Full Title Name:  Biological Summary of Cattle

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David S. Turk Place of Publication:  Michigan State University College of Law Publish Year:  2007 Primary Citation:  Animal Legal and Historical Center

The following is a biological summary of cattle. The document quickly touches upon history, biology, and social nature of cattle. It also mentions housing used at dairy operations and lists definitions for selected terminology.

Cattle, commonly referred to as cows, are domesticated members of the Bovidae family. People likely first domesticated cows about 8,000 years ago in Mesopotamia and other early civilizations due to cows’ large size, mild disposition, and relatively simple diet and because cattle provided food, hides, and could be used for heavy labor. In the mid-16 th century, Spaniards and other Europeans introduced cattle to the American continents.

Cattle process food with a stomach composed of four sections. A cow’s digestive system allows the cow to regurgitate and repeatedly chew otherwise indigestible food. Because of this ability and because cows possess hooves, biologists categorize cows as “ruminants.”

Cows can live to twenty-five years of age, although in the food industry they typically last no more than four or five years, with cattle raised for beef living even shorter lives.

Cows are social animals and, if unrestrained, form herds with dynamic relationships among the members. Social bonds also exist between mother and calf.   If separated from her calf, it is not surprising to hear a mother cow bellow for hours, if not days.

Experts estimate that 1.3 billion cattle populate the planet. About 30% of these cattle live in Asia. 14% live in Central and North America.

Dairy producers primarily use three types of housing:

  1. Tie stalls: Tie Stalls make it possible to observe and inspect cows by restricting their movement, an unrestricted cow will usually walk 6,000 or more meters a day. Tie stalls also interfere with the natural herd instincts of cows.
  2. Dry-lot pens: Dry-lot pens allow access to limited dirt pens that allow social interaction and exercise, although these pens often lack shade, shelter, and proper drainage. Sometimes the pens will offer shade, sprinklers, and other amenities.
  3. Free stalls: Free stalls provide bedded stalls that allow the cows to move from the stalls to concrete or earth yards where the water and food sits.

Dairy producers rarely need to brand the cows because they will not intermix with other cattle, but often dock the cows’ tails, allegedly to reduce mastitis (infection of the mammary glands) and to prevent waste matter from getting into the milk.

Selected Terminology

Bovine : a Subfamily of the Bovidae Family that includes many hoofed animals, cattle included

Brand : permanent mark on a cattle’s hide

Branding Iron : tool typically heated or chilled to apply a brand

Bull : a male bovine that is not castrated

Calf : a baby cow

Corriente : a bred of cattle often used for rodeo events

Cow : a female cow; also used to generally refer to cattle

De-horning : cattle handlers often remove horns from calves before the horns fully form

“Downed” cattle : cattle too sick or injured to stand or walk on their own

Ear Tag : to mark cattle some ranchers attach tags to cattle ears

Feedlot : enclosure where cattle are kept and fed food to make them quickly gain weight

Heifer : a young female cow

Rodeo : competitive event where participants rope, tie, and ride various animals, cattle included

Steer : a castrated male bovine


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