top of page

Raising sheep in South Kazakhstan

In 1995, I had the opportunity to travel to South Kazakhstan as a volunteer with Winrock International's Farmer-to-Farmer program. Winrock is an Arkansas-based, non-profit organization that provides short-term technical assistance and training to farmers and agri-business in developing countries. It was my fourth trip to the former Eastern Bloc and certainly among the most intriguing of my involvements.

Few Americans can place Kazakhstan on a map, though many recognize it as part of the former Soviet Union (FSU). During the Cold War, we were led to believe that Russia and the Soviet Union meant the same thing, when in fact, Russia was only one of fifteen republics that comprised the Soviet empire, albeit the most powerful one. We had very limited knowledge of the Central Asian republics, collectively referred to as Turkistan, and consisting of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tadzhikistan, Kirghizstan and Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan is the largest Central Asian country, nearly two-thirds the size of the continental United States, but sparsely populated, having a population of only seventeen million. It is located south of Russia, on China's western border and in close proximity to other Muslim countries such as Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan.

Like its neighbors, Kazakhstan gained its freedom in 1991, following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Since then, its path to democracy and capitalism has been lined with strife and uncertainty.

It goes without saying that the United States has political and economic interests in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is strategically located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, where Islam and Christianity co-exist. Next to Russia, Kazakhstan has the most nuclear warheads still buried beneath its soil. It boasts the second largest space center in the world. Kazakhstan has an abundance of natural resources, primarily gas and oil, which account for our major business interests and are essential to its future economic success.

With a strong desire to see Kazakhstan succeed in its political and economic transition, U.S. efforts to help develop Kazakhstan's agricultural industry seem well founded.


Agriculture History
Present day Kazakhstan was settled by Turkish tribes in the 8th century and incorporated into the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan in the 13th century. The Kazakhs, who are a mixture of Mongol and Turkic peoples, didn't emerged until the 15th century. Russian incursions into Kazakhstan began in the 1500's, leading to frequent, often bloody, contact between Russian immigrants and Kazakh peasants. Eventually, Kazakhstan, like all of Central Asia, fell under Russian control.


Historically, agriculture in Kazakhstan consisted primarily of nomadic herding -- nomads lived in wool-skin tents (called yurts) and traveled the desert, watching over their vast herds of livestock. Two events put an end to that way of life. In the 1930's, under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, Kazakh agricultural holdings were forcibly organized into state and collective farms.

Millions of Kazakhs starved, were killed or fled to China during these purges. Many farmers slaughtered their livestock rather than surrender them. Stalin diluted the native population by forcing people from other parts of the Soviet Union -- people he didn't trust, sometimes entire villages and peoples -- to re-settle in remote areas of Central Asia.

During the 1950's, crop production in Kazakhstan was greatly expanded as part of Nikita Khrushehov's Virgin and Idle Lands Campaign, a misguided attempt to boost Soviet agricultural output. As a result of more land, widespread mechanization and construction of large-scale irrigation projects, Kazakhstan emerged as the Soviet Union's major wheat producer. Wheat growing remains a major economic activity in northern Kazakhstan.


In addition to committing fragile lands to the plow, the Virgin Land's program brought vast new settlement to Kazakhstan. This continuing immigration, which had begun centuries earlier, eventually resulted in Kazakhs becoming a minority in their own country. Today, Kazakhstan is a melting pot: two-fifths of its population Kazakh, two-fifths Russian and the remaining one-fifth made up of more than a hundred different ethic groups.


Sheep raising
Prior to its breakup, the Soviet Union was second only to Australia in the size of its sheep industry. Most notable was its widespread use of artificial insemination, a technology that still eludes the U.S. industry. Due to the history, geography and climate of the region, Kazakhstan and neighboring Kirghizstan were the major sheep and goat production areas. With a flock of thirty-seven million,
Kazakhstan remains an important sheep-raising area and has the potential to influence world trade for wool.

In Kazakhstan, sheep are raised mostly at the country's fringes, in the northern mountains and along the southern tier. Three types of sheep are found in South Kazakhstan: white-wool (Merino and its crosses), Karakul and Edilbaiskaya, the traditional fat-tailed sheep of the region.

Fat-tailed sheep are raised in large numbers because of their ability to withstand the extremes of heat, cold and drought.

The Karakul is considered to be one of the oldest breeds of sheep in the world, having originated on the plains of Central Asia. They are raised primarily for their pelts. Lambs are born with a tightly curled "Persian lamb fur" fleece that is taken when the lamb is only three days old.


Price is based on the size, color and quality of the pelt. Single-born lambs are preferred to multiple births because they produce a larger pelt. While lambs are usually born black, silver is the most sought after color. The most valuable skin comes from a lamb that is still in the womb.

South Kazakhstan is the center of Karakul sheep breeding.

