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A bovine tour de force
Millions of people, from nature lovers to collectors of cow memorabilia, are enamored of cows, yet few have any inkling of the fascinating history of, arguably, the animal most crucial to the survival and advancement of human civilization. Our close relationship with cows goes back eight thousand years, to the revolutionary advent of domestication in Mesopotamia and the Indus River valley. Since then, humans have relied ...
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A bovine tour de force
Millions of people, from nature lovers to collectors of cow memorabilia, are enamored of cows, yet few have any inkling of the fascinating history of, arguably, the animal most crucial to the survival and advancement of human civilization. Our close relationship with cows goes back eight thousand years, to the revolutionary advent of domestication in Mesopotamia and the Indus River valley. Since then, humans have relied on cows for milk, meat, and muscle.
M. R. Montgomery’s own keen interest in cows began on his cousin’s Montana cattle ranch. He traces their history from the formidable, long-extinct Auroch—the 6,000-pound ancestor of all cattle on Earth—to the ancient cattle roads and drives in England, to the selective mixing practiced by British cattlemen well before Charles Darwin or Gregor Mendel. He charts the origin of breeds and relates the path by which the Aberdeen-Angus has today become the “king of cows.” With a sympathetic eye for detail, born of his own experience, he chronicles the day-to-day life of cattle and their keepers— from encouraging good mothering skills to rooting out genetic disease in a herd. After experiencing Montgomery’s bovine fascination, even cow lovers will have new appreciation for the objects of their affection.
Until approximately ten thousand years ago, there was no such thing as a cow. This is not very long ago by evolutionary standards of time, more often measured in units starting at fifty thousand or one hundred thousand years and not infrequently in the millions of years. Within a few thousand years from the birth of the very first cattle, there were cows scattered across the face of the Old World, from Ireland on the west to China on the east. "Scattered" is not a figure of speech. There were and are great gaps in the map of cattle country-inhospitable deserts, Arctic wastes, and tropics with decimating diseases. It is an amazing story, but it is not an evolutionary event in the ordinary sense of that word, for mankind actually invented the cow anew.
Evolutionary biologists agree that all domestic cattle are descended from a common ancestor-one race or another of the aurochs, the primordial ox. That now-extinct beast has the scientific name of Bos primigenius (or first cow.). All of the humpless cattle in the Western world are of the recent species, Bos taurus. There are slightly different cattle, humped cattle, that may be descended from another kind of aurochs, and those take the name Bos indicus because the classic humped cattle come from the Indian subcontinent.
Anyone who has watched a rodeo has seen one of the Indian breeds, the Brahma. They have little to offer in terms of milk or meat (and, of course, they are not eaten at all in India). They were not part of the great story of Bos taurus, the prolific genus of all great beef cows and milking cows, until in this century, they were crossed with the Aberdeen-Angus. If it wasn't for their unexpected talent for bucking off riders at a rodeo, they would be the least-seen of all cows in North America. Besides a hump and an extremely flexible back that makes them all but impossible to ride once they start twisting and bucking simultaneously, all the Indian cattle have long horns and floppy ears. (Most bucking Brahmas have had a foot or two lopped off the ends of their horns to make them less deadly weapons.) Whenever Brahmas are crossed with European breeds, the offspring all have floppy ears ... it's a dominant gene. When naturally polled or hornless Aberdeen-Angus are bred with any other cow, the crosses are all hornless because the polledness gene is dominant. A registered breed of cows, called Brangus (Brahma x Aberdeen-Angus), are black (another dominant gene), hornless, and floppy-eared. They are a popular, if physically unattractive, beef bred in tropical and subtropical countrysides where the Brahma genes give them some immunity to tropical diseases and the Aberdeen Angus genes make them palatable.
The world of descriptive biology has scholars who either like lots of species or who like to keep it simple. To the simplifiers (or lumpers) there is no such animal as Bos indicus; there is only Bos taurus variety indicus, or, in plain English, regular old cows but with humps and beagle ears. The compromisers settle for a subspecies nomenclature and thus, to use a real example, a black Angus cow carries the Latin scientific label of Bos taurus taurus, and a Brahma cow works under the alias Bos taurus indicus. The purpose of all this Latin is to achieve scientific precision in a universal language. Unfortunately, people do the naming, and nothing human beings are involved with stays simple. Either way, lump or split, there's no reasonable scientific name for the Brangus.
In common English usage, any sort of cattle can be simply termed cow, even if that word has a more precise meaning. Aberdeen-Angus breeders in the West, if they want to be laconic, will say that they "raise black cows." When distinguishing among cattle in a group, a cow is a female that is old enough to have already dropped a calf. A heifer is a young female approaching or just entering breeding age. Males of any age are bulls. Calves are animals anywhere from just-born to sexually mature but not yet involved in breeding. They are either heifer calves or bull calves.
