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A bright future:  Kazakhstan revisited

In 2003 I spent a month in the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. The University of Maryland received a university partnership grant from the U.S. Department of State to develop a pilot Extension program there, after having carried out a similar project in neighboring Uzbekistan. Our partner in Kazakhstan was the Kazakh National Agrarian University in Almaty. Herb Reed (Agricultural Agent and County Extension Director in Calvert County) and I were sent to get the project started.

Kazakhstan (pop. 15 m) is located in Central Asia. It is bordered by the Caspian Sea (west), Russia (north), China (east), and several other Central Asian countries (south). During the Second World War, Soviet industries were moved to Kazakhstan since it did not experience any hostilities, though millions of Kazakhs (women included) perished in the Great Patriot War.

Kazakhstan was an important place during the Cold War. The Soviet Union tested nuclear weapons and launched its space program from there. It was also a place to send dissidents and other "enemies of the state."

Kazakhstan is a a country with a bright future. It has an abundance of natural resources (energy and minerals) upon which to build a modern economy, but its greatest resource is its people, a virtual melting pot of Europeans and Asians: Kazakh (52%), Russian (31%), German, Ukrainian, Uzbek, Chinese, and numerous other ethnic groups. Religion is primarily a mix of Islam and Orthodox Christianity, though religion did not seem to play a significant role in Kazakh life.

Two languages are widely spoken: Russian and Kazakh. Children have a choice of attending Kazakh or Russian-language schools. English is taught in schools.

Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, more than four times the size of Texas, and one of the world's largest producers of wheat. But mostly, Kazakhstan has land for grazing livestock (sheep, goats, cattle, horses, and camels).

Horses are very important livestock in Central Asia. Horse meat is commonly consumed, as is fermented mare's milk (called koumis). Camels are also milked. Sheep raising has always been of cultural and economic significance to the people of Kazakhstan.

Per capita consumption of sheep meat is among the highest in the world at 17.2 lbs. per person (per year) compared to 1.1 lbs. in the U.S. Shashlyk (lamb or mutton shish kabobs) is a favored dish, and lamb is almost always served at traditional Kazakh celebrations. Lamb and mutton are on the menus of most restaurants. The sheep's head (eye balls, too!) is often consumed. Many wool products are available for purchase. The region is noted for hand-made rugs made mostly from wool.

Kazakhstan was the largest producer of sheep and wool in the former Soviet Union. At one time, there were over 40 million sheep in Kazakhstan. Sheep farms were generally large with more than 10,000 head on state farms. Artificial insemination (vaginal, with fresh semen) was widely practiced.

Today, there are fewer than 12 million sheep in Kazakhstan, though the population has stabilized in recent years and is said to be increasing several percentage points per year. The goal is to increase the population to approximately 20 million head. All ewe lambs are retained for breeding; only ram lambs are sold for meat.

Most of the sheep are raised in southern Kazakhstan, where pastures receive more annual precipitation. Sheep receive no grain, only hay during the winter feeding period. Sheep raising in most of Kazakhstan is similar to range sheep production in the western U.S. Kazakhs believe that sheep farms need to be (very) large to be economically viable.

There are three general types of sheep in Kazakhstan: Fine-Wool (Merino-type), Karakul, and native fat-tailed. Fine-wool sheep compose the majority of the Kazakh sheep


This article was written in 2003 by Susan Schoenian.

population, as the Soviet system emphasized wool production. However, in the new market economy, there is likely to be a shift in emphasis from wool to meat.


Meat, milk, and crop yields remain low by western standards. Many of the things that American, Canadian, and European farmers take for granted are not available to Kazakh farmers, e.g. affordable credit, Extension expertise, and organized markets. Especially lacking is marketing infrastructure.

Farmers often have no place to sell their products and must settle for very low prices. For the first time, the government has implemented a program (3 years) to help farmers by reducing the cost of some of their inputs: seed, fertilizer, animal health products, etc.


While Kazakhstan has made significant progress since gaining its independence (and since I visited in 1994), economic growth will be slower coming to the rural areas and to farmers. It is our hope that an agricultural advisory service (i.e. Cooperative Extension) will help provide farmers with some of the skills they need to build profitable, sustainable agricultural enterprises and share in their country's growing prosperity.


In recent years, there have been importations (by the Sheep Breeding Institute, outside of Almaty) of Australian Merinos and Awassis (fat-rumped dairy sheep from Israel). The Merinos are being used to improve the wool quality of Kazakh fine-wool sheep, while the Awassis are being crossed with other fat-tailed sheep and may be used to introduce sheep dairying. At the Institute, native ewes have been inseminated with frozen semen from various U.S. sheep breeds, including the Rambouillet (carrying the high fecundity gene), Polypay, and Hampshire. In the future, Suffolk semen will be utilized for crossbreeding.

Most of the goats raised in Kazakhstan are Angora or native meat-type. They are starting to breed Cashmere goats and have imported semen from Scotland. There are no Boer goats, though the Head of the Goat Breeding Department is interested in obtaining semen to introduce the breed to Kazakhstan. Dairy goat research is also being pursued at the Research Institute.

Historically, Kazakhs were nomads, following their herds of livestock across the vast open plains (steppes) of Central Asia. They lived in "yurts," wool skin tents that provided comfortable living quarters and were easy to move. After the Russian Revolution, state and collective farms were forcibly organized in Kazakhstan, resulting in the deaths of many Kazakhs (due to famine) and putting an end to their nomadic way of life.

After Kazakhstan gained its independence in 1991, the state and collective farms were dismantled and privatized. Production fell drastically in all commodity areas, as private farmers lacked the knowledge, skills, and financial resources to farm their land and livestock profitably. Sheep were often used for cash or barter, so their numbers plummeted.


Karakuls make up less than 10 percent of the sheep population. They are a fat-rumped sheep native to Central Asia that are raised primarily for the pelt production from baby lambs (Persian lamb skin). The rest of the sheep in Kazakhstan are native fat-rumped varieties, such as the Edelbuey, which are raised primarily for meat, though they do produce fleeces of coarse wool, which are suitable for rug-making and felting.


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