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The Historical Significance of the Cow

Written by Chuck Backus, Arizona Rancher & Past President, AZ Cattle R & Ed Foundation

Cattle people usually spend their entire lives working with cows, but usually don’t know much about the history of the cow. However, the history of cows is completely interwoven with the development of the civilizations of humans. This is certainly true for the civilizations that originated in the Europe, Asia and northern Africa.

It is estimated that the “Cow” was domesticated by “Man” between 8 and 10,000 years ago. However, many who write about the history of Cows (1, 2, 3) suggest that Cows really domesticated Man. At the very least, Cows helped humans’ leave more than a million years of small “Hunter and Gatherer” bands to create communities or towns.

The Cow provided the essentials of, or groundwork for, organized society:

• Food (meat, milk, cheese and butter);

• Leather for clothes and footwear;

• A “Beast-of-Burden” for pulling a plow for the growing of domesticable plants (domesticated soon after cows) and for pulling carts/wagons (when developed 5,000 years ago); and

• Fuel in the form of their manure (“Buffalo chips”) and fertilizer for crops.

Cows allowed just a few people to provide food for a much larger and more diverse community. That community included home builders, craftsman and artisans as well politicians and armies. Cows helped jump-start specialization in human societies, which in turn allowed for greater efficiencies to develop.

The brief history of domestic cows

Cows were native inhabitants of Europe and Asia (Eurasia) and their immediate ancestor was called “Aurochs,” which roamed from England to China. Paintings of Aurochs appear, with other hunted animals, on cave walls in Europe when humans inhabited caves 14,000 years ago (1). Some last remnants of Aurochs still existed in northern Germany 2,000 years ago when the Romans came. Caesar’s account of them was: “In size these are somewhat smaller than elephants and, in the shape, they are as bulls.”

Skeletal remains of Aurochs indicate they stood over 6-foot-tall, weighed between 6 and 8 thousand pounds, and had horns that protruded horizontally from their foreheads. They were similar proportionally to a Spanish Fighting Bull. See the sketch showing the relative sizes (2). The Romans reported that the Aurochs were aggressive and dangerous.

The skeletal remains don’t show how Aurochs eventually transitioned into the tame, domestic cows of Europe (Bos Taurus) or the humped cattle (Bos indicus) on the India subcontinent. However, independent of how the “new domestic cow” evolved, it became the constant presence in the development of human civilizations. Near the large Egyptian Pyramids, they have found huge pits filled with the bones of cows. It is thought that the cows must have been used as beasts-of-burden as well as food for the workers.

In Jared Diamond’s classic book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel” (3), he explains how and why different human civilizations initially developed on different continents. It mostly depended on whether the local indigenous plants and animals were domesticable, plus the relative usefulness of that domestication. Cows and their domestication gave Eurasia a huge advantage over other continents.

Diamond (3) defined the main condition for an animal to be domesticable as: A species that has an internal social structure based on dominate and submissive behavior between members. These animals are also likely to have “herding characteristics” – since they can tolerate each other because of their dominance/submissive relationships. A human is acceptable as a domineering force in the social structure of cattle and thus cattle were domesticable.

The Flexible and Adaptable Cow:

Over the many centuries of the human/cow relationship, the cow has been very flexible in changing to meet the needs of humans. For example, when people needed Oxen (neutered bulls) for pulling plows and large carts, cattle were selected and bred to be large and muscular. However, for jobs like pulling chariots in battle, Oxen were bred lighter for speed and maneuverability.

As the human population expanded and spread across Eurasia, the cows went along and served the various community needs. Some of the larger towns needed more milk, so cows were selected and bred for more milk production. In more remote villages of mountainous Europe the need for both meat and milk resulted in multiuse breeds being developed. Some towns or regions wanted unique looking cattle herds, so selected cows based on their coat color in addition to other needs. Today we call these differences in appearance and traits “Cattle Breeds.”

Cattle, along with sheep and goats, are ruminants. This is a key advantage. Since their rumen can digest almost any plant-based material, cattle can survive in any environment that grows plants. Their multiple stomachs allow them to convert inferior proteins and even nonprotein nitrogen-containing compounds into the superior protein in milk and meat. The ability to survive on any kind of plant feed-source allows cows to live in semi-arid regions of Middle East, the swamps of southeastern Asia, as well as valleys and slopes of the high mountain areas.

Cattle in the Americas:

Most conquering armies throughout history were accompanied by a herd of cattle as a mobile source of food that could survive on any local plants. That dynamic helped spread cows across the globe, including into the Americas.

On Christopher Columbus’s second voyage to America in 1493, he brought Spanish Cattle to the Caribbean Islands. Subsequent voyages brought more cattle and they flourished in the Islands. Cattle were first brought to the North American Continent in 1521 by General Cortés to assist in his conquering of Mexico.

There were no fences in the Americas at the time and thus many cattle strayed away. These horned cattle and others eventually strayed into what is now Texas which had vast grasslands of what is now the U.S., where few predators existed. These strays developed into large herds of “Texas Longhorns.”