"Ox" was once commonly used in England as a generic noun for cattle taking a singular verb, no gender implied. In North America an ox is exclusively a neutered male draft animal; neutered males headed to the packing plant are referred to as steers. Proper British usage for a steer would be "bullock." "Ox" has now become, in many districts, the British equivalent to our "steer," that is, a neutered male raised for beef.
Heifers are infrequently neutered, and the same verbal adjective is used for them as for cats or dogs; they are spayed heifers. This is a trickier operation than neutering a male and not much practiced. Occasionally, a naturally neutered heifer calf is born because she is the fraternal twin of a bull calf. This is a happening entirely unique to cattle, and the mechanism is not understood. Apparently the male hormones circulating in the mutually shared blood system of the cow and the calves effectively sterilizes the female, whereas the male is always normal. These sterile females are called freemartins, a term whose origin is lost and which has no other meaning. Freemartins are highly prized beef animals, tender and well marbled.
* * *
There is no record, no physical evidence, of how and precisely when and where Stone Age humans tamed and bred the aurochs. What is certain is that they did it very carefully because the aurochs was an animal nearly twice the size and many times the weight of the hugest modern cow. Worse, from Neolithic man's point of view, the aurochs had a reputation for fierceness equal to that of bears or lions. There are very few contemporary accounts of aurochs, and none of them encouraged getting close to the beast.
The once-well-known description of the aurochs is in Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars, where he mentions several unusual animals found only in the primordial forests of northern Europe and Britain. The aurochs was just such a curiosity; the animal was long since extinct anywhere south or east of modern Germany. It is also the only strange animal Caesar wrote about that actually existed, for Caesar was as gullible as the average tourist in the American West who believes in Jackalopes. This is Caesar's account of the aurochs:
In size these are somewhat smaller than elephants; in appearance, color, and shape they are as bulls. Great is their strength and great their speed, and they spare neither man nor beast once sighted. These the Germans slay zealously, by taking them in pits; by such work the young men harden themselves and by this kind of hunting train themselves, and those who have slain most of them bring the horns with them to a public place for a testimony thereof, and win great renown. But even if they are caught very young, the animals cannot be tamed or accustomed to human beings. In bulk, shape, and appearance their horns are very different from the horns of our own oxen. The natives collect them zealously and encase the edges with silver, and then at their grandest banquets use them as drinking cups.
Temperament aside (and exaggerating the ferocity of wild animals is a universal and continual human habit), the sheer size of the aboriginal aurochs militated against domestication. There are no examples of large, wild animals successfully domesticated-not even the "tame" Indian elephants used for logging in Asia. Those elephants were captured wild and young (being unwilling or unable to breed in captivity), and training them is one of the most dangerous of occupations. Circus elephants and such obviously dangerous animals as circus lions and tigers are not domesticated, but they have been behaviorally modified one by one. The offspring of the "tamest" tiger (or elephant), left to its own devices, will be as deadly as a perfectly wild animal. Dangerous performing animals require a regular and continual regimen of training and reinforcement.
To this day, all of the great animals of Africa-from zebras to elephants, wildebeest to elands, dogs and wild cats and dozens more-remain undomesticated. Only a handful of even moderately large animals have been domesticated. The wolf and probably some other wild canines became our dogs, and some dogs are the tamest, most domesticated of all pets. Other large wild animals that have been bred and selected through centuries include the European wild boar, which became our pig; a single species each of wild goat and sheep; the camel (and its American cousin, the llama); and, of course, the cow and the horse, the largest European and Asian domesticates.
The first horses ever tamed, almost certainly in central Asia, did not appear to have to be changed at all; as they ran wild, they were tamable, and once tame, they became a domesticated animal without enough physical change to make them a new species. The domestication simply repeated itself in the New World. North American native peoples, who had never seen a horse before, managed to capture and tame feral Spanish horses that had long since escaped from the conquerors of Mexico and had multiplied and spread into the northern plains, hundreds of miles from the nearest European settlement.
It was no lack of intelligence or culture in Indian country that kept emigrants from seeing dairy herds of tame buffalo on the way west. The fault is in the animals. That is the difference between an animal's ability to be domesticated or to remain perpetually wild. The capacity for tameness has to be bred in the bone. Mankind created the modern cow, goat, sheep, and pig (a sometimes quite dangerous domesticate), but we have never gotten past efficient killing when it comes to managing a bison.
