees of agriculture. The agricultural land is generally near their permanent winter homes. The poorer households tend to rely on agriculture more than richer ones. Herders who abandoned herding and became year-round farmer have traditionally been looked upon with pity. Under Russian and Soviet rule more and more Kazakhs chose this existence and became the settled population.

Kazakhs are horsemen like Mongolians but they are many differences between the two ethnic groups. The shapes of their saddles are different. Kazakh yurts are wider and more richly decorated than Mongolia ones.

Collectivization and Mass Starvation in the Kazakh Republic

From 1929 to 1934, during the period when Soviet leader Joseph V. Stalin was trying to collectivize agriculture, Kazakhstan endured repeated famines because peasants had slaughtered their livestock in protest against Soviet agricultural policy. In that period, at least 1.5 million Kazakhs and 80 percent of the republic's livestock died. Thousands more Kazakhs tried to escape to China, although most starved in the attempt. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Under Stalin’s policy of de-nomadization and collectivization, nomadic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz were forced to settle down and turn their animals over to the state. The Kazakhs resisted. Many people chose to slaughter their animals rather than give them to the state. In some cases guerrillas fighting against the Communists killed the animals.

The populations of entire villages perished—hundreds of thousands of families. Many of those that survived left everything behind, their homes, their animals, and fled to Siberia and elsewhere in Central Asia and the Soviet Union. An estimated 1 million people made their way to China, Mongolia, Afghanistan and other places.

Between 1929 and 1932, it is estimated 1.75 million to 2.5 million people died (including 40 to 50 percent of Kazakhs in Kazakhstan) of malnutrition and starvation as a result of the loss of animals. President Nazarbaev told the Washington Post, “It was terrible. My father saw with his own eyes and told me...You’d walk along a path and see corpses everywhere.” Millions of Kazakhs fled to China and Afghanistan to avoid starvation.

Horses and Kazakhs

Horses are suitable for the steppe grasslands and have traditionally been highly prized by the Kazakhs. There are few roads on the steppe and horses are still the ideal way to get around. Horses have traditionally supplied Kazakhs with milk and koumiss as well as a means of transport and carrying things. Their hair is sometimes still made into strong ropes. Horse meat is considered tasty and nutritious.

Kazakh horses are small, stout, and muscular. They are built to withstand the harsh weather and lengthy migrations and are able to forage for grass under the snow during the winter. They can cover long distances over rugged terrain in relatively short periods of time.

The Kazakhs are excellent horsemen. In the old days the value of person was often measured by his or her horsemanship skills. Men tried to impress women with their horses and horsemanship. Young children were traditionally given a small colt which they called by name and began riding it when they were they were five to seven.

A number of outsiders have commented about Kazakh horseback riding prowess, say they were such skilled riders that it seemed human and horse acted as one. Horses are such a fixture of Kazakh life that instead of saying, “to the right” Kazakhs say Kamshi yagt (“whip-holding side”). Instead of “to the left” they say minar yak (“mounting side”). Since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been a revival of horse culture in rural Kazakhstan.

Horse Meat in Kazakhstan

Unlike other horse people who have refrained from killing horses for food, the Kazakhs have traditionally been fond of horsemeat, particularly kazy and shuzhyk, horsemeat sausage they make themselves by stuffing meat, fat, garlic and spices into horse intestines. Horse penis, horse fat and horse entrails are considered delicacies. Besbarmak, a dish made from boiled horsemeat and dough, is a staple of Kazakh feasts and is usually eaten by hand.

Kazakh farms have special sheds for curing horse meat. Especially in the winter it is sold in large slabs at local bazaars. Even in Almaty and Astana, many of the restaurants serve horse meat dishes such as sorpa (a creamy soup with horse meat and spiced dried fermented mare’s milk), kespe (unthickened bouillon with noodles, onion and thinly sliced meat), kuyrdak (a stew made with pieces of chopped meat, lung, liver, heart and kidney with potatoes and other ingredients) and karta (minced and boiled horse stomach served with peppers and herbs).