There is an Italian-Kazakh joint venture in Shymkent that utilizes Karakul skins. The Dzhambul Business Center, organized by the U.S. Peace Corps, is working with small businesses to utilize Karakul wool. The wool from adult Karakuls is used to make rugs and other hand-crafted wool items. Karakuls produce a long-stapled, light-weight, often double-coated fleece that has excellent felting qualities. In the U.S., Karakuls are the foundation of many colored wool flocks.


The primary white-wool sheep in South Kazakhstan is Merino and its crosses. Merino sheep are sheared once a year. Shearing is accomplished with either hand clippers or Soviet-made shearing machines. Wool is packaged into large square bales. Karakuls and other thin-fleeced breeds are sheared twice a year.

Kazakh sheep farmers are having difficulty selling their wool, with many farmers having a two or three supply of wool in storage. Previously, wool, like other raw products, was shipped to Russia or other parts of the Soviet Union for processing. This system deprived Kazakhstan of making additional profit by producing a finished product, and has left the country ill prepared to face world markets as an independent nation.


Unfortunately, much of the fine-wool grown in South Kazakhstan lacks the quality to compete in international markets. The first step towards finding acceptance in the world market will be to have the wool core-tested. Like wool in the U.S., it is necessary to know the fiber diameter, length and yield of a wool clip in order to find a suitable buyer and negotiate a fair price.

It will be necessary for Kazakh sheep farmers to make improvements in sheep breeding and management and wool handling in order to bring their wool up to international standards. There is talk of a large importation of Australian Merino rams to improve wool quality. There is some interest in U.S. genetics. One advantage that Kazakhstan has is that its neighbor, China, is the largest consumer of wool in the world.


In the Dzhambul district of South Kazakhstan, over three quarters of the sheep are Karakul or fat-tailed. In the future, it may become necessary for Kazakh sheep farmers to switch to more fine-wool breeding as this type of wool has more potential for generating hard currency. But, the transition will likely be slow to occur, if it occurs at all, as Karakuls have been raised in Central Asia for more than four thousand years.

Merino lambs are generally not slaughtered. Only adult sheep are killed for meat. Almost all of the sheep meat produced in Kazakhstan is consumed domestically, often in the form of "shashlyk" or shish kabob. Shashlyk is sold on street corners in every city and village and is part of most festive celebrations. It is a Kazakh custom to eat the sheep's head. It is boiled or smoked over a fire and savored as a delicacy.

While few lambs are currently marketed from Kazakh farms, it is anticipated that lamb sales will grow in significance as the country proceeds in its transition to a market economy. As with wool, Kazakhstan has an advantage in that it is in close proximity to countries that are large consumers of sheep and goat meat.


The Steppe
Kazakhstan is a country of steppes and mountains. Most of the land is classified as either arid or semi-arid desert, receiving less than sixteen inches of rainfall per year. Most crop land is irrigated. Sheep are grazed on open, unfenced steppe. Webster's Dictionary defines "steppe" as a "vast, treeless, usually level plain." The steppe will not support rapid weight gains in lambs, thus accounting for the production emphasis on wool.


Sheep are sent to mountain pastures for summer grazing. Flocks are watched over by shepherds on horseback, much like they are in the western United States. Yurts still provide seasonal housing for shepherds and their families. As sheep are the traditional livestock of Kazakhstan, almost everyone

has a flock and animals can be found grazing everywhere -- along side roads, in villages, etc. The consumption of sheep meat is high among the native Kazakh population, and sheep are an integral part of the history and culture of the Kazakh people.


Heavy stocking rates, along with inadequate pasture rotation, provide a fruitful multiplying ground for internal parasites. Without the availability of anthelmintics, worms are a major health problem robbing livestock farmers of potential profits. Overgrazing is widespread in South Kazakhstan, but it will be difficult to control unless some type of grazing rights are established and some fences are built.

Sheep share the land with goats, cattle, horses and camels. Despite efforts to increase crop production, animal husbandry remains the major component of Kazakh agriculture, with sheep accounting for more than fifty percent of the livestock population. With the transition to a free market and greater emphasis on the environment, it is anticipated that some crop land, especially Virgin land, will be converted back to its original use of livestock grazing.

A few goats usually graze alongside sheep. The goats are mostly Angora. The mohair is hand-spun, often combined with wool. Cattle, the second most populous livestock, are dual-purpose breeds that resemble Brown Swiss and Holstein.

Horses, first domesticated in Central Asia 5,000 years ago, have many uses and are an integral part of the Kazakh culture and way of life. Horses are still the primary mode of transportation. They are also raised for meat and milk. Horse meat is considered to be "cleaner" than other meats. Horse sausage is very popular. Mare's milk is used to make "koumiss" a sour, fermented tipple which Kazakhs believe has medicinal value. Camels are a traditional livestock for Central Asia. They are kept for meat, milk and fiber, as well as a beast of burden.


