How The Cow Came To Be

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 14 minutes

Whether you call them a herd, a mob, a drift, a drove or a flink, we can talk about them till they finally come home. They’re bovinely sweet, their counterparts have raced through many a china shop, they've corrected our elocution, given us a glass and a half of full cream, created utopia and a land of milk and honey, they’re holier than thou, and as something to chew the cud over, they’re unbeatable.

They’re cows. To farming folk, they’re the salt of the earth. Indeed - though on a different level - many cultures connect the cow to the idea of Mother Earth: a symbol of power, nurturing, fertility, and life force. The phrase ‘sacred cow’ came about for very good reason, as did ‘cash cow’, and both reflect the value of the species. It is, in fact, a remarkable animal because this generous, humble beast has been around, largely unchanged in physical form, for over 100 centuries.

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 14 minutes

Whether you call them a herd, a mob, a drift, a drove or a flink, we can talk about them till they finally come home. They’re bovinely sweet, their counterparts have raced through many a china shop, they’ve corrected our elocution, given us a glass and a half of full cream, created utopia and a land of milk and honey, they’re holier than thou, and as something to chew the cud over, they’re unbeatable.

They’re cows. To farming folk, they’re the salt of the earth. Indeed – though on a different level – many cultures connect the cow to the idea of Mother Earth: a symbol of power, nurturing, fertility, and life force. The phrase ‘sacred cow’ came about for very good reason, as did ‘cash cow’, and both reflect the value of the species. It is, in fact, a remarkable animal because this generous, humble beast has been around, largely unchanged in physical form, for over 100 centuries.

Lascaux Cave Painting
Photo: Bradshaw Foundation

How did the cow begin? The first bony remains of the cow’s ancestor, the wild ox (Bos primigenius) – known as the ‘aurochs’ – were found in India and date back to the Pliocene period (about 2 million years ago). During the next epoch, the Pleistocene, the aurochs species migrated into the Middle East and gradually split into three wild subspecies: the Eurasian, the North African, and the Indian.

The evolution and subsequent geographical spread of the aurochs sped up with the onset of the domestication process. During the early Holocene period (around 7,000 and 10,000 years ago), at least two major domestication events occurred. One was related to the Indian subspecies, leading to zebu cattle, the other to the Eurasian subspecies leading to taurine cattle.

 

The products of these independent domestication events were two distinct lineages of cows, both with distinctive traits. The Middle Eastern cows (the taurine lineage) had a flat back and upright ears. The Indian cows (known as the indicine lineage) had a hump at the shoulders and droopy ears. Because of the conditions in which they were domesticated, the indicine cattle were also more resilient in times of drought and feed scarcity.

The humans involved in domestication used artificial selection methods to develop a species best suited to their needs. It seems that either consciously or subconsciously, they chose wisely when they selected the individuals designated to be mated to maintain and expand the herd. They realised the advantages of favouring cattle with useful traits and commenced breeding from those that were naturally docile, small-horned, and hardy.

Developing strains of domesticated cattle made life exponentially easier for early humans. They could now relax from hunting wild animals so much, and instead, enjoy a consistent source of meat, milk, and ready labour for carrying, ploughing, and pulling.

Soon after domestication, the two newly minted cattle lines began to travel with their herdspeople. In around 6000 B.C., taurine emigrated to Europe and indicine cows spread throughout India. Both taurine and indicine cows made their way to Africa, where they were mated together, forming breeds like the N’Dama. This breed – partly because of its tolerance towards the tsetse fly (trypanotolerance) – still exists today.

Over the next few thousand years, via artificial selection, other domestication events took place. Many new species of cattle were created; some of these eventually evolved into modern-day utility breeds such as the Highland, Dexter, Kerry, Welsh Black, and White Park.

So cattle were flourishing. But by the 13th century, their original forebears, the wild aurochs, existed only in small numbers in Eastern Europe. Aurochs were hunted mercilessly until that sport was declared an exclusive privilege of nobles and royal households – but it was a little too late. Then, due to agricultural development, the aurochs lost habitat and were finally classified as extinct when the last live female died from natural causes in 1627 in the Jaktorów Forest, Poland.

The end of a species is always sobering, and humankind has much to thank the aurochs for. Because as a result of the long course of its domestication and cross-breeding spanning 10,000 years, the world now has a bovine species, par excellence.

Finetuned from three species to one, the cattle beast, Bos Taurus (identified and named by zoologist Carolus Linnaeus in 1758), holds a unique position as the world’s biggest supplier of meat and milk; an incredibly versatile and honourable animal!

Can you believe there are over 1000 recognised breeds, and if we’re ever to do a headcount, over one billion cattle worldwide? (Statistica Global Survey, 2021). New Zealand is a country credited for possessing more cattle than people, so how did they show up here?

Cows came to the North Island of New Zealand in 1814, not on the good ship Lollipop but on whaling boats headed for the Bay of Islands. They arrived safely, thanks to Reverend Samuel Marsden who settled a bull and two cows of the Durham breed (subsequently called Shorthorns) on his mission station at Kororareka – now the town of Russell.

