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(Redirected from Cow)
Cow with calf
Cow with calf
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Bovidae
Subfamily: Bovinae
Genus: Bos
Species: taurus
Binomial name
Bos taurus
Linnaeus, 1758

Cattle are domesticated ungulates, a member of the subfamily Bovinae of the family Bovidae. They are raised as livestock, for meat (called beef), dairy products (milk), and leather, and used for draft (pulling plows and the like).

Cattle were originally classified by Carolus Linnaeus as three separate species. These were Bos taurus, the European cattle, including similar types from Africa and Asia; Bos indicus, the zebu; and the extinct Bos primigenius, the aurochs. The aurochs is ancestral to both zebu and European cattle. More recently these three have increasingly been grouped as one species, sometimes using the names Bos primigenius taurus, Bos primigenius indicus and Bos primigenius primigenius. Complicating the matter is the ability of cattle to interbreed with other closely related species. Hybrid individuals and even breeds exist, not only between European cattle and zebu but also with yaks, banteng, gaur, and bison, a cross-genera hybrid. For example, genetic testing of the Dwarf Lulu breed, the only humpless "Bos taurus-type" cattle in Nepal, found them to be a mix of European cattle, zebu and yak. Cattle cannot successfully bred with water buffalo or African buffalo. (See aurochs for the history of domestication, zebu for pecularities of that group.)



Older English sources such as the King James Version of the Bible also refer to livestock in general as cattle. Additionally other species of the genus Bos are often called cattle or wild cattle. This article refers to the common modern meaning of cattle, European cattle.

Young cattle are called calves. Young males are called bullocks or bull calves; young females are called heifers or cow calves. Ordinarily male cattle are castrated unless needed for breeding. The castrated male is then called a steer, unless kept for draft (pulling), in which case it is called an ox (not to be confused with the related wild musk ox). Intact males are called bulls. Adult females over two years of age (approximately) are called cows. The adjective applying to cattle is bovine.

There is no singular equivalent to "cattle" other than the various gender and age-specific terms (though "catron" is occasionally seen as a half-serious proposal). "Cow" is probably the closest to being gender-neutral, although it is usually understood to mean female (females of other animals, such as whales or elephants, are also called cows.) Some Canadian, Scottish, and New Zealand farmers use the term "cattlebeast." "Neat" and "beef" are obsolescent terms. Cattle raised for human consumption are called beef cattle. Cows of certain breeds that are kept for the milk they give are called dairy cows. Herds are counted as, for example, "one hundred head".

The terms bull and cow are also used for the male and female of some other species, including other bovids such as American bison, but also less closely related species such as moose, elephants, whales, and sea lions. The terms are used primarily to refer to animals that have polygynous or harem mating systems, though "bull" in particular may be used because humans find the male of a species daunting.


Cattle are ruminants, meaning that they have a unique digestive system that allows them to synthesize amino acids. This allows them to thrive on grasses and other vegetation.

The aurochs was originally spread throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. In historical times, its range was restricted to Europe and the last animals were killed by poachers in Masovia, Poland, in 1627, though some breeders have attempted to recreate the original gene pool of the aurochs by careful crossing of commercial breeds, creating the Heck cattle breed.

A popular misconception about cattle (primarily bulls) is that they will become extremely enraged upon seeing the colour red. This is incorrect; cattle are totally colour blind, and can only see in greyscale. The main source of this rumour is the fact that Matadors traditionally use red coloured capes to provoke bulls into attacking. In fact, red capes are merely a tradition.

Uses of cattle

Friesian/Holstein cow
Friesian/Holstein cow

Cattle occupy a unique role in human history. Some consider them the oldest form of wealth. Their ability to provide meat, dairy, and draft while reproducing themselves and eating nothing but grass has furthered human interests dramatically through the millennia.

In Hinduism, the cow is said to be holy (and thus should not be eaten); "The cow is our Mother, for she gives us her milk."

In Latin America and the western North America, cattle are often grazed on large tracts of rangeland called ranchos or ranches.

In Portugal, Spain and some Latin American countries, bulls are used for the sport of bullfighting; in many other countries, this is illegal.

The recent outbreaks of mad cow disease have reduced or prevented some traditional uses of cattle for food, for example the eating of brains or oxtail.


Draft oxen in Mumbai, India
Draft oxen in Mumbai, India

Oxen (plural of ox) are cattle trained as draft animals. Most often they are adult, castrated males. Usually an ox is over four years old due to the need for training and for time to grow to full size. The term steer is used to describe animals of the same species and gender when raised solely for meat. Oxen are used for plowing, transport, hauling, grain-grinding, and wagon drawing. Oxen are sometimes used to skid logs in low-impact select cut logging.

Oxen are most often used in teams of two. A wooden yoke is fastened about their necks so that the force of draft is distributed across their shoulders. Oxen are chosen from calves with horns, since the horns hold the yoke in place when the oxen back up or slow down a wheeled load going down hills.

Oxen must be painstakingly trained from a young age. Their teamster must fashion or purchase as many as a dozen yokes of different sizes as the animals grow.

Oxen can pull harder than horses. Though not as fast, they are less prone to injury. There are still a substantial number of them in use worldwide, especially in developing nations.


Breeds of cattle

See also

External links

Other meanings of cow, bull, etc.

Last updated: 11-07-2004 05:09:02