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CATTLE . By cattle is here meant those bovines that have been brought under domestication (Bos taurus, Bos longifrons, Bos brachyceros, Bos indicus ) and not merely bovines or domesticated livestock in general. The first datum that must thus concern anyone interested in the religio-historic importance of cattle is the very fact of the domestication of wild bovines, which was one of the central cultural accomplishments of the "Neolithic revolution," now dated in the period roughly between the tenth and sixth millennium bce. Since the nineteenth century, a debate has continued between those who have argued in favor of a religious motivation for the domestication of this species and those who have stressed material and economic factors. The former position, initially formulated by Eduard Hahn, emphasized the common use of cattle as sacrificial victims throughout ancient Mesopotamia, arguing from this datum that cattle were tamed in order to ensure a regular and adequate supply of victims for the sacrificial cult. While some still maintain this theory, more generally accepted is the opposing point of view, which holds that obtaining reliable sources of milk, meat, and traction power for nonreligious purposes was the primary motive for the initial domestication.

Once tamed, cattle quickly came to occupy a highly important place within both the agricultural and the pastoral economies of Neolithic societies. In those areas where sufficient rainfall and a long growing season made the production of crops feasible, cattle were harnessed to the yoke and used for plowing, a process that greatly increased the agricultural yield. This combination of cereal agriculture and cattle-drawn plows was an extremely dynamic one: increased agricultural production made it possible to feed ever larger herds of cattle (as well as ever more people), which in turn made it possible to bring ever larger areas of land under the plow. As irrigation techniques were mastered, still greater production resulted, ultimately making possible the emergence of urban civilization.

Elsewhere, in terrains less conducive to agricultural production, with perhaps an inadequate water supply and/or a short growing season, pastoral economies proper developed. Here, herds of cattle were exploited more as a source of food and raw materials than for their labor. Milk, butter, cheese, and sometimes the blood of cattle served as chief items of diet, although agricultural products might also be obtained by way of trade. Meat, for pastoralists as for those who practiced mixed herding and agriculture, remained always a highly specialized and prestigious item of diet, the consumption of which was surrounded by religious attitudes and ritual procedures.

Beyond food, cattle provided numerous other necessities of life for such pastoral peoples as the Nilotic tribes of East Africa, the Israelites of the patriarchal period, and the early Indo-Europeans. Among the products derived from cattle were leather hides, used for clothing, shelter, defensive armament, thongs, and the like; bone tools; dung, which served as fuel for slow-burning fires in areas where wood was scarce; and urine, often used as an all-purpose disinfectant. It is thus no overstatement to say that for cattle-herding pastoralists, cattle formed the very means of production, being in effect machines for the conversion of grass into multiple usable forms.

Equally important, however, is the fact that cattle served as the standard measure of wealth and means of exchange. Nor is exchange to be understood as simply trade: rather, the transfer of cattle from one person or group to another establishes a continuing relation between them, the exchange having social, ritual, and sentimental dimensions as well as economic. Convenient examples of this are found in the institutions of bridewealth and wergild, whereby one social group that has caused another group to lose a valued member compensates the latter by bestowing a prescribed number of cattle upon them. These cattle not only restore the economically productive value of the lost individual, but also replace him or her in the affections of the group that receives them. As a result of this exchange, the two groupsone of which would otherwise benefit at the expense of the otherremain in balance and harmony.

Cattle are thus a crucially important part of any pastoral society, for in truth they make social life possible. All moments of passagebirths, deaths, marriages, initiationsare marked by an exchange of cattle. And, in addition to horizontal exchanges of cattle (i.e., those between humans, all of whom occupy the same level of the cosmos), vertical exchanges are also frequent, sacrifice being in part an exchange between humans and godsas for instance in sacrifices performed on behalf of those suffering from disease, in which cattle are given to deities, who in return restore the afflicted person to his or her social group.

One can thus readily see that there exists a constant demand for cattle within pastoral societies, given their enormous importance as means of production, means of exchange, measures of wealth, and signs of prestige. New supplies are obtained through normal reproduction and breeding, of course, but also through violence, for the raiding of neighboring people's herds is an extremely common practice among pastoralists. Such raids stand in marked opposition to the types of exchange discussed above. Involving no reciprocity, they create or perpetuate imbalance and disharmony between the raiding and raided groups, reciprocity and balance (but never harmony) appearing only when the tables are turned and the previously raided group turns raider itself. To ensure success in raids, warrior values and patterns of organizationmilitarized age-sets, Männerbünde, and the likeare particularly cultivated. Specialized training, initiatory rituals, and magical apparatuses prepare young men to go forth on raids, these being not simply expeditions born of socioeconomic utility, but alsofrom the point of veiw of those who participate, at any ratesacred, ritual ventures.

