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The Cow: More Than Just A Producer Of Milk - Yellow Magpie

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Mammals no image

Published on April 6th, 2010 | by Yellow Magpie


The Cow: More Than Just A Producer Of Milk

What is your experience of cows? If you have not encountered one, what image is formed in your imagination? Do they conjure up the likeness of docility? Do you think of great big lumbering creatures raking grass with their highly dexterous tongues?

Or perhaps when you look at a cow and it stares right back at you something inside you stirs freeing up emotions of dread and anxiety? Indeed perhaps your reaction is one of indifference?


When most people think of cows they picture slow, dim-witted animals mowing large tracts of land. However, some people are frightened and react to them with a mixture of paranoia and fear. Then they are usually reassured by a knowing farmer that it is in their head. But is it?

Cows are highly important to people. Not only are they widely consumed both in terms of meat and clothing, but they are also invaluable to the economy.

Auroch Ancestors

Cows or cattle are our most common ungulates or hoofed animals. Although it is hard to put an exact number on the amount of cows on the planet, it is estimated that there are in excess of one billion.

Cows owe their origins to wild oxen known as Aurochs. Aurochs (Bos primigenius) were larger versions of modern cattle. Measuring over 190 cm (six feet 3 inches) at the shoulder and weighing an estimated 1,000 kg (2,200 lbs) these were large animals.

Aurochs Photo By Sigismund von Herberstein


Aurochs were domesticated in Mesopotamia over 8,000 years ago having originated in what is now known as India. The adoption of cows marked a turning point in human evolution. Cows were no longer just a source of food, they were also an indicator of wealth and property. There are many references in the bible and historical documents to cattle being treated as both property and an indicator of wealth.

Cattle were selected for domestication because they fulfilled many of the criteria needed. They only consumed grass which meant they were not a direct threat to humans. They were also edible and they produced a lot of milk, consistently, every day. Coupled with this, is the fact that cows are an incredibly docile animal especially given their size.

Follow The Herd

Not many animals of comparable size are this tame. On the contrary, most are aggressive and do not take kindly to being ordered around. An added bonus is the herd mentality of the cow. This makes them ideal for two reasons. When attacked a lot of animals tend to run away. Cows instead group together and face their opponents. From a farming point of view, this makes them ideal as they won’t run off if they are endangered or afraid.

Secondly, being part of a herd means that cows are placid and used to orders from within the group hierarchy. This makes them highly suitable for domestication.

Herd Of Cows

Grudge-Bearing Intelligence

Cows have been great servants to people down through the ages. It is hard to imagine what they have gotten in return. They are far more intelligent that many of us would care to imagine. With an ability to learn cause-and-effect behaviour, cows often pull levers to dispense food, much to the annoyance of the farmer.

Cattle also have great memories. There are countless tales of farmers who have noticed that certain cows ignore other cows. This has been confirmed by scientists studying cattle behaviour. They have observed that cows can hold grudges against both people and other cows throughout their lifetimes.

Cows also have great spatial memories. Some of their owners have recollected incidents of cows going missing after being auctioned only to return to their original farm several days later.

Expensive Commodities

Despite the fact that cows are undoubtedly very valuable to world economies, in the modern age they are an expensive commodity to own. In contemporary, ‘First World’ countries, a lot of fertiliser is required to raise cattle to keep the food industry satiated. It is estimated that four pounds of grain and over 400 square metres (1,200 square feet) of grass is required for every pound of beef produced.

Swiss Braunvieh Cow Photo By Daniel Schwen

Grass-Eating Digestive Machines

Cattle can eat up to 12 kilogrammes (25 lbs) of dry grass a day. In real terms, this equates to roughly 20 to 30 kilogrammes (45 to 70 lbs) of wet grass, depending on moisture content.

Cows are well documented ruminants. They repeatedly digest and regurgitate their food, the ‘cud’. This process allows normally indigestible cellulose to be converted into fatty acids. Although it is commonly said that cows have four stomachs this is not strictly true. They have one stomach divided into four compartments. These are the rumen, omasum, reticulum and abomasum or ‘true stomach’.

Below is a diagramme of a cow’s four ‘stomach’s.

Ruminant Digestive System By Pearson Scott Foresman

Methane Problem

Methane gas emanating from cows is causing concern amongst scientists. It is thought that cattle alone are responsible for up to 4 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Although that figure may seem small one must take into account that this figure is higher than emissions from cars and other transport vehicles.

Currently, scientists are experimenting with different feeds to see if they can reduce methane emissions. A new methane reducing pill called a bolus has been made by scientists to further combat the problem. Commonly described as a fist-sized, plant-based pill, the bolus remains inside the cow and slowly dissolves over a period of months. However, these new developments are sure to add to the cost of farming.


Useful Bovines

Cows have been very beneficial to humanity. They have been invaluable in the development of the vaccination and have helped to eliminate small pox. Cows are used to produce an anti-arthritic drug, manufacture anticoagulants and they are of enormous benefit to the pharmaceutical industry in general.

Although people still view them as intellectual dullards with enormous appetites for grassy vegetation, these perceptions are starting to change. Perhaps the next time a cow stares up at a person they will realise that an intelligent creature is returning the gaze.

Vital Statistics

  • The average height of a cow (Vacca) varies from breed to breed and is also dependent on the sex. Typically, cows are 130 to 150 cm (4 feet 4 inches to just under 5 feet).
  • They weigh 600 to 1200 kg (1300 to 2500 lbs).
  • Cows live an average of 15 years. However, some can live to be as old as 25 years.
  • Cows are found in every continent with the exception of Antarctica.

Further Reading

Cattle Breeds: An Encyclopedia is a comprehensive encyclopedia on cattle breeds including prehistory species. The Field Guide to Cattle is a lighter version dealing with myriad of cattle breeds.

For those interested in learning about cattle raising, Salad Bar Beef goes from cattle rearing to marketing your beef and is a comprehensive read. Storey’s Guide to Raising Beef Cattle is a similar book that looks at the ins and outs of raising cattle.

For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom, you can access Cattle BreedsThe Field Guide to CattleSalad Bar Beef and Storey’s Guide to Raising Beef Cattle.

For those who live in Canada, you can obtain Cattle BreedsThe Field Guide to CattleSalad Bar Beef and Storey’s Guide to Raising Beef Cattle.

For Germany: Cattle BreedsThe Field Guide to CattleSalad Bar Beef and Storey’s Guide to Raising Beef Cattle.

For France: Cattle BreedsThe Field Guide to CattleSalad Bar Beef and Storey’s Guide to Raising Beef Cattle.

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