In the South Island, the first cattle were brought from Sydney by Captain W. B. Rhodes and landed in Akaroa in 1839. At the time, Akaroa was a busy port with 20 to 30 whaling ships calling each season. From then on, cattle imports continued to flood New Zealand to assist pioneers with land clearing and cultivation.

In 1820, at the Kerikeri mission, John Gare Butler was the first person in New Zealand to use an English plough, pulled by a six-bullock team. Bullock teams also carted supplies and wool bales. They were used in the forestry industry, even in the 20th century, to haul logs out of the bush.

From 1845 onwards, farmers excelled at producing fat cattle, butter, and cheese – all of which were snapped up by locals, itinerant whalers, and later by gold miners. The popularity of beef as a food source meant that cattle numbers were slow to rise. Even so, by the turn of the century and with the introduction of refrigeration, New Zealand boasted around half a million cattle, mostly comprising Shorthorns, Angus, and Herefords. In 2021, those numbers are now closer to 10 million.

Cattle have proven themselves to be exemplary suppliers of protein. They’re healthy eaters, munching their way about 12kg or 150m² of pasture per day in order to yield high milk solid levels and body mass. As they innocently chew and swallow, their ruminant stomachs digest the plant matter and, in due course, belch and fart out the by-product. That product is a word much bandied about these days and is known as methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Greenhouse gases are a cause of climate change, and cows create an awful lot of hot air. Farmers are now under fire for the management of its side effects.

There are various feed additives and supplements that help control cattle methane emissions. However, according to the University of California (Davis Mar.17, 2021), the simple process of adding a bit of natural seaweed to cattle feed could reduce methane emissions from beef cattle by as much as a whopping 82%.

That’s great news for Kiwi farmers angsting over the proposed introduction of a ‘fart tax’ and coincides with other politically led measures to research and investigate methods of reducing greenhouse gas emissions due to agriculture.

So we know the cow endures ups and downs as a contributor to the farming economy (and, some would say, the GDP), to pollution and to solving the world’s famine crisis.

Let’s now ponder the cow as a sentient being with emotions and intellect. Far from being ‘silly’, cows are clever, curious, and with bags of personality. They recognise the time, people and vehicles, express joy at new pasture, mourn their bobby calves, and are always happy to stop for a yarn or a scratch on the forelock.

Amazingly, farmers might soon be able to ask their cows the question: How now brown cow? (with the correct vowel enunciation, of course!) and interpret the answer.

Research at the University of Sydney (USYD) has shown that cows ‘talk’ to one another and retain individual identity through their lowing.

PhD student Alexandra Green from USYD School of Life and Environmental Sciences studied a herd of 18 Holstein-Friesian heifers over five months. She determined that the cows gave individual voice cues in response to positive and negative situations. Ms Green concluded that this helped them maintain contact with the herd and express excitement, arousal, engagement, or distress.

“We hope that through gaining knowledge of these vocalisations, farmers will be able to tune into the emotional state of their cattle, improving animal welfare,” Ms Green said.

In The Psychology of Cows (2017) research journal, authors Lori Marino and Kristin Allen established that cows: “can make sophisticated discrimination; possess several emotional capacities; show an apparent emotional reaction to learning; have distinct personalities; exhibit several dimensions of social complexity, including social learning”.

In some cultures, the respect garnered by studies like these in support of cows goes even further. Cows are sanctified in religions like Hinduism and Buddhism and, in many countries, mythically revered as the starry constellation (Taurus) that influences the agricultural calendar. And in some agricultural practices such as biodynamics, their waste is utilised as a potent fertiliser.

What is biodynamic farming? Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner introduced biodynamic principles by encouraging farmers to look to the cosmos before planting and harvesting crops. Farmers and gardeners use the biodynamic calendar to do so, which is a system based on the positioning of the stars and the moon.

Packed cow manure in cow horn for Biodynamic preparation #500

Steiner’s nine ‘preparations’ are made from herbs, mineral substances, and animal manures and converted to field sprays and compost. Preparation #500 involves taking cow manure, packing it into a cow horn, and burying it underground over winter. Come spring, it’s then extracted, mixed with water, and applied to the soil.

Sound woo-woo?

“Cow manure is a dense nutrient-rich material,” says managing director of the United States Biodynamic Association, Elizabeth Candelario. “When placed in a cow horn under the ground, where the temperature is constant throughout the winter, the manure ferments much like a sourdough inoculate, or a kombucha culture ferments. When it is exhumed, the material looks like chocolate and has a beautiful earthy aroma. This substance is then added to water and broadcast on soil, where it directly impacts the microbial life of that soil.”

Together, the biodynamic spray and compost preparations bring plants into a dynamic relationship with soil, water, air, warmth, and cosmos. They enable plants to access the full spectrum of nutrients required to develop in a healthy, balanced way and become more resilient to pests, diseases, and extreme climate conditions.

So biodynamic practice encourages the growth of luxuriant pasture to feed and invigorate cows with the healthy richness they deserve. Well, then, that’s a winner for me. This writer has trialled biodynamics for herself and knows it works.

And that’s no cock ‘n bull story!

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