Mad about Science:

Have a Cow

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

If you’re looking upon the title of this article with a feeling of drudgery and boredom, shame! Shame! You should know by now I can make anything interesting.

At first glance, the most interesting thing to come out of a cow is that double bacon swiss cheeseburger for lunch, and even then the best part of that comes from a pig.

Cows are so much more than meat. They are testament to the overwhelming power and impact human beings have made and continue to make on the world at large. I know you’re sick of hearing me talk about climate change, carbon footprint, blah blah blah, so I’m not going to focus on that, even if cows are a major contributor to greenhouse gases.

Instead, I’m going to show you what other impacts cows have had on human society, and what they continue to do for us.

First and foremost, cows are food. An important food. They bring more diversity to the table by themselves than most other animals can even when paired.

Let’s take a look at a traditional American barbecue lineup: cheeseburgers, hot dogs, chips and dip with sour cream, and a cheesecake.

Right there, you’re looking at a bare minimum of 6 ingredients coming from cows alone.

This sort of diversity has helped humankind thrive for tens of thousands of years, and the ease of raising cattle has been one of the major pillars elevating humankind to the level it has reached today.

Let’s look at the cow itself. Contrary to what you might think, all cows aren’t inherently dairy and meat cows. Just like chickens, which are separated into layer, broiler and hybrid classes, different breeds of cow are used for different purposes; at least on an industrial level. Cows come in all sorts of shapes and sizes—they aren’t all just ol’ black and white bessie.

Speaking of the good ol’ fashioned black and white bessie, that cow is actually a breed called the Holstein Friesian. They grow up to be about 1,500 pounds at maturity and were originally imported from North Holland and Friesland, which is now part of Northern Germany. Holsteins are famous for their great milk, but have since been eclipsed by the much more economic Jersey Cow. Despite the fact that all Holsteins look the same, no two Holsteins have the exact same markings.

When you think about a steak, or where that steak comes from, I bet your mind goes to one cow and one cow only: Texas Longhorn, y’all!

The Texas Longhorn is unmistakable in appearance. It’s in its name: It has long horns! Long, straight horns, with beef cuts that are famous around the world. You might be surprised to find out that most of the beef you eat actually doesn’t even come from Texas Longhorns. Ranchers and butchers alike found better flavor, faster grow times and more meat from a cow called the Hereford, a huge stocky beast that gets up to about 1,200 pounds of large muscle before slaughter, though beef from the Black Angus cow reigns supreme, outnumbering the next seven best-selling breeds combined. Being a true Black Angus cow is to be part of a large and elite club, where admittance demands 10 different qualifications to be met. No pressure!

While on the topic of meat, I have to mention some of the most coveted beef in the world: Kobe beef. It’s rare, it’s expensive and it has a ton of genetic history behind it to make it that way. The breed it originates from are called Kobe Beef cattle, and are Wagyu, which means “Japanese cattle.” These cows live the good life, being fed rich food infused with beer and regular massages to keep the beef tender. Yeesh, I can’t even get to the chiropractor, but my steak can gets spa days.

Mysterious and ancient as it sounds, the breed is really only about 100 years old, with an emphasis on quality placed upon the cattle after the conclusion of World War II.

Did you know that when we first started to domesticate cattle, they weren’t the cows we know and love (to eat)? At the time, they were an animal called aurochs. Aurochs were huge—we’re talking twice-the-size-of-modern-cows huge. They are suspected to have been able to reach up to 3,300 pounds on rare occasions. That’s just 600 pounds shy of a brand new Toyota Tacoma. The only place you can find one now is on the paintings of cave walls, or maybe clever and obsessive graphic design projects. The last reported living aurochs seems to have died some time in the 1600s. In recent history, many farmers and geneticists have been toying with the idea of trying to resurrect the breed from extinction. No bull!

Domesticated cows weren’t always huge, towering beasts. It wasn’t until around 1900 that cows started to get larger and larger. Sure, their ancestors were huge, but we bred them back into a state of smallness for several thousands of years. So why did we breed them down, just to breed them back up again?

As technology progressed and populations grew and coalesced into cities and towns, cows became very inconvenient to keep at home. At the same time, ranchers couldn’t sustain larger populations with your average small cow, so they bred them to be bigger and meatier. Fewer people were breeding bigger cattle for more and more stomachs to fill.

Interestingly enough, human society is starting to turn again. The farm craze is catching on. Everyone and their sister owns a chicken now, and with the prices of milk only going upward, the next logical step seems to be a cow. But keeping a cow in the apartment is pretty difficult, so the appeal of smaller cows is on the rise.

How small?

Less than a thousand pounds—sometimes less than 700!

They’re called miniature cattle, and they’re bred to be only 36 to 42 inches high at the shoulder upon maturity, a little taller than a Great Dane. They produce less milk, less meat and much less waste than their larger counterparts, opening doors for people with only a couple of acres of land. Unfortunately, like every budding craze, miniature cattle are still pretty expensive. You’re paying more for less, but the more that people purchase and breed them, the faster the price will drop.

Now, I’m not saying go and buy a miniature cow for your studio apartment (unless your landlord is REALLY cool and doesn’t want to pay a groundskeeper to mow the lawn), but if you’ve been thinking about cattle for a small acre farm and just aren’t sure how to feed a 1,500 pound goliath, there are solutions available to you. Local ones, too! I know we have at least a few miniature cattle breeders in our area, including Scottish Highland miniatures. Have you seen them? They have that glorious flowing hair every Hollywood starlet is jealous of.

And I mean really, who doesn’t want a wooly diva cow?

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