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Dairy cattle grazing (eating grass) in a field.

Cattle is a word for certain mammals that belong to the genus Bos. Cattle may be cows, bulls, oxen, or calves. Cattle are the most common type of large domesticated hoofed animals. They are a prominent modern member of the subfamily Bovinae.

Cattle are large grazing animals with two-toed or cloven hooves and a four-chambered stomach. This stomach is an adaptation to help digest tough grasses. Cattle can be horned or hornless, depending on the breed. The horns come out on either side of the head above the ears and are a simple shape, usually curved upwards but sometimes down. Cattle usually stay together in groups called herds. One male, called a bull will usually have a number of cows in a herd as his mates. The cows usually give birth to one calf a year, though twins are also known to be born. The calves have long strong legs and can walk a few minutes after they are born, so they can follow the herd.

Cattle are native to many parts of the world except the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. Cattle have been domesticated for about 9,000 years. They are used for milk, meat, a source of money, transport, and companions.

Word use[change | change source]

Watusi cattle are herded in Africa.

The word cattle has been used in English for about 1,000 years and the meaning has changed. In books such as the King James Version of the Bible, the word is used for all sorts of farm animals, including horses, sheep and goats. The word comes from the Old French word,'chattels', meaning all the things that a person owns.

The word cattle is used for some wild animals as well as for domesticated cattle. Wild cattle include the water buffalo from South East Asia, the musk ox and yak from Central Asia, the bison of North America and Europe and the African buffalo. The last aurochs, wild cattle of Europe, were killed in Masovia, Poland in 1627.

  • This article uses the word 'cattle' in the modern way.
  • This article is about the domestic farm animal, and not the wild cattle which still live in some parts of the world.
  • The word "head" is used by farmers when they count the number of cattle that they own. A farmer might say "My land runs 5,000 head of cattle" though the term "one head of cattle" is not usually used.
Danish Red cows and calves.

Cattle vocabulary[change | change source]

An intact male bovine is called a bull. A young male bovine is called a bullock. A mature female that has given birth to at least one or two calves is called a cow. A young bovine between birth and weaning is called a calf. Two or more of these young bovines are calves. A female that has never had a calf is called a heifer, (pronounced "heffer"). Calving is the act of a cow or heifer giving birth to a calf.

Because very few bulls are needed to breed with many cows and heifers and to form a complete breeding herd, most male cattle are used for meat. They are castrated by removing the testicles to prevent them from being able to breed other cows and heifers, and to take away the male characteristics that are common with bulls. A male that has been castrated before reaching puberty is called a steer. An ox is a male bovine that has been castrated after puberty and is trained and used for draft purposes, such as pulling a plow or a wagon. Cattle can either be horned, which are two bony points coming out on either side of a beast's head, one on each side, or polled, where no horns are grown but a somewhat pointy poll is found at the top of a cow's head.

The adjective that is used to describe something that is like a cow or an ox is "bovine".

The words "cow", "bull" and "calf" are also used to describe some other large animals that are not related to cattle, such as elephants, moose and whales.

Biology[change | change source]

Highland Cattle are highly adapted to cold weather.

Cattle are found all over the world, from as far north as Canada and Russia to the dry inland of Australia. The only continent they are not found on is Antarctica. Different types and breeds of cattle are suited to different environments. Bos indicus cattle such as the Brahman breed are suited to subtropical and tropical areas, whereas Bos taurus cattle such as Angus cattle are more suited to temperate or colder climates. Their large wide hooves are good in both wet areas and dry grassland. Their hairy coat grows much longer in the winter and has an extra fluffy layer to hold in warmth. They shed this extra layer in springtime in preparation for the hot summer ahead. Most cattle, except those of the Bos indicus subspecies do not have sweat glands in their skin, but their wet nose is a useful cooling system. They can also pant like a dog as well.

Cattle can make a range of noises, from a gentle "moo" to a low growl in warning or to attract females, especially among bulls. When they are angry or upset, they can bellow or bawl quite loudly. Calves are said to bawl, cows moo and bulls bellow.

Cattle are herbivorous, meaning that they are plant-eating (primarily grass) animals. Eating grass is called "grazing". They have very strong tongues and strong lower front teeth that help them to graze. Unlike a horse, cattle do not have any upper front teeth. A cow often swallows grass whole. After a cow has eaten its fill and is resting, they return or regurgitate the grass from their stomach to their mouth and rechew it with their very large back teeth to break it down further. This is called "chewing the cud". Other ruminants like deer, sheep and goats also do this. Horses do not. This means that cattle do not need as much food as horses, even though they are about the same size.

