Conservation status: Domesticated
Friesian/Holstein cow
Friesian/Holstein cow
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Bovidae
Subfamily: Bovinae
Genus: Bos
Species: B. taurus
Binomial name
Bos taurus
Linnaeus, 1758

Cattle (often called cows in vernacular and contemporary usage, or kye as the Scots plural of cou) are domesticated ungulates, a member of the subfamily Bovinae of the family Bovidae. They are raised as livestock for meat (called beef and veal), dairy products (milk), leather and as draught animals (pulling carts, plows and the like). In some countries, such as India, they are subject to religious ceremonies and respect. It is estimated that there are 1.4 billion head of cattle in the world today.[1]

Cattle were originally identified by Carolus Linnaeus as three separate species. These were Bos taurus, the European cattle, including similar types from Africa and Asia; Bos indicus, the zebu; and the extinct Bos primigenius, the aurochs. The aurochs is ancestral to both zebu and European cattle. More recently these three have increasingly been grouped as one species, sometimes using the names Bos primigenius taurus, Bos primigenius indicus and Bos primigenius primigenius. Complicating the matter is the ability of cattle to interbreed with other closely related species. Hybrid individuals and even breeds exist, not only between European cattle and zebu but also with yaks, banteng, gaur, and bison, a cross-genera hybrid. For example, genetic testing of the Dwarf Lulu breed, the only humpless "Bos taurus-type" cattle in Nepal, found them to be a mix of European cattle, zebu and yak.[2] Cattle cannot successfully be bred with water buffalo or African buffalo. (See aurochs for the history of domestication, and zebu for peculiarities of that group.)




The word "cattle" did not originate as a name for bovine animals. It derives from the Latin caput, head, and thus originally meant "unit of livestock" or "one head". The word is closely related to "chattel" (a unit of property) and to "capital" in the sense of property.

Older English sources like King James Version of the Bible refer to livestock in general as cattle. Additionally other species of the genus Bos are often called cattle or wild cattle. This article refers to the common modern meaning of "cattle", the European domestic bovine.

The term 'cattle' itself is not a plural, but a mass noun. Thus one may refer to "some cattle", but not "three cattle". There is no universally used singular equivalent in modern English to 'cattle' other than the various gender and age-specific terms (though 'catron' is occasionally seen as a half-serious proposal). This is a rare situation in the English language and hence a source of confusion. Strictly speaking, the singular noun for the domestic bovine is ox: a bull is a male ox and a cow is a female ox. That this was once the standard name for domestic bovines is shown in placenames such as Oxford. But "ox" is now rarely used in this general sense. Today "cow" is frequently used by the general population as a gender-neutral term, although it is meant to be used solely to mean female (females of other animals, such as whales or elephants, are also called cows). To refer to a specific number of these animals without specifying their gender, it must be stated as (for example) "ten head of cattle." Some Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and Scottish farmers use the term 'cattlebeast' or simply "beast". In some areas of the American South (particularly the Appalachian region) the local inhabitants call an individual animal a "beef critter". This was common until the 1960's and has faded from usage in all but a few areas and even then it is used mostly among the aged inhabitants.

Obsolete terms for cattle include 'neat' (horned oxen, from which 'neatsfoot oil' is derived), 'beef' (young ox) and 'beefing' (young animal fit for slaughtering). Cattle raised for human consumption are called 'beef cattle'. Within the beef cattle industry in parts of the United States, the older term 'beef' (plural 'beeves') is still used to refer to an animal of either gender. Cows of certain breeds that are kept for the milk they give are called 'dairy cows'.

Young cattle are called calves. A young female before she has calved is called a 'heifer' [3][4] (pronounced /ˈhɛfəɹ/, "heffer"). A young female that has had only one calf is sometimes called a "first-calf heifer." A castrated male is called a 'bullock' or 'steer', unless kept for draft purposes, in which case it is called an 'ox' (plural 'oxen'), not to be confused with the related wild musk ox. If castrated as an adult, it is called a 'stag'. An intact male is called a 'bull'. An adult female who has had more than two calves is called a 'cow'. The archaic plural of cow is 'kine' or 'kyne' (which comes from the same English stem as 'cow'). The adjective applying to cattle is 'bovine'.