The chief means whereby raids are elevated to ritual status is through the propagation of myths that offer a divine precedent for the deeds of warriors. Such myths, in which the exploits of a deity, hero, or primordial ancestor are celebrated, serve to charter and legitimate similar raiding activity, as warriors come to identify with, and pattern themselves after, the mythic models. A case in point is a celebrated Nuer myth, which tells of the first cattle raid launched by the first Nuer against the first Dinka, at the command of God himself:

There were still no cattle on the earth. Then God collared Nuer and gave him a cow and a calf with the instructions to share them with Dinkato give the cow to Dinka and to keep the calf himself. Then, he secretly gave Nuer the direction to come to him early in the morning in order to receive his calf. But, unobserved, Dinka had overheard this speech. Very earlystill by nightNuer came to God's dwelling and said, "Gwah, my Father, I have come; give me my calf." "Who are you?" asked God. Whereupon the Nuer said, "I am Nuer." "But now, who was it who came to me a little while ago and said he was Nuer, and to whom I consequently gave the calf?" God now asked. The astonished Nuer replied, "I did not come. That must have been Dinka. This was Dinka cunning; he has out-witted me." Then God said to Nuer, "Good, now you take the cow for the present; then follow Dinka. When you have overtaken him, you may kill him and take the calf from him." Since that time date the struggles of the Nuer against the Dinka to gain possession of their cattle. (Crazzolara, 1953, pp. 6869; my trans.)

As the last sentence of this highly significant text indicates, the Nuerwho are militarily superior to their Dinka neighborsmake use of this myth to justify their raiding activity, for the myth permits them to claim that such aggression (1) sets right an ancient wrong, in which Dinka initially cheated Nuer of his calf, and (2) fulfills a commandment spoken by God. Such an ideology permits the Nuer to make use of their superior force with a sense of perfect self-righteousness; it seems probable that the Dinka herds would be thoroughly depleted by Nuer attacks, were it not for the fact that the Dinka tell more or less the same myth, interpreting it, however, as establishing a sacred charter and precedent for their own continuing theft of Nuer cattle through stealth and guile, qualities in which they exceed their Nuer enemy.

Similar stories are found among many other peoples for whom cattle are a mainstay of the society and economy. Sometimes these circulate in secular versions, as in Ireland, where numerous tales, including the great national epic Táin Bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cuailnge) celebrate the raiding exploits of human, if prodigious, warriors. Elsewhere, demigods appear as the prototypical heroes of cattle raids, as with the Greek tale of Herakles and Geryon, or its Roman counterpart, in which Hercules vanquishes Cacus. Both of these are quite similar to the pattern of the Nuer myth, telling how a foreigner stole cattle, which the national or ethnic hero then recovered in a fully justified raid. Yet again, the central figure of raiding myths may himself be a deity, as in numerous myths of Vedic India, in which the warrior god Indra recovers stolen cattle from such enemies as the pai s, Vtra, and Vala. In these myths, the cattle raid is lifted to cosmogonic significance, for it is regularly told that in recovering lost cattle, Indra also set free imprisoned waters and light, rescuing the cosmos from possible disaster. Here the rains and the sun's rays are homologized to cattle; they are the cows of the atmosphere and of the heavens respectively, these having been penned up by drought and night but set free by the god's successful cattle raida raid that makes all life and prosperity possible and on which human raiding is patterned.

A certain moral ambiguity frequently surrounded raiding, however, in myth as in actual practice. Thus, for instance, the Homeric Hymn to Hermes tells how the god Hermes, while still an infant, stole cattle from his brother Apollo. Yet for all that the exploit is celebrated and helped Hermes win elevation to full divine stature (the common initiatory value of raiding is here evident), Hermes' action is also called into question. According to the hymn, he was hunted down by Apollo, forced to stand trial, and ultimately had to make restitution to his brother before peace could be established between them.