Cattle are ruminants which mean they have a stomach with several chambers which helps digest their food more efficiently. A cow's stomach has four chambers called the reticulum, rumen, omasum and abomasum. The reticulum is known as the "hardware" stomach because it is mainly used as a storage area for hard things that the cow might accidentally swallow like nails, rocks and other objects. The rumen is the largest chamber in a ruminant's stomach, and in cattle it can hold up to 50 gallons feed. It is the chamber where fermentation takes place to help break down the grass that the cow has eaten. The omasum, also known as "many piles" is a compartment that squeezes or absorbs all the water that has accumulated from the digestion that has gone on in the rumen. The fourth chamber is the abomasum which similar in function to a human's stomach, and so is called the "true stomach."

Cows have "breasts" called udders which are joined in a large sac, often pink in colour, found hanging between the back legs. The udder is divided into four parts, or quarters, each with a large teat that the calf is able to grasp with its mouth to suckle from. Cows begin milk production a few days before a calf is born, and can continue to produce milk when bred again and when pregnant with their next calf. Heifers, unless they have given birth to their first calf, do not produce milk. Dairy cows tend to have much larger udders than beef cows, and as such, these type of cows will usually produce more milk than what is needed to feed one calf. Dairy cows are female cattle that are raised to produce lots of milk for human consumption. Beef cows, on the other hand, are female cattle that are used to raise a calf from birth that is used for beef later in its life. Both types of cows will keep producing milk as long as it is demanded, either by the calf, by the milking machine, or by the human that is hand-milking them. When milk from them is no longer needed, they will not explode: they simply "dry up," where the milk they produce is absorbed or taken back in by their bodies. Cows are pregnant for around 9 months, or an average of 280 days.

Young cattle sometimes fight to sort out the order in their herd.

Bulls can often be fierce and dangerous, especially in the presence of their herd of cows and heifers. In the wild, they will often fight each other over mating rights and their herds of cows and will use their horns to gore each other. Some bulls will fight to the death: others will fight until either one of the bulls decides to run off. They also protect the herds from other animals such as wolves, jackals, bears, tigers and lions. On farms, bulls are usually quieter and more docile and can be led by a nose-ring by their owners, but they can be aggressive with other bulls and with strange people or animals who might get too near his herd. Dairy bulls like Jerseys and Holsteins tend to be more aggressive than bulls of beef breeds like Hereford and Angus. Not all cattle have horns. Bulls with no horns fight by head-butting the other's head, neck, side or belly, and will use their heads to push each other around.

For the reasons above, most male cattle are either sent to slaughter while they are still calves or are castrated so that they are much less likely to fight each other, or be aggressive towards the farmer that is raising them, making them safer to handle and keep until it is time to send them to market. Steers have no other purpose except to be raised, sold and slaughtered for beef.

Uses of Cattle[change | change source]

Water buffalo ploughing a rice paddy in Cambodia.

Ever since people started using cattle in prehistoric times, cattle have been a sign of wealth. In many countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, a person's wealth is judged by the number of cattle they own. Different breeds are used differently.

Cattle are very useful animals. Their flesh can be eaten as meat. Their milk can be drunk and turned into cheese and yoghurt. Their skin can be used as leather. They can pull carts and plows. They can make the power to turn flour mills or pump water. The food that they eat is not expensive, and often not in competition with what people eat.

An Ayrshire calf on a hill in Austria.

Dairy cattle[change | change source]

Dairy cattle are kept and raised specially for milking. Herds of cows are kept and are regularly mated with a bull, so that they produce calves. This keeps the milk supply going. However, most commercial dairy farms do not keep bulls because of the concern that such bulls are very dangerous when being handled. Instead, cows are artificially inseminated with bull semen that is stored kept frozen in liquid nitrogen, and is "bred" by a person who artificially inseminates cows for a living.

Some large dairy herds, especially those used to produce organic or "free-range" milk are kept on pasture where there is a good supply of grass and the fields are relatively small, but not so small that they are not able to graze regularly during the season when grass is growing. This is because the cows need to be brought in for milking every day, twice a day, and should not have far to travel.