An Austrian cow
An Austrian cow

Cattle are ruminants, meaning that they have a digestive system that allows them to utilize otherwise undigestible foods by repeatedly regurgitating and rechewing them as "cud." The cud is then reswallowed and further digested by specialized microorganisms that live in the rumen. These microbes are primarily responsible for breaking down cellulose and other carbohydrates into volatile fatty acids (VFAs) that cattle use as their primary metabolic fuel. The microbes that live inside of the rumen are also able to synthesize amino acids from non-protein nitrogenous sources such as urea and ammonia. These features allow cattle to thrive on grasses and other vegetation.

Cattle have one stomach, with four compartments. They are the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum, the rumen being the largest compartment. Cattle sometimes consume metal objects which are deposited in the reticulum, the smallest compartment, and this is where hardware disease occurs. The reticulum is known as the "Honeycomb." The omasum's main function is to absorb water and nutrients from the digestible feed. The omasum is known as the "Many Plies." The abomasum is most like the human stomach; this is why it is known as the "True Stomach."

The aurochs was originally spread throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia. In historical times, their range was restricted to Europe, and the last animals were killed by poachers in Masovia, Poland, in 1627. Breeders have attempted to recreate the original gene pool of the aurochs by careful crossing of commercial breeds, creating the Heck cattle breed.

A popular misconception about cattle (primarily bulls) is that they are enraged by the color red. This is incorrect, as cattle are mostly color-blind. The myth arose from the use of red capes in the sport of bullfighting; in fact, two different capes are used. The capote is a large, flowing cape that is magenta and yellow. The more famous muleta is the smaller, red cape, used exclusively for the final, fatal segment of the fight. It is not the color of the cape that angers the bull, but rather the movement of the fabric that irritates the bull and incites it to charge.

The gestation period for a cow is nine months. A newborn calf weighs approximately 35-45kg. Cows can live up to be 25 years.

A cow emits a large amount of methane gas in a single day; 95% of this methane is produced through belching, not flatulence [5]. As methane is a potent greenhouse gas (23 times as warming as carbon dioxide), research is underway on dietary supplements that can reduce these releases.[6].


Uses of cattle

Cow and calf
Cow and calf

Cattle occupy a unique role in human history, domesticated since at least the early Neolithic. They are raised for meat (beef cattle), milk (dairy cattle), and hides. They are also used as draft animals and in certain sports. Some consider cattle the oldest form of wealth, and cattle raiding consequently one of the earliest forms of theft.

In Portugal, Spain and some Latin American countries, bulls are used in the sport of bullfighting while a similar sport, Jallikattu, is seen in South India; in many other countries this is illegal. Other sports such as bull riding are seen as part of a rodeo, especially in North America. Bull-leaping, a central ritual in Bronze Age Minoan culture (see Bull (mythology)), still exists in south-western France.

The outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) have limited some traditional uses of cattle for food, for example the eating of brains or spinal cords.

In modern times, cattle are also used for judging in agricultural competitions. In these competitions, the cows are judged in a class, where the judge, after judging the cattle, announces a winner. These competitions can involve live cattle or carcases, which are both judged to determine which cow is the best.


Cattle husbandry

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Hereford cattle grazing in a field at the Nullamunjie Olive Grove in Tongio, in Victoria, Australia.
Hereford cattle grazing in a field at the Nullamunjie Olive Grove in Tongio, in Victoria, Australia.