Part of the problem was that Hermes had killed some of the cattle that he stole, and the unrightful slaughter of cattle is always a most serious crime among cattle-herding peoples. Thus, for instance, Enkidu was condemned to death for his part in slaying the Bull of Heaven, according to the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the men of Odysseus's last ship were all destroyed by a thunderbolt for having killed and eaten the cattle of the sun god Helios, which were pastured on the island of Thrinacia. Again, among Nuer and Dinka alike, any cattle killed for food outside of sacrifice are said to be slain "just for nothing" (bang lora ), and it is expected that they will return to haunt their slayer.

The same point is made in this Nuer-Dinka belief as in the story of Odysseus's men: however much hunger may drive one to desire meat, lethal violence directed against cattle constitutes a sacrilege unless it is set within a ritual contextthat is to say, carried out with a certain etiquette, solemnity, and decorum (often by specialists), and legitimated by reference to some set of sacred precedents, symbolic constructs, or transcendent principles. These conditions being met, the slaughter of cattle and subsequent distribution of meat is considered sacrifice; these lacking, it is wanton butchery.

Cattle sacrifice is ideologically the most prestigious and significant ritual performed among pastoral peoples, although in practice offerings of lesser economic value (sheep, goats, milk products, cakes, etc.) are often substituted. In part, as has been discussed above, sacrifice always includes among its significances and functions the consecration of meat and the legitimation of the violence requisite for the procurement of meat. Sacrifice is no more a straightforwardly utilitarian procedure, however, than it is a simple or univocal one. Rather, complex symbolisms and multiple dimensions are always present, however much these may differ from one culture area, historical period, or sacrificial performance to another.

Cattle sacrifice in ancient Babylon, for example, while clearly part of the general "care and feeding of the gods" enjoined upon mankind, was also in part a remembrance or repetition of the cosmogony. For as tablet 5 of the creation account Enuma elish makes clear, the deity Tiamatwhose death marks the beginning of the cosmos as we know itwas understood to take the form of a cow, although other passages of the text present her as a monstrous, chaotic being. (A similar account of a being simultaneously monstrous and bovine, which must be put to death in order for a proper cosmos and society to emerge, is the golden calf of Exodus 32.) Moreover, the sacrifice of cattle was cast as a divine act, as is clear in the declaration of the Babylonian priest who offers an ox, the skin of which will be made into the covering for a temple drum: "These actsit is the totality of the gods who have performed them, it is not really I who performed them."

Again, the cattle sacrifice of the Greek polis (city-state) was informed by myths of the first sacrifice, particularly that performed by Prometheus, as described by Hesiod, whichas Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant (1980) have demonstratedserved to define the essential human position in the universe as that intermediate to those of beasts and gods. Of particular interest in myth and practice alike is the precise definition of portions allocated to the godsthe victim's bones, wrapped in a single layer of fatand those reserved for humansthe rest of the meat, wrapped within the animal's stomach. In this, some scholars have seen a reminiscence of archaic hunters' rites, the bones being preserved so that the dead animal might be resurrected. Detienne and Vernant have argued, however, for a different line of interpretation, in which bones are contrasted to meat as the undecaying (or immortal) portion of the victim to the decaying (or mortal) portion. The contrast of meat and bones thus replicates and comments upon the contrast of gods and men; the inclusion of the stomach in the human portion further stresses man's need to eat, which spurs him on to kill.

Social processes also figure prominently in the logic and structure of cattle sacrifice, for the distribution of meat tends to be differential and hierarchic, either in the nature of the portions assigned to individuals or in the order in which portions are presented, or both. A clear case in point is the Roman Feriae Latinae, an annual ceremonial to which all members of the Latin League sent representatives and contributions. The central act was the sacrifice and dismemberment of a white bull, pieces of meat from which were assigned to the representatives according to the relative importance of their cities. Change over time was also reflected in the proceedings of the Feriae Latinae, for as a city grew or shrank in size and stature, its portion of meat seems to have been adjusted accordingly. Other societies also possessed mechanisms whereby social hierarchy could not only be signified within a sacrificial context, but could also be contested, as seen in the accounts of brawls and duels fought over the "champion's portion" among the Greeks and Celts.

Cattle sacrifice was also a highly important part of Indo-Iranian religion, reflecting the prominent position of cattle within the society and economy of India and Iran alike. Certainly, cattle figure almost obsessively in the earliest religious texts from India and Iran (the gveda and the Gāthās of the Avesta respectively), although some scholars have maintained that most references to cattle should be taken metaphorically or allegorically, while granting that the stimulus for bovine imagery would still come from the real possession of cattle. Controversy also exists as to whether Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) condemned cattle sacrifice in Iranas some of the Gathic texts seem to indicateor if it remained always a part of the Zoroastrian cultus.

