About cows

Cow with calf in field of grass

A beef cow with her calf

Where do cattle come from?

Cattle were domesticated as long ago as the Neolithic age and have been kept as livestock ever since for their meat, milk, and hides.

Historically, there was no distinction between dairy cattle and beef cattle, with the same breeds used for both milk and meat. However, in the developed world today farmers usually keep either beef or dairy cattle. Through generations of selection, dairy breeds such as the Holstein have been bred specifically to produce very high volumes of milk. Other breeds have been bred to maximize beef production.

The calves of dairy and beef cows are likely to have very different lives. Beef calves are generally slaughtered for beef after one to two years. Female dairy calves are usually reared for milk production. About half of the calves produced by dairy cows are male and therefore not valuable for milk production. These calves are typically sold either raised for beef or are sold to veal farms, where they are raised in small pens isolated from other animals. In these systems, many of the calves’ natural behaviors are denied. For instance, calves are typically weaned and separated from their mothers prematurely.

Due to the efforts of animal welfare organizations like the Humane Society of the United States, seven states have passed laws banning veal crates, which are the smallest of these enclosures: Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, and Rhode Island.

US beef cattle are typically reared outdoors on grass for the first part of their lives, although most are brought indoors or fattened on grains in crowded feedlots before slaughter. In indoor systems, beef cattle are commonly housed in cramped conditions on slatted floors. This increases aggression and can lead to severe injuries and lameness.

There are also specific welfare concerns for dairy cows and calves.



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