Some of the reasons for this lack of domestication in African and North American fauna, and its consequences, are elegantly summarized in Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies. The bottom line is apparently this: A capacity for calmness is the first requirement in a domesticated species. Wolves are both calm and playful except while eating an elk, and even then, they share. Skunks, on the other hand, although slow-moving, are nervous. People do keep skunks in their houses, but they are impossible to litter-box train, and they won't come when you call them. These "pet" skunks (usually with their squirt-glands removed) are neither tame nor domesticated; they are commensal-they just happen to live in a house. Some cats and most dogs are symbiotic; either man or beast gains something from the relationship.
Another critical element in domestication is that the animal must have some kind of group culture in the wild; it must naturally form larger groups than pairs or families. In short, they must run in herds or extended family groups that have a confirmed social order. (A lack of any group social order is another reason that cats are so problematically and barely domesticated.) The vast herds of African animals, wildebeest and zebras, for example, are aggregations of individuals that, although they move in groups, avoid contact and have no social structure governing them.
Whether ancient people solved the problem of behavior first or reduced the aurochs to a physically manageable size and then gentled it is, of course, unknowable. Certainly reducing the enormous size of the ancestral animal would be one priority, for its mere bulk and strength would militate against a breeding program. The cow and the horse are at the absolute limit of the size of animals whose breeding has ever been controlled by human beings-outside of a zoological park. So, logically, a first step was to get the animal down to manageable size, and it was a long, long, way down.
To get some idea of what an aurochs looked like, how much it weighed, its height and length, paleontologists have to work from an existing, living model. Based on the very lifelike cave paintings of aurochs (and the testimony of Julius Caesar), it is assumed they had the general proportions of our fighting bull, particularly the large head, bulky withers, and long dorsal spiny processes that support the head and horns. The closest living creature in the shape of an aurochs is the Spanish fighting bull. While other breeds have been created for milk or meat or locomotive power, the fighting bull has been built for speed, endurance, and, most particularly, for attitude. Spanish authors of books on cows even create a special subspecies (although without any scientific underpinning) and try to pass the fighting bull off as Bos primigenius iberica, the Spanish aurochs. The fighting bull, toro bravo, is clearly a recent development springing from ordinary domestic cattle, a fact reflected in its variable colors. Very few wild animals are different-colored from their brethren. Predatory animals seem to have more flexibility: bears, wolves, foxes, and panthers all come in two or three colors, from black through brown to almost blond or silver. Although fighting bulls are commonly black, that is a modern affectation. The original bullfights were against more colorful and variable animals.
The fighting bull's horns differ so much from animal to animal that Spanish has more than a dozen names for the various curvatures and lengths of the horns. Such variations do not occur in wild species; here, odd-shaped horns are the idiosyncratic result of a genetic fault, injury, or aging. The occasional Spanish bull that does have horns somewhat like an aurochs' is called a corniabierto, literally "open horned." Aurochs' horns curved gracefully forward in a large arc, the way a human being's arms would curve around a 55-gallon (140 liter) barrel. The aurochs carried its horns almost parallel to the ground (and its own jaw-line), more like an African cape buffalo than a cow.
Despite similarities of physique, the aurochs was much larger than the Spanish animal. The largest bull ever to enter a ring was Cocinero; why the bull was nicknamed "cook" has passed from human memory. The term may have been a comment on the tendency of cooks to gain weight. Cocinero fought and died at Malaga on June 3, 1877. According to the rules of bullfighting, he was weighed in the bull ring's shambles after being gutted, skinned, beheaded, and having his hooves cut off. Dead and ready for the butcher shop, Cocinero weighed 414 kilograms, or 912 pounds. Since the dressed weight of a fighting bull averages about 65 percent of its live weight, Cocinero would have weighed 636 kilograms, or 1,402 pounds alive. Beef cattle can easily weigh that much-that would be at the high end for a feedlot steer going to slaughter-but they are chubby, whereas the toro is leaner and meaner.
Excerpted from A COW'S LIFE by M. R. Montgomery Copyright © 2004 by M. R. Montgomery. Excerpted by permission.
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|1||The mother of all cows||7|
|2||How cows changed the world||28|
|3||A unique British cattle culture develops and successfully emigrates to America||53|
|4||In Scotland, a great breed is born||70|
|5||Cow wars of the nineteenth century : how the Aberdeen-Angus conquered the cattle shows and defeated its only serious rival||91|
|6||Angus and Aberdeen come to America||108|
|7||Angus on the high plains and at the Felton Ranch||117|
|8||Potential problems with cattle under domestication||140|
|9||Man makes cow||162|
|10||"Mothering ability" demystified ... almost||185|
|11||The importance of herd behavior to cattle||201|
|12||The Aberdeen-Angus enter and escape an era of undersized cattle||213|
|App||Urban myths and the rural cow||241|
Posted August 13, 2013