The number of dairy cows in the South island is gradually catching up to the North Island's big milking herd, though the sheep in the south have dropped below the numbers in the north.
The Beef + Lamb New Zealand survey is used as a benchmark for projections of livestock production in the coming season.
Economic service executive director Rob Davison says the number of beef cattle on the North Island has increased - to about 70% of the animals - but dropped in the South Island.
This is possibly because good weather for grass growth in the south has enabled cattle to reach a marketable weight earlier and be sent to slaughter before the headcount on June 30.
Mr Davison says the survey also shows overall sheep numbers have increased by 2.6%, with the national flock split nearly 50:50 between the islands, and total beef cattle by 1%.
Though sheep numbers in the North Island exceed those in the the South Island for the first time in many years, the difference is only 200,000 animals.
The national dairy herd is now more evenly split, with about 64% of cows in the North Island compared with 80% a decade ago.
Federated Farmers says North Island farmers may be cock-a-hoop about taking over leadership of the sheep sector, but more important, the decline in the national flock over nearly 30 years seems to have ended.
Meat and fibre chairperson Jeanette Maxwell says the climate and the demand by overseas markets for lamb will determine when the South Island regains the crown for having the most sheep.