Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Cows 101

I live on a ranch, so it's probably about time that I talk about the cows!  I'm using the term cows here generically to mean cattle. Technically, a cow is an adult female bovine that has raised a calf, a bull is an uncastrated male bovine, a steer is a castrated male bovine, and a calf is a baby bovine. That sounds easy enough, but it so happens there are other terms. A heifer (pronounced "heffer") is a female bovine that has not yet raised a calf; a feeder calf is a weaned calf that is in a feedlot.

So in the interest of simplicity, I'm just going to call them cows. At least most of the time. You'll know what I mean.
We have a cow-calf operation, which means that we have cows that give birth to calves, and those calves are raised for beef. Some of the calves are kept on the ranch to replace old cows. A cow is usually kept for 10 to 15 years on the ranch as long as it is productive.
The gestation for a cow is 9 months, just like humans. Some other time we'll go into the details of how they're bred. I bet you can't wait. It really is fascinating. Anyway, when a calf is born, it usually weighs about 55-100 pounds. It stays close to its mama, but before long it is romping in the meadows with the other calves. We have several different kinds of cows on the ranch.
Black Angus and Red Angus cows provide the yummy steaks found in higher class steakhouses. Notice that they are all one color.

Black Baldy is a mix of Black Angus and Hereford. They have a black body with a white face. These are probably the most common type of cows we have on the ranch.
Herefords, with red bodies and white faces and bellies, are the type of cows that my husband's family started ranching with. It's a family ranch operation that has been passed down from generation to generation and is now operated by my husband and his brothers. 
During the summer, most of the cows graze in the meadows. In the winter, some of the cows go out on the desert range while others are taken to the feedlot. Cows are able to eat otherwise indigestable foods because they are ruminants and their stomachs have four compartments. After they eat food, they regurgitate it and rechew it, called chewing the cud. They may repeat this process several times until they have broken the food into small enough pieces that microorganisms in the rumen have time to break down the cellulose and other carbohydrates into volatile fatty acids, which give cows their oomph. Oomph is the highly technical term for metabolic energy, but I think oomph just sounds a little better. 

This is probably a good place to dispel one of the common myths about bulls, that if they see red they charge. That's why a matador uses a red cape to entice the bull to charge him, right? Not quite, it turns out that cows are red-green colorblind, so they can't even see the color red. The matador's movement of the cape is what attracts the bull. 
And because I'm an ecologist, I couldn't help but slip in a photo of some wildlife with the cows. The mule deer population on the ranch is booming. They find plenty of food in the irrigated meadows and fields, and a variety of shrubs provides good cover for them. Mule deer are also ruminants and you can go wear red near them without any problems, because they are also red-green colorblind. 

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