Laws Affecting Cattle

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Brief Summary of Bovine (Cattle) Laws
David S. Turk (2007)


The United States dairy and meat industries claim over 41 million cow lives per year. Prior to slaughter, many cows succumb to diseases contracted because of unsanitary conditions, stress induced by confined quarters, malnourishment, and/or the harsh nature of constant milking, exposure to the elements, or other various unhealthy practices.

Industries that use cattle for food (meat and dairy), leather, manufacturing products, and as work-farm animals commonly define what constitutes humane husbandry. State legislators usually exempt cattle from animal cruelty laws or codify the industry’s husbandry standards into law. These “humane” standards allow cattle handlers to remove horns and tails from cows, castrate the male cattle, and brand cattle. These accepted husbandry procedures rarely, if ever, require animal handlers to use painkillers during these painful procedures.

People breed cows for different uses, thus ranchers of beef cattle breed their cattle to optimize meat production while dairy farmers breed cows to maximize milk production. There are also breeders who seek out cattle that satisfy the whims of the rodeo industry.  

Beef Cattle

Most beef cattle spend their first months of life, sometimes their entire first year, on the range. Their owners typically brand and castrate them; sometimes they also remove the horns of the cattle.   Cattle on the range are like locusts if not properly managed, destroying grasses and depleting the soil. The government, specifically the Bureau of Land Management, allows ranchers to graze cattle on public lands under the Taylor Grazing Act.

From the range the cattle go to feedlots where they receive food designed to fatten them in a short time despite numerous health problems that the food often causes. Thirty-two percent of cattle raised for beef have severe liver abscesses upon slaughter, for example. In addition, waste products often accumulate in the feedlots, produce noxious gases that harm the animals’ respiratory systems, and can contaminate nearby soil and ground water. Because of the harsh living conditions, most feedlot operators place a low level of antibiotics in cattle feed to prevent infection.

Most cattle eventually end up in slaughterhouses and packing plants. Congress enacted the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act to help regulate how factories produce and package meat. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) enacts regulations to enforce these acts. Currently, the USDA enforces a system called the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point Program (HACCP) where individual factories in the meat packing industry develop suitable safety standards and then the USDA oversees these standards. Outside of these HACCP plans, much of the cattle-processing system is unregulated, with few controls to track cattle, ensure the safety of meat products beyond certain pathogens, or recall contaminated products that reach market shelves.  

Dairy Cattle

Dairy cows commonly live in tie stalls, dry-lot pens, or free stalls, often standing in their own waste. Many dairy operators amputate the cows’ tails to prevent waste from contaminating milk products. Cows are able to generate milk following the birth of a calf. Once cows give birth, the calves are quickly removed from their mothers, typically within three days, sometimes within a day. Dairy operators typically send male calves to veal operations, whereas the female calves, which will eventually produce between 10,000 to 36,000 pounds of milk per year, are kept. Dairy operators continually milk and then impregnate cows to keep the milk flowing. Some operators use hormones to further stimulate milk production, but regardless of whether or not a dairy operator applies hormones, cows produce much more milk in a factory setting than they would if allowed to naturally roam and feed their young. The high quantity of milk produced and the machines used to extract the milk often create health problems for cows. About 40% of dairy cows are lame upon death due to harsh living conditions.

Veal Cattle

Veal comes primarily from male dairy.   Because dairy calves were not bred to produce meat, the meat industry deems it not cost effective to raise male dairy calves to adulthood for meat. Thus, the male calves are confined in tiny pens that restrict their movement and they are fed powdered milk feed that keeps them malnourished (anemic). The lack of exercise and malnutrition produce the white, soft flesh called veal that sells at a price worth the cost of keeping the calves alive rather then killing them upon birth, although about 10% of calves die prior to slaughter due to rough living conditions.

Labeling Standards for Cattle

Cow-derived products that make it to stores receive labels that the USDA oversees. The USDA enacts labeling standards to help ensure that meat products are safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged. The FDA does the same for milk products. Thus, these agencies oversee and regulate labeling claims. They oversee claims that involve hormones, feed, pasture, antibiotics, and other labeling statements. According to many critics the FDA and USDA often create broad or ambiguous labeling standards.

