The Main Characteristics of Pastoral Farming

The Main Characteristics of Pastoral Farming
Page content

Theories on How Pastoralism Developed

There are three major theories on the development of pastoral farming. Interestingly each of these theories is valid for one or more regions of the world while no one completely covers them all.

Farming and Irrigation

The development of pastoral farming, or the raising of livestock, may have been a direct result of the invention of irrigation and sustained farming. Once crops could be grown in one place and there was no need to forage, people began to find ways to keep animals near them as well. Some pastoral communities became completely nomadic, but these farm based groups developed complex systems for feeding and watering their animals that eliminated the need to move about. This was the standard anthropological explanation for pastoral development until quite recently and has been advocated by the widely taught Bates and Lees publication, The Origins of Dogged Nomadic Pastorlaism: A Systematic Model. This was the method most compatible with the growth of the far Eastern and Western cultures.

Mixed Farming First

Another theory puts pastoralism directly following a mixed farming model. Tribes that were dependant on rainfall to produce crops could only plant in limited areas. Other areas would grow grasses but couldn’t support fruiting crops. These areas were perfect for animal grazing. Unfortunately, these lands would be cleared rather quickly by the livestock needed to support a small community so large areas of land had to be utilized for grazing. This model works for communities near rainforests or in flood basins.

Hunting and Gathering

The hunter-gatherer theory is the newest addition to the pastoral debate and holds water well when looked at through the scope of African tribal culture. Many of the African tribes developed their pastoral farming skills from generations of following herds and learning their dynamics. Once they understood what the herds needed to survive they could begin to cull them selectively and this grew into the actual physical herding of the animals to better pastures. This process was ongoing so there is no distinct timeframe in which a culture goes from hunter-gatherers to pastoral farmers. The major distinction between these two classifications is the physical manipulation of the destination of the herd. A hunter follows the herd and picks off the weakest members while a farmer directs the herd and chooses precisely which animals to kill.

Regional Variations

Historically, the individual tribal characteristics of pastoral farming were based on the environments in which they lived. The environments that pastoral farmers developed in ranged from grasslands and rainforests to deserts and tundra.


Grasslands are the perfect place for a pastoral community to thrive. With an ample food source and relatively level land, animals can feed without needing to travel over hazardous terrain. The open expanse does come with its problems for the farmers; the most troublesome is keeping the herd intact. The open range meant the need for a control. These controls varied from the use of domesticated dogs to horses and banded fabric.

These areas are most suited for a nomadic people because the ease of movement allowed the herds to be moved to follow the seasonal changes in weather. Often these cultures settled in certain areas creating semi-permanent seasonal pastures. They would move between these waypoints either four times a year (in temperate zones) or several times a year in areas with wet and dry seasons. These communities raised sheep and cattle as well as chickens, turkeys, goats and donkeys.


Rainforests often provided sustenance to tribes that were just beginning to adapt a method of farming. Areas directly adjacent to rainforests were cleared for crop growth and, when they could no longer support crops, were left as grassy fields. These fields became perfect grazing land for livestock. This geographical region is consistent with the farming and irrigation first theory.


The lack of water in desert regions forced herders to keep their animals moving in search of water holes. This necessitated a nomadic lifestyle with little or no farming. Lack of vegetation often forced these people to travel between pastoral valleys and keep a close eye on regional weather trends. Movements were thus tied to the rain or seasonal runoff from snow capped mountains. Pastoral communities in desert regions consisted primarily of camels, goats and donkeys but occasionally also included chickens, yaks and sheep.


The lack of diversity in the tundra region limited pastoral communities to the raising of Reindeer. The nomadic people of the tundra regions often were combination gather herders. They also relied heavily on fishing to supplement their food supply.

With the advent of commercial farming operations, pastoral farming became a sedentary process where food and water were brought in to the animals without the need for them to migrate. While this has produced a steady supply of meat and dairy products there has been concern that these animals are not being treated humanely. The animals are often confined to small stalls for feeding and milking (very similar to an assembly line set up) in a set-up termed “intensive farming.” These systems try to optimize the yields by any means necessary, which often leads to obese and otherwise unhealthy animals. Although yields are generally higher in an intensive farming operation, the incidence of disease is also higher.

This concern for animal treatment has led to the development of free-range farming where animals are not confined to stalls and are allowed to roam about in a large unfenced area. The USDA definition of “free range” is far less stringent than that of areas outside of the United States. It only applies to poultry and only requires that the birds have access to an open area to run. There is no requirement for the size of the area nor how long the access is granted.

Intensive farming isn’t the only trend, though. With the recent break-up of the U.S.S.R. several of the eastern countries that had been industrialized saw their economies crumble. This necessitated a return to the traditional pastoral roots. In Kyrgyzstan, the pastoral tradition is so prevalent that it is represented by the traditional Yurt structure used by nomadic tribes. The most prolific nomads, the Bedouin tribes of the Arab deserts are still functioning today although their range is considerably smaller than it was. Government pressure and the loss of grazing territory has caused some Bedouins to pursue the raining of white doves instead of the traditional camels.

Unifying Characteristics

Although pastoral farmers develop in different regions according to their environmental constraints, there are underlying characteristics of pastoral farming including the directing of herds of livestock, the dependence of the culture on the livestock for the majority of their needs and trade with other communities to obtain materials that are not acquired from their herd. The diversity in the herd symbolizes status with the most diversified pastoralists being the most well respected and most self-sufficient.

Trying to narrow the scope of pastoral farming would be more efficient if it was subdivided by region. As this isn’t currently the case we are stuck with three emergent developments and a multitude of unique characteristics depending on the environment region the pastoralists are from.


“Farming in Celtic Britain - The Celts.” The Celts and Romans - Interactive History Resources. Web. 21 July 2011.

“Farming Systems and Poverty.” FAO: FAO Home. Web. 21 July 2011.

Fowler, Brenda. “African Pastoral: Archaeologists Rewrite History of Farming - New York Times.” The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. Web. 21 July 2011.

“Grassland of the World.” FAO: FAO Home. Web. 21 July 2011.

Lees, S & Bates, D. (1974) The Origins of Dogged Nomadic Pastorlaism: A Systematic Model. American Antiquity, 39, 2.

“Rural Real Estate Listings in Hawkes Bay » An Introduction to Pastoral Farming in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand.” Hawkes Bay New Zealand Rural Real Estate Listings. Web. 21 July 2011.

Image courtesy of Alex E. Proimos @ FlickR,