The rejection of cattle sacrifice is attested elsewhere in history, particularly in cases where a previously pastoral population has abandoned its earlier mode of production and consequent way of life. Thus, for instance, within the Athenian polis, details of the foremost cattle sacrificethe Bouphonia ("ox-slaying")reveal a profound uneasiness over the violence and bloodshed inherent in the rite. Toward the end of each Bouphonia, a trial was thus held to assess the guilt of those responsible for the victim's death, such guilt ultimately being assigned to the sacrificial knife with which it was killed, the knife then being punished (and purified) by being thrown into the sea.

However much the ritual slaughter of cattle prompted a certain moral disquietude, the practice continued unabated throughout the history of ancient Greece, insofar as sacrifice was a central mechanism for the periodic renewal of social hierarchy and integration within the polis. The criticism of sacrifice implicit in the Bouphonia, however, was given a more articulate and aggressive formulation by certain philosophers and mystics possessed of a radically different vision of what the polis ought to be and of the guilt incurred through sacrificial violence. Chief among these were Pythagoras and Empedocles, the latter of whom condemned sacrifice in the following terms, contrasting it with an imagined paradisal sort of offering that took place in the distant past andgiven his theories of cyclical timewould once again replace the bloody rituals:

Ares was not a god for them, nor was Battle-din,
Nor was Zeus the king, nor Kronos, nor Poseidon,
But Aphrodite was queen.
They appeased her with pious gifts:
With painted animal figurines, with perfumes,
With sacrifices of unmixed myrrh and fragrant frankin-cense,
Pouring libations of golden honey to the ground.
The altar was not smeared with the unmixed gore ofbulls.
Rather, that was the greatest defilement for men:
Taking away the life-force in order to eat the noblelimbs.

Although these Greek opponents of sacrificial ritual remained always in a minorityoften, what is more, a suspect minorityothers were more successful in India, where the doctrine of ahisā, "noninjury" to all living creatures, gradually displaced older sacrificial ideology, particularly in the wake of Buddhist and Jain challenges to Brahmanic doctrines and practice. Thus, the Sanskrit legal textsas Ludwig Alsdorf (1962) first demonstratedshow a clear process of development, in which the eating of meat obtained from sacrifices was first freely permitted, but later came to be condemned.

Although the privileged status of the "sacred cow" in India is in some measure related to the emergence of the ahisā ethic, its sources are considerably older. For already in the gveda and also in the Avesta, cows are referred to as "beings not to be killed" (Skt., aghnya; Av., agenya ), a correspondence that indicates that this was already an item of Indo-Iranian belief at the beginning of the second millennium bce. One must stress, however, that it is only cowsthat is, female bovinesthat are so designated, and not cattle in general, and it appears likely that the symbolic, sentimental, and socioeconomic importance of the cow as the source of both milk and new bovine life led to the formulation of religious principles protecting it against slaughter, even slaughter within the context of sacrifice.

Within modern Hinduism, however, the "sacred cow" has been treated as the foremost example of the more general principle of ahisā, as for instance in a celebrated treatise by Mohandas K. Gandhi entitled "How to Serve the Cow." Vast numbers of cattle roam the Indian subcontinent free from any threat to their well-being (urban riots have been provoked by attempts to drive cattle from busy streets or markets), and numerous homes have been founded for the care of old and sick cattle.

Western technocrats, colonial authorities, and others have generally viewed the "sacred cow" of India as a classic example of the ways in which religious principles can lead large populations into modes of habitual behavior and social organization that are irrational and counterproductive in strictly economic terms. Yet this view has been challenged, largely by the research of Marvin Harris, and a lively debate has resulted, which is still to be resolved. For it is Harris's contention that when one considers the full range of ways in which cattle resources are exploited within India (traction, dung for fuel, milk and milk products, etc.) and the ways in which cattle are fed (scavenging, use of stubble from the fields, etc.), as well as other important seasonal and ecological factors, one is forced to conclude that the prohibition on killing cattle is both rational and productive, even in the most narrow economic sense. Debate still rages over many details of Harris's argument, as well as on his general conclusion, but his writings have been a valuable corrective to studies that emphasize the divergence between religious and socioeconomic considerations. Rather than being contradictory, even in the case of the "sacred cow," these matters are intimately correlated, in ways far richer and more complex than is generally understood.

