In Praise of the Beef Cow
by Heather Smith Thomas of Salmon, ID
Humans have been raising cattle for thousands of years. The early ancestors of present-day cattle were tall, dark-haired bovines called Aurochs, roaming over what is now Europe. Early people hunted cattle for meat like we hunt deer and elk today; wild cattle were the main diet of Stone Age man. Eventually some of our ancestors captured cattle and tamed them, about 10,000 years ago. The tame cattle provided a handy supply of meat and hides, without having to hunt them. Then man discovered he could also hitch cattle to a cart, plow or wagon; oxen were used for transportation long before horses were. Cattle and sheep were domesticated before horses, probably because they were easier to catch.
In early records of human history, we find a very close relationship between humans and cattle. Ancient Persian hymns and proverbs (8000 years ago) give detailed descriptions about taking care of cattle. The Bible, the Koran, and other holy books of various religions tell about man caring for animals. African religions with no written scriptures have many stories passed down by word of mouth about God giving cattle to man, and man being responsible for taking care of the cattle.
Christopher Columbus brought cattle to North America, but maybe not the first ones. Vikings may have brought cattle even earlier, but probably butchered them all for food. Spanish explorers and settlers brought longhorns, and later the Pilgrims and other New England settlers brought English cattle. The British breeds were large and strong, used as oxen as well as for beef.
Today there are more than 100 breeds in the United States. Some are dairy cattle, but the vast majority of the different breeds are raised for beef. Cattle are a very efficient way to produce food for humans, since bovines can graze land that won’t grow crops. Much of the land in our country is either too rocky, infertile, dry, wet, steep, or high elevation (with growing season too short) to farm for crops. Of the 2.2 billion acres in the U.S. only about 15% is suitable for producing food crops. Yet nearly half of the non-crop land grows grass (the other half is desert, forest, cities, roads or some other situation without grass). Over 90% of the 810 million acres in our country used for cow pasture will not grow human food crops, so beef cattle are an excellent way to use these lands to create food. Cattle can eat roughages that humans cannot. About 75% of the world’s plant material can’t be digested by humans, but cattle can convert some of these roughages into meat.
Contrary to what some folks think, cattle are eco-friendly. Their close relatives, the bison, roamed this continent in vast numbers and were an important part of the ecosystem for thousands of years. The grasses in North America evolved being grazed, and grasslands need a hoofed grazer for best health and productivity. Our domestic cattle now fill this niche and are used for good management of rangelands and wildlife habitat. They keep grass and brush in proper balance, mowing the grasses at proper seasons to keep the growth from getting too mature and unpalatable for fussier grazers such as deer and elk. Deer use grass for only a short time in early spring, eating protein-rich tender new shoots. Wildlife biologists learned the hard way (after excluding cattle from crucial wildlife habitat) that elk and deer do best when bovine grazers clear away the tall, mature grasses and give wildlife access to the more nutritious regrowth.
Domestic cattle can be used for land management and grass harvest while providing us with meat and leather — and much more. When butchered at a packing plant, hardly any of the carcass goes to waste. By-products from cattle carcasses are used in many industries, in the manufacture of everything from cars to medicines, supplying ingredients for hundreds of products including pet food, Jell-O and marshmallows, ball bearings for machinery, and the stearic acid used in making car tires. More than 300 kinds of medicines and drugs (such as for treating diabetes, allergies and asthma) can be made from cattle byproducts. Cows are walking storehouses for many important life-saving drugs created from parts of the cow such as the blood, adrenal glands, pancreas and lungs.
Cattle by-products are also used in artists’ brushes, baseball gloves, brake fluid, candles, car wax, cosmetics, crayons, dice, chewing gum, fertilizer, fire retardant, margarine, matches, oils, paint, photographic film, piano keys, shoes, suede, soaps, shoe polish, upholstery, rug pads and house insulation. Leather is used for tennis balls. The “Pigskin” football is actually cowhide. Hides of more than 100,000 cattle are used each year for leather sports equipment. Some of the fats in the cow’s carcass supply ingredients for lipstick, explosives, face cream and hand cream. Bones, hoofs and horns are used in buttons, bone china, gelatin for photographic film, wallpaper, sandpaper, toothbrushes and violin strings. Even vegetarians and folks who don’t want animals raised for meat use cattle products every day if they wear leather belts or shoes, play tennis, drive a car, do artwork with brushes, take photos, chew gum, eat Jell-O or use certain medications. Cattle products constantly enrich our lives, whether we know it or not.
Those of us who raise cows, or grow our own beef, know that our lives are pleasantly touched by cattle; we enjoy and appreciate our personal relationship with them and what they do for us, mentally and physically. They provide us with good food, while mowing the “back 40” or keeping the grass and weeds trimmed on a small acreage — providing a neater landscape, fire insurance and weed control. If we have a large acreage or ranch that grows grass better than food crops, cattle are a way to harvest the grass and other roughages our land grows, converting otherwise worthless plants into a saleable, edible product. Raising cattle can be a soul-satisfying experience. They are fascinating animals, each with a unique personality. They can be entertaining and immensely interesting; working with cattle is never boring. It can be physically challenging at times, as when pulling a calf, trying to correct a malpresentation so a calf can be born, or trying to catch an elusive calf for medical treatment. But for folks who enjoy raising cattle, the chores of caring for them are not really “work.” Our interaction with these animals is part of our enjoyment of life; our work is our pleasure, for cattle definitely add more quality of life to our daily experiences.