The word cow is a generic term for domesticated bovines, which people often raise for meat, milk, leather products and draft work. There are an estimated 1.3 billion in the world, most of which are raised for agricultural purposes, and over time, the animals have gained multiple spiritual and symbolic associations. Despite being relatively placid, plant-eating creatures that have been raised for thousands of years, they are controversial, because raising them frequently levies heavy costs in terms of pollution and environmental damage. Many individuals also have concerns related to ethical treatment and the diseases they carry.
Properly, the word cow refers only to female adult bovines, but people use it to talk about all cattle in a very general sense. In correct terminology, an uncastrated adult male bovine is a bull, a castrated male is a steer, and a juvenile of either sex is a calf. Before they have their first calf, females are also referred to as heifers.
All the different subspecies of cow share important anatomical characteristics. Most basically, they are four-legged, hoofed animals, having long tails that they use to brush away pesky insects. Their ears have a wide range of rotation, which makes it easy for them to pick up on different sounds in the environment and stay safe. These creatures are also ruminants, meaning that they can regurgitate and re-consume indigestible foods, breaking them down further in one of their four stomachs. When properly using the term for adult females, two other major physical traits are the udders and teats located on the animals' underbellies in front of the hind legs, which provide milk for calves or people, and which can be quite large when full.
These animals are natural vegetarians, and they feed primarily on grasses and grains. Farmers often allow them to graze in fields when their numbers are relatively limited, but in very large operations, it is more common for them to be fed hay, which is simply grasses that have been cut and dried. Cows also eat large amounts of silage, which is whole grain and corn plants that have been chopped and allowed to ferment, and shelled grain corn, which is frequently mixed with other foods, such as soybeans.
People traditionally have used cows both for meat and their milk. Science and technology has allowed dairy farmers to breed ones that have a much higher rate of lactation, however, so today, most agricultural productions concentrate on one area or the other. A typical dairy cow makes up to 7 gallons (26.5 liters) every day, and many farms have a hundred animals or more. In the United States alone, they produce 23 billion gallons (87.1 billion liters) of milk every year, and roughly 34 million head of cattle are slaughtered annually.
Another main use is leather, which is skin that has been cleaned, cured and chemically treated to make it durable and prevent it from quickly decaying. It is frequently used in the fashion industry to make clothes, shoes and accessories, such as purses. The furniture industry also uses bovine leather to a large degree.
In many areas of the world, bovines are the primary draft animals instead of horses, with people using them to pull everyday loads. This includes moving items such as plows, so they often are important to communities in terms of being able to produce a crop. The ability to move goods on carts connected to cattle also influences the ability to trade and build.
Cattle are often raised in enormous herds, as they make up a huge portion of the world’s agricultural industry. This can cause a severely negative impact on the local environment, which can quickly become overstressed by too many grazing animals. Stream and river pollution around cattle ranches is often severe, and many studies show that local ecosystems can be devastated by a large cattle operation. Many experts suggest that the single best thing people can do for the environment is to give up all cattle products.
With the vastness of the meat, dairy and leather industries, the humane treatment of cattle has become a controversial issue, as well. Videos and stories of severe physical abuse are prevalent among animal rights groups and frequently have good supporting evidence. Many environmental and animal experts believe that inhumane treatment of these animals is both unwarranted and uncivilized, and despite the widespread use of cows for food, it is not unusual for people to refuse to eat beef products because of the way some farmers are raising and slaughtering their livestock.
Toward the end of the 20th century, experiments with feeding cattle scrap beef products led to the rise of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly known as mad cow disease. This condition is a fatal disorder that causes the brain and spinal tissue to degenerate, and is thought to be caused by prions, or misfolded proteins. Some research suggests that the root of the disease is genetic. In addition to killing thousands of bovines around the world, the disease also has caused fatalities in people, leading to many import bans and widespread contamination efforts.
Brief History of Domestication
Cows are considered some of the earliest known domesticated animals. Evidence suggests that humans have been keeping them as livestock since the Neolithic period, around 10,000 BCE. Some cultures developed highly elaborate customs regarding cattle and their agricultural uses.
Symbolism and Associations
Symbolically, cows are typically images of strength and resolve. In Greek astrology, they represent the zodiac sign and constellation Taurus, which is associated with both stubborn behavior and power. The ox also appears in the Chinese zodiac, and an ox personality is said to be patient, calm and determined. In Hinduism, they are not slaughtered for meat, as they are considered sacred providers for their milk. Strict observers of Hindu customs will not eat beef or beef products.