See Also

Bones; Neolithic Religion; Sacrifice.


On the religious significance of cattle within pastoral cultures, see my Priests, Warriors, and Cattle: A Study in the Ecology of Religions (Berkeley, 1981). A good discussion of the domestication of the species is found in Frederick E. Zeuner's A History of Domesticated Animals (New York, 1963). Eduard Hahn's theories on the religious origin of domestication were set forth in a number of publications, most important of which was Die Haustiere und ihre Beziehungen zur Wirtschaft des Menschen (Leipzig, 1896).

The importance of cattle in the life and religion of the peoples of East Africa has been treated in a number of excellent publications, among which should be noted Melville J. Herskovits's "The Cattle Complex in East Africa," American Anthropologist 28 (1926): 230272, 361388; E. E. Evans-Pritchard's Neur Religion (Oxford, 1956); Godfrey Lienhardt's Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka (Oxford, 1961); Peter Rigby's Cattle and Kinship among the Gogo (Ithaca, N.Y., 1969); Pierre Bonte's "Il bestiame produce gli uomini: Sacrificio, valore e feticismo del bestiame nell' Africa orientale," Studi storici 25 (1984): 875896; and J. P. Crazzolara's Zur Gesellschaft und Religion der Nueer (Vienna, 1953).

On sacrifice in general, see Walter Burkert's Homo Necans (Berkeley, 1983); La cuisine du sacrifice en pays grec, edited by Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant (Paris, 1980); and the papers on the theme "Sacrificio, organizzazione del cosmo, dinamica sociale," Studi storici 25 (1984): 829956.

On the use of cattle as metaphor, see Wolfgang E. Schmid's "Die Kuh auf der Weide," Indogermanische Forschungen 64 (19581959): 112; George G. Cameron's "Zoroaster the Herdsman," Indo-Iranian Journal 10 (1968): 261281; and Boris Oguibenine's "Le symbolisme de la razzia d'après les hymnes vediques," Études indo-européennes (1984): 117.

On cattle raiding, see Peter Walcot's "Cattle Raiding, Heroic Tradition, and Ritual: The Greek Evidence," History of Religions 18 (May 1979): 326351; Françoise Bader's "Rhapsodies homériques et irlandaises," in Recherches sur les religions de l'antiquité classique, edited by Raymond Bloch (Paris, 1980); and Doris Srinivasan's The Concept of Cow in the Rigveda (Delhi, 1979).

On ahisā in India, see Ludwig Alsdorf's Beiträge zur Geschichte von Vegetarismus und Rinderverehrung in Indien (Wiesbaden, 1962). The debate on the sacred cow has taken place largely in the pages of Current Anthropology (Chicago) from 1966 on. Marvin Harris's arguments are conveniently summarized in Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches (New York, 1974). On the Indian homes for indigent cattle, see Deryck O. Lodrick's Sacred Cows, Sacred Places (Berkeley, 1981).

New Sources

Peires, J. B. The Dead Will Arise: Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 18567. Bloomington, 1989.

Bruce Lincoln (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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CATTLE. The history of the domestication of cattle, their use as key elements of human survival systems, their biology, how and when they are currently raised, and how they are processed and marketed for consumption are all issues that help us understand beef as a part of different food systems. "Cattle" refers to live animals, including the young (calves), females before giving birth (heifers), females that have given birth (cows), fertile males (bulls), and castrated males (steers). Beef is the meat of all these animals while specialized terms for beef, such as veal (the meat of young, milk-fed calves), relate to food preferences in different cultures.

Beef is produced and consumed worldwide, and, like that of many commodities, its production is increasing. It is consumed not only as hamburgers, roasts, and steaks, but meat by-products including hides, horns, hoofs, intestines, and brains are used in a variety of products including: shampoo, marshmallows, ice cream, gelatin, cement, chalk, chewing gum, makeup, matches, margarine, and strings for musical instruments and tennis racquets. Beef is raised in three phases before it is processed: calves are raised on pasture and range land, as feeder cattle they feed on pasture, crop residue, and range land, and finally they go to feedlots, where they are fattened for slaughter. The slaughterhouse (packer) is also the disassembly plant, where the carcass is divided into "cuts." Since the advent of boxed beef, most of the disassembly occurs at the plant itself, whereas previously sides of beef went to wholesale or retail butchers who divided it further. After slaughter, the commodity chain diverges. A portion goes directly to wholesalers, who distribute to institutional users or grocery stores, although grocery chains are increasingly linked directly to the packer. Another portion goes into further processing for sausages, bologna, hot dogs, and other processed meats, or is used for canned and frozen "heat and eat" meals. The carcass is rendered and the by-products are used in a wide variety of products. For example, hooves can be made into gelatin, hides into leather, bones and cartilage into bonemeal for plant nutrition, and intestines and some organs and other parts not usually used in meat markets go to pet food. Up until the mid-1980s, the bones and nerves were ground into bone meal and fed as a supplement to cattle and other animals, until this practice was banned. Beef is increasingly consumed in restaurants, from steakhouses to fast food establishments. There is enormous variety in the use of all parts of the animal for delicacies prepared for home use and street food sale, from the stomach (tripe soup in many cultures) to the tail. Lower-quality beef and inferior parts are used in Japan in a simple dish called nimono as a kind of seasoning.