Cattle are often raised by allowing herds to graze on the grasses of large tracts of rangeland called ranches. Raising cattle in this manner allows the productive use of land that might be unsuitable for growing crops. The most common interactions with cattle involve daily feeding, cleaning and milking. Many routine husbandry practices involve ear tagging, dehorning, loading, medical operations, vaccinations and hoof care, as well as training for agricultural shows and preparations. There are also some cultural differences in working with cattle- the cattle husbandry of Fulani men rests on behavioural techniques, whereas in Europe cattle are controlled primarily by physical means like fences.[7]

Breeders can utilise cattle husbandry to reduce M. bovis infection susceptibility by selective breeding and maintaining herd health to avoid concurrent disease.[8] Cattle are farmed for beef, veal, dairy, leather and they are sometimes used simply to maintain grassland for wildlife- for example, in Epping Forest, England. They are often used in some of the most wild places for livestock. Depending on the breed, cattle can survive on hill grazing, heaths, marshes, moors and semi desert. Modern cows are more commercial than older breeds and having become more specialised are less versatile. For this reason many smaller farmers still favour old breeds, like the dairy breed of cattle Jersey.



Ploughing with oxen. A miniature from an early-sixteenth-century manuscript of the Middle English poem God Spede ye Plough, held at the British Museum
Ploughing with oxen. A miniature from an early-sixteenth-century manuscript of the Middle English poem God Spede ye Plough, held at the British Museum
Draft Zebus in Mumbai, India.
Draft Zebus in Mumbai, India.
Riding an ox in Hova, Sweden.
Riding an ox in Hova, Sweden.

Oxen (singular ox) are large and heavy set breeds of Bos taurus cattle trained as draft animals. Often they are adult, castrated males. Usually an ox is over four years old due to the need for training and to allow it to grow to full size. Oxen are used for plowing, transport, hauling cargo, grain-grinding by trampling or by powering machines, irrigation by powering pumps, and wagon drawing. Oxen were commonly used to skid logs in forests, and sometimes still are, in low-impact select-cut logging. Oxen are most often used in teams of two, paired, for light work such as carting. In the past, teams might have been larger, with some teams exceeding twenty animals when used for logging.

An ox is nothing more than a mature bovine with an "education." The education consists of the animal's learning to respond appropriately to the teamster's (ox driver's) signals. These signals are given by verbal commands or by noise (whip cracks) and many teamsters were known for their voices and language. In North America, the commands are (1) get up, (2) whoa, (3) back up, (4) gee (turn to the right) and (5) haw (turn to the left). Oxen must be painstakingly trained from a young age. Their teamster must make or buy as many as a dozen yokes of different sizes as the animals grow. A wooden yoke is fastened about the neck of each pair so that the force of draft is distributed across their shoulders. From calves, oxen are chosen with horns since the horns hold the yoke in place when the oxen lower their heads, back up, or slow down (particularly with a wheeled vehicle going downhill). Yoked oxen cannot slow a load like harnessed horses can; the load has to be controlled downhill by other means. The gait of the ox is often important to ox trainers, since the speed the animal walks should roughly match the gait of the ox driver who must work with it.

American ox trainers favored larger breeds for their ability to do more work and for their intelligence. Because they are larger animals, the typical ox is the male of a breed, rather than the smaller female. Females are potentially more useful producing calves and milk.

Oxen can pull harder and longer than horses, particularly on obstinate or almost un-movable loads. This is one of the reasons that teams were dragging logs from forests long after horses had taken over most other draught uses in Europe and the New World. Though not as fast as horses, they are less prone to injury because they are more sure-footed and do not try to jerk the load.

An "ox" is not a unique breed of bovine, nor have any "blue" oxen lived outside the folk tales surrounding Paul Bunyan, the mythical American logger.

Many oxen are still in use worldwide, especially in developing countries. In the Third World oxen can lead lives of misery, as they are frequently malnourished. Oxen are driven with sticks and goads when they are weak from malnutrition. When there is insufficient food for humans, animal welfare has low priority.


Cattle in religion, traditions and folklore


Cattle in Hindu tradition

A religious illustration from 1890 by the Nagpur Cow Protection League.
A religious illustration from 1890 by the Nagpur Cow Protection League.