A number of dairy herds are kept in barns or sheds for most of their lives and are given feed that has been especially made for them. This feed contains grain like corn, hay including grass and alfalfa or clover, and fermented chopped feed called silage that is usually made from corn, wheat or barley. Cows are often kept in stalls where they have enough room to lay down comfortably. Such large dairies must supply straw or saw dust for the cows to rest on without getting sore from the hard concrete floor.

Cows can be milked by hand, but in many countries where there are large dairies, the cows are milked by a milking machine. The milk is collected in a large stainless steel container where it undergoes pastuerization, a process that heats milk to a very high temperature to kill any bacteria that are living in the milk. The milk is then taken by truck to a milk or dairy factory to be made into the milk we drink by being separated to remove most of the cream. It is then put into bottles or cartons to be sold. Some milk is also turned into cheese, ice cream, butter, cream and even yogurt. All of these dairy products are packaged or put into cartons or bottles and sold.

Friesians are well-known dairy cattle.

Many types of cattle are used for milk. They include:

  • the Australian Illawarra, which is a deep red or roan with short inward-curving horns.
  • the Ayrshire, which is large, irregularly spotted red and white with short up-curving horns, or polled.
  • the Brown Swiss, which is large, (smaller than the Holstein), brownish-grey to dark brown (often grey as well) with a light-coloured muzzle, belly and udder.
  • the Guernsey, which is pale red to yellow and white, and also give a lot of cream.
  • the Holstein, which is large, spotted black and white (some cows can be mostly black or mostly white) with short inward-curving horns. Some Holsteins are also polled or hornless.
  • the Jersey, which is small and fawn or dun colored with a dark face, or eye patches, black nose, hooves and front part of the lower legs. Some Jerseys are also black with a fawn saddle patch over their back. They do not give as much milk as the other breeds, but it is famous for the amount of cream they produce. Jerseys can be horned or polled, with horns often being short and curving upwards.
  • the Milking Shorthorn, which is medium-sized to large, deep red to roan and short, upturned horns or polled.
  • The black and white cow is found in most places
In many places owning cattle is a sign of wealth.

Beef cattle[change | change source]

Beef cattle are bred and raised specifically to provide meat or beef. Steers are the best type for this purpose because they can be kept in herds without fighting each other. Heifers are also often used for beef, especially those that are not suitable to be used in a breeding herd. The cows of beef cattle are used to give birth to and raise calves for meat. They are not usually used for milk, although some types of cattle, such as the Red Poll, Dexter or Red Devon (also known as the North Devon or Devon) are used for both. These type of cattle are called dual purpose breeds.

Beef cattle are often allowed graze over large areas because they do not have to be brought in every day like dairy cattle. The biggest farms in the world are cattle stations in Australia, ranches in North America and ranchos in Latin America where they run beef cattle.

Until the mid 20th century, beef cattle were often sent to market on the hoof. Cowboys or drovers would herd the cattle along the roads or on trails to the cattle markets in big towns or cities, or to railway stations where they would be loaded and shipped to these towns or cities. In Australia, sometimes the cattle would travel for hundreds of miles along roads known as 'Traveling Stock Routes'. Big herds would have thousands of 'heads of cattle'. (Cattle are counted by the "head".) Nowadays cattle are usually sent to the market in huge lorries known as road-trains. In North America, cattle are sent to auction marts, slaughter plants or other farms or ranches by large semi-trucks called cattle liners.

A Symonds bull used for breeding beef cattle.

The meat from a calf is called 'veal' and from an older beast, 'beef'. Meat that is cut into flat pieces for frying or grilling is called 'steak'. Every part of a beast can be used. The skin becomes leather. The meat which is not used by humans becomes pet food and almost everything that is left over becomes garden fertilizer. Many other products can be and are often made from cattle: for example, car tires, home insulation, paint, hand lotion, soap, jello, and many drugs are made from parts of cattle. Cow's blood is often used in special effects in the creation of action or horror movies. Bones from cattle can be made into knife handles or napkin rings. The list is endless.