Cattle Used in Rodeos

Not all commercial uses of cows culminate in a tangible product; some cattle end up in rodeos. How rodeos treat their animals during the events largely falls outside the spectrum of federal animal cruelty statutes, thus states mostly define a rodeo’s boundaries. Some states enact loose laws that defer to rodeo standards as to what is acceptable, whereas other states have laws that forbid certain rodeo practices.   For example, Rhode Island requires that ropes used to rope calves do not tighten to form a knot, but rather release their grasp once pulled tight. Rhode Island’s laws make it unusual. Most states that host many rodeo events do not pass statutes that bar any portion of popular rodeo events. Numerous rodeo events make use of cattle: bull riding, tie-down roping, team roping, and steer wrestling.

Other Commercial Uses of Cattle

Researchers use cattle blood in laboratories, often for cell cultures.   Manufacturers of adhesives, fertilizer, and fire extinguishers also sometimes use blood in their products. Tallow, which is fat derived from various parts of cattle, is commonly in shortening and chewing gum; some industrial oils also contain tallow. Factories can further refine tallow to extract fatty acids and glycerin that is then used to create plastics, tires, crayons, soaps, lubricants, herbicides, fishing line, medications, rubber, textiles, detergents, jellies, creams, shampoos, conditioners, cleaning agents, aftershave and many other products. Manufacturers derive collagen from connective tissue and beef skin to make sealants, bone graft substitutes, food additives, wound dressings, and other substances. Manufacturing plants can further refine collagen to make gelatin for use in food (marshmallows, jellybeans, fruit chews, caramels, various desserts and dairy products, etc.), cosmetics, and various industries (e.g. photography). Insulin, pet food, charcoal ash, ceramics, paints, and many other products contain processed cattle organs and glands.

For each year between 2001 and 2005 the United States has exported about a billion dollars worth of leather each year.


Products made from or that contain parts of cattle are everywhere. These products are so ubiquitous that people often interact with cattle, in some form, on a daily basis. There are not many laws that oversee the processes that people follow when they breed, raise, and ultimately slaughter cattle. The laws that do exist typically do more to foster the industry than to protect the welfare of the cattle. A growing segment of the population looks to “humane meats” for their meals, but fail to consider that many of their leather products, plastics, detergents, skincare products, and many other purchases come from cattle that live short, abysmal lives. State and federal governments can do more to protect the lives of cattle, but thus far these sovereigns have not seen fit to protect cattle welfare nearly as much as they consider the industries that exist because of these cattle.


Biological Summary of Cattle
David S. Turk (2007)

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


Related articles

Changing the Tax System to Effect Humane Treatment of Farm Animals , Eden Gray, 3 J. Animal L. 159 (2007).

Got Organic Milk? "Pasture"-ize it! An Analysis of the USDA;s Pasture Regulations for Organic Dairy Animals, Fatema Merchant, 14 Animal Law 237 (2007).

What About Wilbur? Proposing a Federal Statute to Provide Minimum Humane Living Conditions for Farm Animals Raised for Food Production , Amy Mosel, 27 UDTNLR 133 (Fall, 2001).

Beyond the Law: Agribusiness and the Systemic Abuse of Animals Raised for Food or Food Production , David J. Wolfson, 2 ANIMALL 123 ( 1996).


Related cases

Table of Cases Dealing Generally with Cattle


Related laws

Text of the Humane Slaughter Act

Table of State Humane Slaughter Laws

Table of Laws Dealing Generally with Cattle


Related Links

Animal Center Links:

Iowa Hog Farming Topic Area

Legal Protections of the Domestic Chicken Topic Area

Comparative EU-US Cruelty Laws Topic Area (contains a detailed comparison of EU and US farming practices)

External Links:

Government/Institutional Links:

United States Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Marketing Service -

United States Department of Agriculture: Food Safety and Inspection Service -

Livestock and Meat Marketing Claims [USDA] -

Ohio State Research: Only Half of Recalled Meat and Poultry is Recovered, Study Finds -

Advocacy Links:

An HSUS Report: Welfare Issues with Tail Docking of Dairy Cows -

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals: Cruelty to Animals: Cows -

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals: Cow's Milk: A Cruel and Unhealthy Product -

The Cost of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management Livestock Grazing Programs -

Industry Links:

American Meat Institute -

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association: -

National Dairy Council -



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