In Kazakhstan, state and collective farms are gradually giving way to smaller, private farms. Some farmers have title to the land or have entered into long-term lease agreements as land policy remains at the core of privatization and agriculture's transition to a market-based economy. This is an issue further complicated by the fact that there is no history of land ownership in Central Asia -- indigenous peoples were nomads and did not own land. Private farmers are generally given both steppe for grazing and irrigated land for growing crops. Crops grown in South Kazakhstan include corn, small grain, hay, melons and cotton.

It goes without saying that farmers face many challenges and difficulties as they attempt to overcome the legacy left behind from seventy years of communism. In many ways, Kazakh farmers are like the homesteaders that settled the American frontier. They are tilling new soil, unaware of the many obstacles that lie ahead of them.

The first new concept Kazakh farmers must grasp is producing for a profit. This is because on state enterprises where these farmers previously worked, production and management decisions were made by a central bureaucracy which ignored market signals and profit indicators. Production was the primary emphasis of the Soviet centrally planned system. It didn't matter if crops or livestock could be produced profitably so long as production quotas were being met.

Because the Soviet government was the sole buyer of agricultural products, today's farmers are left with few alternatives for marketing their production. Like other former Soviet republics, Kazakhstan was isolated from world markets. Quantity, not quality or consumer preference, dictated production decisions. As a result, many products today, including meat and wool, fail to meet international standards.

To further compound their problems, farmers lack institutional and industry support. It is almost impossible to get an agricultural loan. If credit is available, terms are nearly impossible to meet. Supplies and animal health products that we take for granted are largely unavailable to Kazakh farmers. Private farmers will probably have to rely on hand shears for harvesting wool because they cannot buy electric shears.

Deworming medicines and vaccines can not be purchased. Many livestock die or suffer from diseases that are easily treatable with the proper resources. Though Kazakh agriculture was fully mechanized, parts for machinery are difficult to find. One Kazakh sheep farmer had a square hay baler sitting idle because he could not get baling twine to operate it.

While state and collective farms employed many of the latest technologies, private farmers often lack the technical know-how to produce sheep efficiently and profitably. There is no Cooperative Extension Service or other means of transferring technology from research institutions to farms. Research is viewed as purely theoretical. University professors have long been criticized for doing predominantly basic research and lacking practical knowledge of farming.

State farms had their own veterinarians and livestock specialists, but these trained professionals have been slow to respond to the needs of the growing private sector. There are no publications, such as this one, available to farmers to inform them about the latest technology or tell them what the price of wool is.

On state and collective farms, farm workers were trained to be specialists. When I asked one sheep specialist if the soil was deficient in selenium he replied that he didn't know because he was a sheep specialist, not an agronomist. Private farmers will have to learn to be their own machinists, repairmen, veterinarians, agronomists, marketers and accountants if they are to be successful in the future. The Soviet system discouraged independent thinking, and this too, farmers will have to overcome as they learn to solve their own problems.

It goes without saying that Moscow took advantage of Kazakhstan's vast open spaces for creating new farm land, putting industry and industrial wastes out of sight and for secrecy. In its single-minded quest to become an industrial and military superpower, the environment has suffered immensely. Misguided agricultural practices have also contributed to the depletion of the country's natural resources.

Overgrazing is endemic in South Kazakhstan and throughout the rest of the country, according to World Bank sources. Large-scale irrigation projects boosted crop yields, but severely drained water resources in the region. The Aral Sea, which straddles the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, is dying, its waters diverted to support cotton growing in Uzbekistan.

Monoculture has led to an over dependancy of pesticides in many areas. Without local decision-making, nutrients and chemicals were often applied to the land without regard to the unique conditions and needs of the region, farm or field.

Looking Ahead
Before I went to Kazakhstan, I had visions of an exotic land and wild adventure. What I found was a country desperately seeking to find its way in the new world order. In many ways, Kazakhstan is a disoriented society. A snickers candy bar costs as much as a night's stay in a hotel room.

Translators and drivers are paid considerably more than doctors, teachers and other professionals, resulting in a dangerous disincentive for higher education. But, capitalism is evident on every street corner. People are hard-working and eager to create a better life for themselves and their families. Farmers, while they face many hardships, possess a huge desire to create profitable farms much like their peers in the United States have done for centuries.

But, Kazakhstan is also bound by its history. The communist system stripped people of independent thinking, creativity and the leadership qualities that are necessary for a free and democratic society to thrive. The success of agriculture and other industries will depend on the leadership of a strong and stable government, willing to shed its old ways of thinking and make the bold, decisive moves that will propel Kazakhstan into the 21st century.

Kazakhstan is a beautiful and vast country, blessed with an abundance of human capital and natural resources. With freedom and democracy as its new foundation, I can't help but believe that Kazakhstan will eventually succeed in its transition to a market-based economy, and in the process become an ally and trading partner with the United States.

This article was written in 1995 by Susan Schoenian.

bottom of page