Horses that are eaten are allowed to run free on the steppe during the spring and summer. In the autumn they are caught and tethered by a feed bucket and fattened up with hay and grain. By early winter the horse in plump and tender and ready to harvest. Some are slaughtered even before they are two years old. December and January have traditionally been the time when animals are slaughtered for winter feasts and so they don’t have to be fed in the winter. When the fatal moment approaches the horses often sense something is up and are led out to the slaughter by an older horse.

Horsemeat is served during important life cycle events such as marriages and funerals. But Kazakhs are not the main consumers of horsemeat. One villager told the New York Times, “Kazakhs occupy the second place in the number of horses killed. First are the wolves, and then the Kazakhs.”

Slaughter of a Horse

Describing the killing of horse in the town of Ilyinka, north of Astana,C.J. Chivers wrote in the New York Times, “The six Kazakh villagers circle the stallion with movements so nimble and practiced that they disguised the difficulty of the dawn’s first task. The animal before them, weighing roughly 250 kilograms, was to be rolled onto its back...Aslakhan Mukanov, 13, pulled the stallion with a rope as it whinnied and bucked, Seimurad Maitai, 27, dodged the hooves, swinging a rope until he snared the kicking forelegs together.” [Source: C.J. Chivers, New York Times, December 26, 2005]

“Maitai, pressed close, whipping the rope’s other end, seeking a hind leg. Soon he entangled it as well. The two pulled their lines taut and lunged. The horse fell landing hard in the snow.The men scrambled atop it, lashed its legs tight and placed a metal trough under its neck...Out came the knife, Jumat Makhanov, 29, turned his palms skyward and thanked the pinned stalion for what it would provide. The prayer came last. ‘Bismillah, Allahu akbar,’ he said, In the name of God, God is great...Maitai swept the blade across the stallion’s muscular neck.”

“After it died, its blood filling the trough while neighborhood’s dogs padded nearby, the men Mukanov summoned help him proceed with the work...First the they cut through the joints and snapped off the lower legs. Then they began skinning the animal, exposing a sheen of white fat over thick red musculature. The hide slid off like a wet jacket...A steel frame was produced, and the carcass was raised to waist height and disemboweled. Clouds of steam, surged from the body cavity. The guts were placed on a plastic mat.”

“While others cut away the rib cage and separated the hind legs from the forelegs, Makhanov squeezed dung from the intestines. Cut into 20-inch-long sections, these intestines would be stuffed with fat and meat to make kazy and shuzhyk..The butchering proceeded swiftly...Nothing was wasted, excepting the dung and undigested grain drained from the stomach. A tub of blood was save for the dogs which had gathered around. ” The horse had been purchased for around $900 in the autumn and was expected to yield about $1,050 worth of meat, sausage and organs. After feed and hay was factored in, the owner of the horse expected o make a profit of about $40 and have a enough meat to feed his family.”

Sheep in Kazakhstan

Kazakhs value sheep that can withstand the harsh conditions of the steppe, semideserts and deserts. “Fatty tail” sheep are particularly prized. Instead of a tail these sheep have a fatty growth that reaches 10 to 16 kilograms. The fat in it is used like cooking oil.

All that is necessary for life can be taken from sheep: milk and meat for food; wool for clothes. Felt made from wool is used to make the walls and flooring of yurts. Felt is also used for saddle clothes and lining for boots. Sheepskins are used to make warm coats, hats and, sometimes, men’s trousers. Sheep hair is used in saddle bags, bridles and ropes. Children use ram horns as a plaything.

Sheep raised on the Kazakhstan steppe generally drop their lambs at a birthing place in the summer pastures. Located next to the yurt, the birthing place consists of three-sided shelter and low fence, both made of flat rocks. After the lambs are born they are often brought into the yurt for the first couple of nights so the don't suffer from the cold. Sheep in Kazakhstan are sometimes menaced by wolves.


Bactrian Camels in Kazakhstan

Camels have traditionally been the preferred beasts of burden on the steppes and deserts of Central Asia. During migrations nomads loaded them up with all their possessions. They were particularly valued because they were able to carry the heavy burden of dismantled yurts and all the heavy trunks and furniture kept in a yurt.