Description. Cattle are large ruminants of the family Bovidae and the genus Bos. Ruminants are mammals whose stomach has four partsrumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasums. The rumen provides a pouch where fibrous plant materials are broken down by bacteria so their nutrients can be digested. Because they are ruminants, cattle can digest plant materials that serve no other human use. As herbivores, they are selective eaters, but consume a variety of types of plants.

From the time of their original domestication, cattle were selectively chosen to meet multiple human needs, including providing traction and transportation, meat, and milk. Cattle have provided fuel for cooking and heating, plaster for walls, manure for gardens and fields, strings for musical instruments, and clothingfrom hats to shoes. Originally valued for docility, cattle are increasingly bred to meet specific needs of those who raise them, process them, and eat them.

The systematic development of cattle breeding began as a part of the industrial revolution and the renaissance of British agriculture. The enclosure movement in England in the sixteenth century not only forced rural peasant farmers from the land to work in factories, but left privatized lands in the hands of a few landed gentry who could breed the stock they desired. Breed formation started with a useful local type that was then inbred until it showed uniformity. Breeds were then shown at livestock fairs that were part of the country lifestyle of the landed classes. Heredity was carefully recorded in herd books, and sires and mating were carefully controlled. Pure breed associations were formed. It was in this context, between 1750 and 1850, that the Angus, Hereford, and Shorthorn breeds were developed.

In other regions of Europe, inbreeding had produced uniform and locally adapted breeds, although specialization in rearing and feeding cattle for beef occurred long after it had in Great Britain. In the United States, interest in breeding began around the turn of the twentieth century (numbers had been important up to that point). In particular, Herefords were imported because they matured early, which allowed for the slaughter of yearlings rather than the four-year-olds prevalent at that time. In parts of France, five-to six-year-olds are still preferred for their flavor, particularly if they are fattened on grass.

In the course of seeking early maturing animals, many lines and traits have been lost. However, the introduction of new breeds has transformed the appearanceand probably the taste, nutritional qualities, and tendernessof cattle in beef-exporting nations, particularly the United States and Canada.

Original extent. Cattle may have originated at about the same time in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Surviving relatives are present on all three continents. Seldom kept solely for beef production, cattle were beasts of burden as well as critical providers of milk and butter. They were only slaughtered when their ability to produce these ongoing products was reduced, at which point their hides, hooves, horns, bones, intestines, and other non-edible parts were valued as much as their meat, which generally supplemented that provided by wild game. Modern domestic cattle are believed to descend from Bos taurus, which includes European breeds such as Shorthorn and Jersey and Bos indicus, which includes Zebu breeds from South Asia and Africa. Cattle in much of the world were primarily used for traction for crop agriculture and for transportation.

Nutritional and nonnutritional constituents. Bovine flesh is called beef when the animal is mature and referred to as veal when it is a calf. Beef provides high levels of energy and protein. Proteins found in beef have a higher digestibility than most plant proteins and a wider range of amino acids. The bioavailability of important minerals (including calcium, phosphorous, iron, zinc, magnesium, and manganese) as well as vitamins (including thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxine [B6], and B12) is high in beef. In many parts of the world, beef is viewed as the most fortified and most nutritious butcher's meat. High in iron, it can also be high in cholesterol and highly saturated fatty acids, as for many years cattle were bred for weight gain. Corn-fed cattle have higher levels of omega-6, which is a coagulant, in their meat. Grass-fed animals, in contrast, have much higher concentrations of omega-3

Characteristic Bos taurus Bos indicus
Ears Short and erect Long and drooping
Hump Absent Well-developed and fleshy
Skin Relatively tight Very loose
Hair Long and thick Fine and short
Horns Short and turned down or hornless Long and turned up
Call Bellow Grunt
Body Wide through barrel and hindquarter Narrower throughout
Temperament Relatively docile Nervous
Heat tolerance Poor Good
Birth weight High Low
These distinguishing characteristics have been combined and recombined in over a hundred different registered breeds.

fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties and are anticoagulants. Too much omega-6 leads to clogged arteries, while omega-3 fatty acids do not. Fat content in general depends on the cut of beef, genetics, and the feeding of the animal prior to slaughter.