Types of cattle that are used for beef:

  • Angus, which are medium-sized black, polled cattle, originating from Angus in Scotland. Angus cattle are known for excellent quality beef, and ability to be used in cross-breeding, such as crossing Angus onto Hereford cows or heifers to get black-baldies. Angus is the most popular beef breed in the United States.
  • Brahman, which are large cattle that have their origins in India, even though the breed itself was created in the United States from several breeds imported from India. Brahmans are highly adapted to the hot, tropical climate of the southern USA due to the loose, thick skin, and large ears. Bulls have large humps over their shoulders that are filled with fat, whereas cows only have small humps. This breed has been used in creating several hybrid beef breeds such as Beefmaster, Brahmousin, Brangus, Simbrah, and Brahford.
  • Charolais, which are very large, white, often horned cattle (though many are also born polled) originating from France. These cattle are very muscular, and known for lean meat. They are also a good cross on Angus or Hereford-Angus cross calves for the meat market.
  • Hereford, which are medium to large-sized cattle (some cattle are small, like the Lowliness) red cattle with white faces, white nape over the neck (some lack this), white legs, belly and throat, and may be horned or polled. Bulls tend to have horns growing down, whereas cows will have horns growing up and out.
  • Limousin, which are large, reddish coloured cattle with light around the eyes, muzzle, inside the legs, belly and up underneath the tail. Like Charolais, they originate from France and are heavily muscled, also prized for meat quality and being used as a breed for cross-breeding to produce calves for beef. They can be either horned or polled.
  • Red Angus, which are medium-sized red polled cattle, very similar in breeding to Angus cattle. In the United States, Angus and Red Angus cattle are recognized as separate breeds.
  • Shorthorn, which are medium-sized to large red, white or roan cattle, sometimes horned or polled.
  • Simmental, which are quite large, reddish-brown to light-brown cattle often with a white face and a few white patches over the body. Originating from Switzerland, these cattle were originally used as a dual-purpose breed, but in North America are primarily raised for beef. This breed can be horned or polled.
  • Texas Longhorn, which are variable in colour and small to medium in size, but most noted for the very large, expansive horns. The Texas Longhorn is one of the oldest and original breeds in North and Central America, originating from Spanish longhorn cattle brought over from Spain in the late 15th century. This breed is also the breed where legends and stories of cowboys and ranching in the Old West or Wild West stem from.
Brahman steers with a load of sugar cane in India.

Oxen[change | change source]

Oxen are cattle trained as work animals. The word "ox" is used to describe just one. They are castrated males (steers).

An ox is over four years old and grown to full size when it begins to work. Oxen are used for pulling plows and wagons, for hauling heavy loads like logs or for powering different machines such as mills and irrigation pumps.

Texas Longhorn steers were used to pull heavy wagons in the USA.

Oxen are most often used in teams of two for light work such as plowing. In past days, very large teams of fourteen to twenty oxen were used for heavy work such as logging. The oxen are put into pairs and each pair must work together. A wooden yoke is put about the neck of each pair, so that the work is shared across their shoulders. Oxen are chosen from certain breeds with horns, since the horns hold the yoke in place when the oxen lower their heads, back up or slow down.

Oxen must be trained from a young age. The owner must make or buy as many as a dozen yokes of different sizes as the animals grow. Ox teams are steered by shouted commands, whistles or the noise of a whip crack. Men who drove ox teams were called teamsters in America, wagoners in Britain, or in Australia, bullockies. Many bullockies and teamsters were famous for their voices and for their foul language.

Oxen can pull harder and longer than horses, especially for very large loads. They are not as fast as horses, but they are less often injured or less likely to startle than horses are. Many oxen are still in use all over the world, especially in poor countries.

Traditions[change | change source]

In Tibet, the Yaks are treated with honour by their owners.
  • According to Hinduism, the cow is holy, and should not be eaten: "the cow is our Mother, for she gives us her milk." See: sacred cow.
  • In Portugal, Spain and some Latin American countries, bulls are used for the sport of bullfighting. In many other countries, this is illegal.
  • A mistaken idea about cattle (mostly bulls) is that they become angry when they see the color red. This is not correct. Cattle cannot see red, because they do not have red receptors in their eyes. They can, however, see colors such as blue, yellow and green because they have yellow and blue receptors in their eyes. This mistake comes from seeing Matadors or bull-fighters using a red cape to encourage a bull to charge at them. But really, red is a color that is only used as part of Spanish tradition and culture. It is also a way to make the matador more visible from the crowd, and enables people in the crowd to easily see what is going on, and also as a way to excite them. Thus, it is merely the motion of the cape that makes a bull charge, not the colour. An angry bull or bull that is threatening you will charge if you move or if something, no matter the color, is waved in front of his face.
  • The Ox is one of the 12-year cycle of animals which appear in the Chinese Zodiac related to the Chinese calendar.
  • The constellation Taurus represents a bull.

Some close-up pictures[change | change source]

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