Gandhi explained the Hindu feelings about cattle this way:

The cow to me means the entire sub-human world, extending man’s sympathies beyond his own species. Man through the cow is enjoined to realize his identity with all that lives. Why the ancient rishis selected the cow for apotheosis is obvious to me. The cow in India was the best comparison; she was the giver of plenty. Not only did she give milk, but she also made agriculture possible. The cow is a poem of pity; one reads pity in the gentle animal. She is the second mother to millions of mankind. Protection of the cow means protection of the whole dumb creation of God. The appeal of the lower order of creation is all the more forceful because it is speechless.

Cattle in popular culture

Cattle are thought by many to be inherently funny, and appear often in popular culture. Most of the time, the cattle in question is a Holstein cow, since this breed's black on white markings best represent a stereotypical 'cow'. This is largely because of the essentially stationary and unreactive nature of the domestic cow, which makes them appear wry, as well as their propensity for flatulence. The discordant sound made by a cow in distress is also held to be very funny.


Present status

The world cattle population is estimated to be about 1.3 billion head. India is the nation with the largest number of cattle, about 400 million, followed by Brazil and China, with about 150 million each, and the United States, with about 100 million. Africa has about 200 million head of cattle, many of which are herded in traditional ways and serve largely as tokens of their owners' wealth. Europe has about 130 million head of cattle (CT 2006, SC 2006).

Cattle today are the basis of a many billion dollar industry worldwide. The international trade in beef for 2000 was over $30 billion and represented only 23 percent of world beef production. (Clay 2004). The production of milk, which is also made into cheese, butter, yogurt, and other dairy products, is comparable in size to beef production and provides an important part of the food supply for much of the world's people. Cattle hides, used for leather to make shoes and clothing, are another important product. In India and other poorer nations, cattle are also important as draft animals as they have been for thousands of years.

Concerns have been expressed about the impact of cattle on the environment. Pasture land for cattle grazing is now the largest agricultural land use world-wide. The conversion of natural environments to pasture land has threatened native plants and animals in many places; this is especially a problem in Brazil where large areas of rainforest are being cut down for cattle pasture. Cattle naturally produce methane gas though their digestive process and, because of their large numbers, this is thought to contribute to the process of global warming. Cattle keeping also can contribute to water pollution, air pollution, and soil degradation (Clay 2004). Feral cattle, domestic cattle which have returned to the wild, are also an environmental problem in many places (ISSG 2005).

A large part of the grains, legumes, and other crops grown world-wide are used to feed cattle. Cattle keeping also is a big user of water and of gasoline and other energy sources. It has sometimes been asked if it would benefit humanity more if the cattle population was less and more of these resources were used to feed people directly (Clay 2004).




See also



  2. Takeda, Kumiko, et al. (April 2004). "Mitochondrial DNA analysis of Nepalese domestic dwarf cattle Lulu". Animal Science Journal 75 (2): 103-110. DOI:10.1111/j.1740-0929.2004.00163.x. Retrieved on 2006-11-07.
  3. Definition of heifer. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved on 2006-11-29.
  4. Warren, Andrea. Pioneer Girl: Growing Up on the Praire (PDF). Lexile. Retrieved on 2006-11-29.
  6. Triad bid to stop belching. Retrieved on 2006-01-04.
  7. Lott, Dale F., Hart, Benjamin L. (October 1979). "Applied ethology in a nomadic cattle culture". Applied Animal Ethology 5 (4): 309-319. DOI:10.1016/0304-3762(79)90102-0. Retrieved on 2006-11-07.
  8. Krebs JR, Anderson T, Clutton-Brock WT, et al. (1997). "Bovine tuberculosis in cattle and badgers: an independent scientific review" (PDF). Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Retrieved on 2006-09-04.
  9. Kane, J., Anzovin, S., & Podell, J. (1997). Famous First Facts. New York, NY: H.W. Wilson, 5. ISBN 0-8242-0930-3.
  10. Madden, Thomas (May 1992). "Akabeko". OUTLOOK. Online copy accessed 18 January 2007.
  11. Mahabharata, Book 13-Anusasana Parva, Section LXXVI

External links

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