Domestication. Among early transhumant populations, which moved seasonally to find food, herds of hoofed mammals that were the ancestors of our current breeds moved with them. Initially roaming to find grass as seasons changed, cattle were later driven to provide a constant source of fuel and milk. As human life became more sedentary, cattle were an important part of the move to agriculture, providing traction for plowing in many sites in the Old World. In the New World, cattle were introduced with European colonization.

Historical diffusion and trade. Cattle husbandry was a part of Roman culture and spread with the Roman Empire. Norman conquerors brought beef-eating to the British Isles, although cattle were already serving many other functions for farm households. Cattle culture was an early part of complex social organization, often representing wealth. For example, the Celts based their wealth on cattle prior to 1066. In fact, in a number of languages the root word for cattle and for money is the same. In parts of Africa, wealth is judged by number of cattle, and dowries are paid in cattle.

South American grasslands did not have large ruminants before the Spanish and Portuguese introduced cattle to the grasslands from Argentina and Chile to Mexico and the southern part of what is now the United States. Raised on large estancias, faezendas, or haciendas, they were valued primarily for their hides, hooves, and horns, which could be exported to Europe. The owners of the large estates employed vaqueros, gauchos, or cowboys to undertake the day-to-day care of the cattle and to drive them to the appropriate place for shipping or slaughter. Thus, cattle imported to the New World from Spain were primarily beef cattle, the famous long-horns, tough for eating but resilient, and able to utilize the meager feed available in the dry plains of the central North American continent.

Australia and New Zealand grasslands were the last to have cattle introduced. The first cattle, black Africander, arrived in 1788 and Zebu cattle arrived from India in 1795, followed by English breeds. While settlers introduced cattle, it was large companies that exploited the great potential of the early cattle industry in Australia. The early cattle were driven to follow forage and water availability and then to slaughter. Wire fencing in the 1860s and bore wells and the railway book in the 1880s allowed for the establishment of permanent cattle stations. With the first shipment of frozen beef to England in 1879, the cattle industry became export-oriented.

Europeans who came to the North American continent and the Antipodes (New Zealand and Australia) brought their livestock with them. There was much genetic diversity in the livestock that arrived with migrants from different rural areas of Europe. The cattle from northern Europe tended to be triple-purpose cattlefor traction, milk, and meatand they tended to be either family cows or small herds of beef raised on family farms outside population settlements.

The coming of the railroad transformed cattle production in North and South America, allowing both livestock and sides of beef to travel further faster. Beef was produced primarily in the plain states. Cattle drives to railheads gave rise to the myths of the cowboy. Railroads transported the cattle to population centers, where they could be butchered nearer to the consumer. The wide dispersal of cattle and their seasonal migrations was gradually cut back as the plains were fenced and other forms of agriculture competed with cattle for the land.

Yet even in the east, the ability of ruminants to convert plant materials of all kinds into food meant that land unfit for agriculture, because it was too steep or too poorly drained, was used for grazing cattle. As farmers moved into the plains in the 1830s and 1840s, before the lands of the majority of states like Iowa and Illinois were drained for agriculture, cattle were an important part of the farming mix using land that was unfit for cultivation or homesites. As soil was drained, however, less land was used for pasture, and more was used for crops.

Cattle were still the cheapest way of shipping the course grains, particularly corn. Meadows changed to pasture, and then were drained and became cropland. The farmers who moved to these reclaimed areas were almost all commercial rather than subsistence. As cities grew, the demand for meat increased.

James Whitaker argues that "through a combination of availability of railroads, type of land tenure, cost of drainage, and price of beef in the 1880s and early 1890s," many of the states shifted to producing cash grains rather than fat cattle (1975, p. 14). Mechanization in particular helped bring about this change, as did the ability to open up the prairie with chisel plows.

