There’s a good chance you had an encounter with a cow this morning, whether you did chores for them or not. Intrigued? Then moooove on over and learn a little more about our beautiful bovines.
About 8,500 years ago, one of our forebears encountered a cow and did something udderly brave and astounding: He milked her, and then drank what he got.
Though the daring deed was probably safer to do with a cow than, say, a tiger or a giraffe, milking the moo-er was still dangerous. Early domesticated cattle, like their wild aurochs ancestors-cum-brethren, had enormous horns with sharp tips, and barns weren’t very refined. That definitely made Bossy the boss.
The last aurochs died in Poland almost 400 years ago. Yet, if you could magically insert an ancient auroch into a random motley herd of beef cattle, few people would ever know the difference because your basic-model cow has changed little over the millennia.
Still, you’ll find physical disparities in today’s cows, since there are nearly 1.5 billion of them in the world, representing more than a thousand different breeds. You can get them with long legs (such as the rangy Texas Longhorn) or short ones (such as the 3-feet-tall Dexter). Some come with no horns, while others (Africa’s Ankole) develop a rack that a moose would envy. You can get them humpty (Zimbabwe’s Tuli) or not; ears down (the Brahman) or up; shaggy (like Highland cattle) or smooth. You can get your cow in several designer colors to match your household pets and other barnyard animals (the Dutch Belted is a nice complement to your Hereford pig). And if you so desire, you can get a cow small enough to be a household pet itself (India’s Vechur).
If you like, you can make your herd international by adding a Meuse-Rhine-Yssel from the Netherlands, an Aubrac from France, or an enormous Chianina from Italy. You can have a Devon from Devon, a Guernsey from Guernsey, a Jersey from Jersey, or an Africander from Africa. Or you can stick with the breeds we have here and get a Florida Cracker, a Santa Gertrudis from Texas, or an awesome-looking American Lineback that is really nothing like the linebacker on your favorite football team.
Then, to further complicate things, you can raise a cow bred for milk, one bred for meat, and one bred for moooving heavy things around your yard. Strictly speaking, by the way, and though we tend to lump all such ungulates into one pile, only Mama cows are “cows.” The rest are properly known as bulls, heifers or steers.
Whatever you call them, cattle are pretty cool. Their eyes can see with panoramic views of nearly 360 degrees. They can’t bite you because they have no upper teeth (though they can give you a mean head-butt). They’re curious creatures that, like humans, tend to make friends as well as enemies within a herd. One cow will give back about 20 times her weight in manure each year, and if she’s a dairy cow, she also could give back more than 15,000 pounds of milk.
In addition to milk, cows are the direct contributors to cheese, cream, yogurt, butter, ice cream and everything Miss Muffet ate. Cows are responsible for the beef on your table, the leather in your boots and belt, and the glue in your desk drawer. If you took a prescription medicine this morning, you might have ingested something a cow donated. If you’re wearing an adhesive bandage or makeup, used cream rinse or soap, drove a car, or chewed gum today, you should be thanking a cow.
And that ain’t no bull!
Terri Schlichenmeyer, book reviewer and trivia collector, lives in Wisconsin with her two dogs and more than 11,000 books.
Read more: Get Terri's take on pig history and some heady porcine lingo in All About Pigs and Pig Lingo.