History, Cattle Breeds & Cool Facts

History of Cattle

Not too long ago, cattle were used a variety purposes including meat, milk, and labor. Now, beef cattle are raised primarily to provide people with meat, and hundreds of useful by-products. Cattle graze on grassland that is steep, hilly, dry or rocky and not suitable for building houses or growing crops. The primary reason cattle are raised in different climates and settings all over the world is mainly because they can thrive on low quality rangeland feed and grasses.

Cattle are descended from a wild ancestor called the aurochs. The aurochs were huge animals that originated in the subcontinent of India which then spread into China, the Middle East, and eventually northern Africa and Europe. Aurochs are one of the animals painted on the famous cave walls near Lascaux, France. People started domesticating aurochs between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago. Cattle were domesticated after sheep, goats, pigs, and dogs.

Cattle were first brought to the western hemisphere by Columbus on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez took offspring of those same cattle to Mexico in 1519. In 1773, Juan Bautista de Anza brought 200 head of cattle to California to supply the early California missions.

The Amazing Stomachs of Cattle

Cattle are ruminants. This means they have one stomach with four separate compartments – yes you heard that right… Their digestive system allows them to digest plant material by repeatedly regurgitating it and chewing it again as cud. This digestive process allows cattle to thrive on grasses, other vegetation, and feed. A cow chews its cud for about eight hours a day. When an animal chews its cud it is a sign of health and contentment. Other ruminant animals include deer, elk, sheep, and goats.

Life Cycle

Many ranchers run cow-calf operations. They keep a herd of cows to produce calves. The cows are bred to calve in the spring or fall. Cows, like humans, are pregnant for nine months.

Tagging, Branding & Earmarks

Newborn calves are tagged. Each ear tag have individual numbers which helps ranchers pair the mother with their young, whilst tracking the calf through its lifecycle. Within the first few months, calves will be branded. A brand is an identification mark for cattle. It can either be a hot iron brand or a freeze brand. Some operations use earmarks, as an additional way to identify their cattle. During branding all calves are vaccinated to help prevent disease. The young male calves are castrated during the first few months. After castration, they are referred to as steers.

Adulthood – Finishing

Calves are usually sold after they are weaned, at about six-eight months. After weaning, cattle are sent to feedlots for approximately 120 days where they are fed a high-energy ration of grain and hay. After this time called finishing, the cattle are sent to a harvest plant.

To keep the herd size approximately the same, ranchers save replacement heifers (females). The steers (males) will be sent to the feedlot while a few heifers are kept behind to raise and later produce calves themselves. Other heifers will go to the feedlot as well. Steers are more common in the beef industry, because they grow faster and naturally have more muscle.

The ideal breeding age for heifers is at least 14-16 months of age, depending on breed. Heifers should be about 65% of their mature weight before breeding.