Cattle were first domesticated during the Stone Age around 8,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent - a region now in western Asia considered the cradle of civilization. Modern domestic cattle, commonly called cows, all evolved from a single ancestor, the aurochs. People first kept these animals for easy access to food - including milk, blood, and meat - and for use as load-bearers and plows.
Cattle were subsequently traded and spread across the planet, where they then mixed with local wild animals. There are now over 900 different breeds of cattle reported in the world.
There were no cattle in Australia at the time of settlement - six head of cattle arrived with the first European settlers in 1788. Although they initially fared badly, with only 1044 cattle by 1800, further imports and successful management over the next 50 years saw their numbers, particularly shorthorn types, flourished.
Cattle of British origin, such as Hereford, Angus and Beef Shorthorn, dominated Australia's beef herd well into the 1950s. Thereafter more Bos indicus breeds were introduced which have proven to be well suited to the northern parts of the continent. In the late-1960s, large European Bos taurus breeds such as Limousin, Charolais and Simmental were introduced and crossed with British breed stock to produce larger animals.
Queensland has the highest concentration of cattle, followed by New South Wales and Victoria.
Australia is now one of the world's most efficient producers of cattle and the second largest exporter of beef, according to Meat and Livestock Australia, an industry research group. In 2008 there were 27.3 million cattle - 24.8 million meat cattle and 2.5 million dairy cows. The country's beef export industry was worth $4.4 billion that year, with Japan the largest single buyer, followed by the U.S. Meanwhile beef production employed around 121,000 workers in Australia in 2008. Around 23 per cent of the 133,000 farms in the country rear beef cattle.
The Cattle Council of Australia represents the interests of Australia's beef cattle producers and comprises seven regional bodies.
Cattle are not only used in the beef industry. Milk and other dairy production is the country's third largest rural industry. Dairy Australia, an industry collective, counted 1.6 million dairy cows in 2008/09, which produced 9,388 million liters of milk with an industry wholesale value of $12 billion. Meanwhile, cows' hides are also the primary source of leather - a $648 million industry in Australia in 2009.