When Francisco Vázquez de Coronado entered Arizona in 1540 in search of the Seven Cities of Gold, he brought with him 500 head of cattle. Coronado also introduced the Plains Indians to the horse, which later became their trademark.

While the southwestern US was dominated by the Spanish-influenced cattle and eventually by the Texan Longhorns, the demographics of cattle breeds changed with the people who brought them to meet their needs. For example, in the 17thcentury, when most of the colonies on the Eastern coast of North America were founded by peoples from Europe, the cattle breeds of the British Isles were the most common with an emphasis on milking abilities.

The U.S. cattle industry: then and now

In the later part of the 19thcentury, the presence of cattle had become an organized industry in the US. The Industry was influenced by two major factors: 1) The intense specialized selection in cattle breeds for specific purposes, and 2) The establishment of the Land-Grant Universities in each state.

During the 20th century, Hereford and Angus breeds, focused on meat qualities, dominated the industry and thus it developed into more of a “Beef Industry” as we know it today. At the same time, the Holstein Breed of cattle, with a focus on milking characteristics, developed into more of a “Dairy Industry.”

President Lincoln signed into law the original “Land Grant Bill” for federal gifts of land. It funded one College in each state to focus on “Agriculture and Mechanical Arts,” i.e., Ag and Engineering. (This is why many schools include “A & M” in their names.) This funding provides for Ag education and also the dissemination of knowledge through the Ag Extension Service throughout the US. Some of these colleges, especially in the Midwest, became major centers of Ag research, including research in beef and dairy cattle.

Cattle have always been able to change and adapt to better meet the needs of humankind. However, this service can be modified and enhanced with ever more research-driven understanding of cattle. Nowhere is this truer than in genetics and the fine-tuning of bull selection. Bull selection is the activity that most affects the determination of the characteristics of beef.

Even with today’s knowledge of genetics, most commercial cattle people select their bulls on external appearance. One hears buyers say: “I really like the looks of that bull,” or “I want all of my calves to look like that bull.” There will always be a need for physical inspection of hooves, muscles, and structure to assure survival in an environment, but there are better ways to select bulls now, and certainly there will be even better in the future.

Around the turn of the last century, numerical measures to quantify and compare various characteristics of cattle started to emerge from purebred producers and beef associations. They developed EPDs (Expected Prodigy Differences) that predict the characteristics of the prodigy (calves) for individual bulls. A commercial producer can compare these numbers for different bulls (for example, what their calves would likely weigh at birth) to make better informed selections. Generating EPDs requires a tremendous amount of data collection and analysis. A large, laborious effort and record-keeping by purebred producers is required as well as very large computers.

The Bovine (cattle) Genome was developed just a few years after the Human Genome was developed. The Genome identifies each and all of the total possible helical structures (the basic building blocks of life – the DNA) which exist in a given species. (This is sometimes compared with written languages that first requires all the letters used in a language to be identified, before combining them together into meaningful words or sentences.) After that, one can try to identify which group of structures – i.e., “genes” or “words” - determine a certain characteristic of the species i.e., marbling. Thus, knowing which DNA structures exist in a given bull, can better predict what the characteristics his prodigy might inherit. This is an extremely powerful tool, and constantly getting more accurate and easier to use for a commercial beef producer! One can also do DNA testing of potential replacement heifers for better informed selection of heifers that better meet the goals for the future herd.

The cattle beef associations are now combining the traditional EPDs, based on measured characteristics, with the DNA data for an individual bull, to make better predictions. These combined predictions are called, “DNA Enhanced EPDs.” Breed Associations usually generate these.

The bull and replacement heifer selection tools in the beef industry is getting better all the time and a commercial producer may soon have tools available that one can almost “design” the characteristics of the herd they want, and then select bulls and replacement heifers to meet that design. Also, the now common practice of Artificial Insemination allows one identified “Super Bull” to produce tens of thousands of “Super” male and female calves.

Progressive ranchers have been using these tools in the last few years to increase the quality of beef (making it a better eating experience). Traditionally, the percentage of beef coming out of packing plants have been graded 50% Choice or better. In 1918, US beef averaged 80% Choice and better. The beef grading “Prime” went from the traditional value of 3% Prime to 10% Prime in 2018. The percent of Select in 2018 went to 20% from the traditional level of 50%. There is now talk that the USDA may even drop “Select” as a grade within the next 5 years.

The history of human societies has been inexorably tied to the changes we have made in these fascinating, flexible creatures for literal millennia. As our understanding increases and we develop more and more fine-tuned selection tools, we can shape cattle to be ever more effective partners in meeting humanity’s needs. The cow is an extraordinary and flexible animal. These are exciting times in the Beef Industry, and we have amazing creatures with which we are privileged to work!


1 - Laurie Winn Carlson, “Cattle” – An Informal Social History, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 2001

2 – M. R. Montgomery, “A Cow’s Life” – The Surprising History of Cattle, Walker & Company, N Y, 2004

3 – Jared Diamond, “Guns, Germs, and Steel” – The Fates of Human Societies, W, W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1999