Families kept fewer camels than they did other animals and generally kept only as many as were necessary to carry their possessions. Rich families maybe had fifty or sixty camels, enough to carry their stuff, while poorer families might have only three or four. When they are not needed they are sometimes left unattended for months a time and allowed to wander as far as 50 kilometers away. Males go nuts in the rainy season. They are horny, ornery, aloof and incoercible.

A camel has traditionally been the most valuable animal in Mongolia. It was worth eight yaks, nine horses or 45 sheep. Camel wool is valued because it is very warm. In some places shubat (the sour milk of camels) is the preferred drink. Camels provide milk for cheese and other foods and drinks, meat, hide, hair and dung. A camel produces 230 kilograms of camel dung fuel a year. In the Communist era, the meat from butchered camels used to go to the coop.

Camels were used for caravans that ran the length of Mongolia. There are fewer camels than there used to be. Sometimes they are eaten for meat. Mostly they are not as useful as they once were. Trucks now carry yurts instead of camels.


Yaks in Central Asia

In some places in Central Asia, yaks are kept. Yaks are cattle-like animals about the size of small oxen. Adapted for living at high altitudes, they have long hair that hangs off their sides like a curtain, sometimes touching the ground. Underneath is a soft undercoat that keeps the animal warm in the coldest and windiest environments. Yaks are highly valued by Himalayan peoples. According to Tibetan legend, the first yaks were domesticated by Tibetan Buddism founder Guru Rinpoche.

Yaks are around 3.3 meters (11 feet) in length, not including their 60 centimeter tail, and stand up to two meters at the shoulder. They weigh up to 525 kilograms (1,160 pounds). Their horns may reach 95 centimeters (38 inches) in length. Females tend to be smaller than males.

A yak is built to survive tough environments. Yaks have three times more red blood cells than normal cows so they are able to live without any problems on the high elevation grasslands of Tibet. Their long, thick hair insulates their bodies from winter temperatures that can get to -30C (-22F) or colder. Most yaks are black, but it is not uncommon to see white or gray ones especially on the grasslands of northern Amdo (modern day Qinghai province).. [Source: Chloe Xin,, June 3, 2014 <>]


Cattle in Central Asia

Some herders keep cattle but not that many. Cattle are suitable for the steppe and desert environment. They are best suited for long, relatively rapid migrations but have a hard time foraging for food for themselves under the snow (herder need to provide them with hay) and need more water than other animals. In harsh winters they are often the first to die.

Cattle probable wouldn’t be raised at all if were not for the fact that their meat fetches a high price. Herders prefer the taste mutton to beef. Cattle have traditionally been raised to be traded or sold. They are raised for milk, meat and leather. Many nomads eat borts (dried and salted meat) in the winter.

Cattle are more likely to be found among semi-nomads and settled farmers than nomads. Settled farmers can prepare hay for the cattle. They do not embark on long migrations the tend live near reliable water supplies.

Forestry and Fishing in Kazakhstan

Of the 4.8 percent of Kazakhstan’s territory that is forested, about 9 percent is nominally protected. Forest land is concentrated along the Chinese and Kyrgyz border and north of the Fergana Valley. Kazakhstan produces a small amount of timber for export, but imports of timber products far outnumber exports. In 2004 a total of 300,000 cubic meters of wood were harvested, the majority of which was used as fuel. [Source: Library of Congress, December, 2006 **]

The desiccation of the Aral Sea ruined a prosperous fishing and fish-processing industry. In the Caspian Sea, stocks of sturgeon and other fish have been depleted sharply by pollution, poaching, and overfishing. Kazakhstan has developed some sturgeon farms to replace the wild stock. In 2003 the total catch was 23,100 tons. **

Until the early 1990s, western Kazakhstan was an important fishing area, but sharply increased salination has made the Aral Sea sterile. Fishing output dropped from 105,300 tons in 1960 to 89,600 tons in 1989. The current figure is probably close to zero, judging by the decision of Soviet central planners in 1990 to fly Arctic fish to Kazakhstan for processing as a means of maintaining local employment in that operation. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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