World milk production is almost entirely derived from cattle, buffaloes, goats, sheep and camels. Other less common milk animals are yaks, horses, reindeers and donkeys. The presence and importance of each species varies significantly among regions and countries. The key elements that determine the dairy species kept are feed, water and climate. Other factors that may influence the presence of a dairy species are market demand, dietary traditions and the socio-economic characteristics of individual households (e.g., poorer families tend to rely more on small ruminants).
Although cattle are kept in a wide range of environments, other dairy species make dairying possible in adverse environments that often cannot support any other type of agricultural production. Sheep allow milk production in semi-arid regions around the Mediterranean, goats in regions with poor soils in Africa, horses in the steppes of Central Asia, camels in arid lands, buffaloes in wet tropical regions, and yaks in high mountainous areas such as the Tibetan Plateau.
In developing countries, milk producing animals are often raised in subsistence and smallholder systems. These animals are usually multi-purpose and grow and produce under difficult conditions, such as low inputs, minimum management and harsh environments. They are well adapted to local conditions, but have low genetic potential for milk production.
- Cattle produce 83 percent of world milk production, followed by buffaloes with 13 percent, goats with 2 percent and sheep with 1 percent; camels provide 0.3 percent. The remaining share is produced by other dairy species such as equines and yaks.
- About one-third of milk production in developing countries comes from buffaloes, goats, camels and sheep. In developed countries, almost all milk is produced by cattle.
- Cattle produce about three-quarters of milk production in sub-Saharan Africa, about half in Asia – with most of the other half coming from buffaloes – and nearly all the milk produced in Latin America.
- Milk from dairy species other than cattle represents 39 percent of milk production in Asia, 24 percent in Africa, 3 percent in Europe and 0.4 percent in the Americas; it is almost non-existent in Oceania.