Cattle have contributed to the survival of humans for many thousands of years, initially as animals our hunter-gatherer ancestors pursued for food, tools, and leather, and which farmers raised for the past 10,000 years or so as livestock for meat, milk, and as draft animals. Cattle also have become an indicator of economic status.
In bygone eras and still for traditional Masa in central Africa and several other African tribal groups, cattle are a form of currency. The right of Masa men to marry well in their culture hinges on the number of cattle owned by prospective suitors.
In a different way today, consumption of beef is an indicator of socioeconomic status and gastronomic preference. Drovers Journal indicated in their current January issue that per capita beef consumption increased in China from 8 lbs. in 1978 to 56 lbs. in 2015, reflecting not only the improvement in the country’s economy, but the liking by Chinese people for beef as food.
Similar increases in beef consumption have been documented in Mexico and many other nations as their economies have improved. Beef has become a favored gastronomic taste.
Aurochs, the first cattle, were among the animals that gradually populated the northern hemisphere as glaciers that blanketed much of the region from 1.8 million years ago until about 10,000 years ago gradually receded northward.
Aurochs were among the survivors of eons of change as the earth warmed up. Taller and more ferocious than modern-day cattle, with horns that extended to a nine-foot spread, they were the ancestors of all current bovines.
The mostly meat-dependent Neanderthals followed the grass-eating aurochs in Europe and Asia as the glacial ice slowly declined northward, for they were hunter-gatherers of animals, plants, and other dietary items. Modern humans sometimes interbred with Neanderthals and gradually supplanted them approximately 40,000 years ago; they had greater intelligence, more sophisticated weapons, and they developed agriculture.
Aurochs were exterminated through the combined hunting pressures of Neanderthals and modern humans. Efforts are underway in Portugal, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic currently to recreate the species through inbreeding of animals that possess characteristics of these wild cattle. Most descendants of the aurochs, such as Angus and Holstein cattle, hardly resemble aurochs anymore.
After dogs, sheep, and goats, cattle were domesticated next, starting about 10,000 years ago, and ahead of horses, pigs and chickens. Early farmers tamed Bos Indicus cattle first, for they became the relatively docile Zebu animals suited to warm climates where humans began to conduct agriculture. They were used to pull plows and carts, as well as to supply milk, meat, hides and various body parts such as horns, bones, sinews, stomachs and bladders for tools and storage containers.
In colder regions of the northern hemisphere the descendants of aurochs were Bos Taurus cattle, the primary ancestors of most popular breeds today. Bos Taurus bloodlines were sometimes crossed with Zebu cattle to improve their handling and dispositions.
Americans eat a lot of beef today, estimated at 79.3 lbs. per person, but not as much per capita as in 1976 (94.3 lbs.). The U.S. is fourth on the 2016 list of per capita beef consumption world-wide, after Uruguay (124.2 lbs.), Argentina (120.2 lbs.), and Hong Kong (114.3 lbs.).
Health concerns about cholesterol from eating beef, competition from cheaper sources of meat like pork and poultry, and changing tastes influence some consumers from purchasing beef as food. Critics also say cattle are not efficient converters of feed into usable protein.
It takes about six pounds of feed to produce a pound of beef. Today’s well-bred pigs take about 2.5-3.5 pounds of feed to produce a pound of edible meat, while chickens and turkeys in commercial U.S. enterprises require about 1.5-2.5 pounds of feed; farm-raised fish like salmon take closer to one pound of feed to produce a pound of edible flesh.
There are cyclic patterns to affordability of beef as food, as well as their production and market prices. Beef prices are mostly in the doldrums for producers currently even though grocery store prices for beef remain relatively high.
Prudent and efficient producers of high quality beef and desired bloodlines, especially those who furnish the most desired cuts like prime steaks, Kobe and organic beef, currently are doing well financially. The entire cattle industry is looking toward an upturn; the next several years appear to favor increasing profitability for cattle producers.
Bovines are associated with human survival, and vice versa. Cattle convert grass into protein better than most any other farm-raised animals.
Human and bovine relations together are somewhat akin to the relationships people and dogs have. Humans enjoy raising cattle more than most other farm animals, although some would say “horses are up there, too” in the mutual respect category.
We form attachments to cattle, as I did when raising them. We took care of each other. They liked me as much as I liked them.
Dr. Rosmann lives near Harlan, IA, where he is a farmer and psychologist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.