During the nineteenth century, cow/calf operations and fattening cattle were further differentiated. By 1819, cattle feeders from Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky were traveling as far west as Missouri and Oklahoma in search of young animals to take home for fattening on corn in preparation for the overland drive to the eastern markets. But some cattle producers believed they could raise cattle and corn more cheaply in Iowa and Illinois than in Ohio or Kentucky. Those cattle were driven to eastern markets or shipped south to New Orleans on the Mississippi.

Those who first drove feeder cattle east to fatten brought the cattle-feeding pattern to Iowa and Illinois when they returned to settle after seeing the advantages of cheap prairie grass and corn. Until the Civil War, these cattle went primarily to the eastern markets.

Farmers had to go greater distances to find the feeder cattle they needed to fatten for market. Cow/calf operations, which thrived on smaller farm units, encouraged settlement. Large-scale operators gathered their herds from farmers who felt that feeding cattle was not profitable with less than two dozen head (Whitaker, 1975, p.22). Thus, small operators produced the calves, while larger operations fed them out and fattened them.

After the Civil War, feeders again returned to Texas and the plains. The increasing use of the western range as a source of feeder cattle brought significant changes to the cattle feeding industry in the Corn Belt. There were two available feeding strategies: 1) purchase cheap western cattle, feed them for a year, and then sell for a small profit margin per animal hoping to make money on the large volume of sales; or 2) pursue a low-volume business of better quality of cattle bringing a larger profit per head. Improved cattle provided a way to get the most profit out of good grass and good corn while not robbing the land of its fertility as the cattle recycled the nutrients they consumed.

Those who followed the second strategy were more interested in improved beef breeds. Farmers were slow to improve their herds, but those who did generally profited from it. Because cow/calf operations were a small part of many farms, breed and pasture improvements were not quickly or widely adopted.

By the end of the 1850s, cattle were being fattened in Iowa and Illinois rather than being calved and weaned and driven east to be fattened. In the years after 1865, technological advances contributed to the continued growth and expansion in the beef industry. Illinois and Iowa became leading producers of corn-fattened cattle and Chicago became one of the world's leading cattle markets. The organization and expansion of a central market in Chicago was a result of the new railroad network, the concentration of meat packers in Chicago, the development of refrigeration facilities, the reorganization of retail meat marketing, and growth of the export trade in live and dressed beef. Demand for dressed beef increased, and the Corn Belt states met that demand with the combined production of cattle and corn.

The Civil War and the railroads brought centralization of market facilities, as increased receipts of livestock created chaos in handling transactions between several markets in the city. Formation of the Union Stockyards in 1865 was critical to bringing order out of chaos and in concentrating power. Demands of the new end market, created by the expansion of the railroads, gave rise to the dressed beef industry and the major packers who controlled it.

Although the technology existed before the Civil War, it was only in the late 1860s that refrigeration was effectively used to prevent the early spoilage of fresh meat, lengthening the time and distance from point of slaughter that fresh beef could be consumed. At first, consumers distrusted the quality of meat shipped hundreds of miles after being slaughtered; but, because dressed beef was sufficiently cheaper than local butcher stock, people were willing to try it.

The Swift Company was critical in moving this conversion forward. Swift and other companies fought with the railroad about whether dressed beef could be shipped at the same rate as live cattle. The invention of the hermetically sealed tin meant that corn-fattened cattle from Illinois and Iowa could be packed and shipped to domestic and foreign markets.

Soon after the Civil War, in the early 1870s, Chicago packers replaced packing pickled beef in barrels with canning. A court ruling that invalidated patented claims on the canning process triggered the expansion of canned meat. Western beef tended to be canned, as the quality was inferior to the corn-fed beef of the Midwest.

The great expansion of the market through technological and marketing changes in the dress beef trade created large vertically organized Chicago-based corporations. These corporations controlled, for the most part, both the wholesale and retail domestic markets for beef products. Known as the "big five," Armour & Company, Patrick Cudahy, Nelson Morris, Swift & Company, and Wilson & Company frequently acted together in buying cattle in the Union Stockyards and dividing retail trade among themselves. They also set prices and attempted to eliminate some of the less profitable aspects of competition.

As these companies were expanding rapidly due to the sharp increase in demand, they were pressed for cash and, thus, worked hard to lower both the price of labor in the packing plants and the cattle they purchased. To compound the problem of vertical integration and monopoly, a number of the packers went into the cattle feeding business.

By 1900 the concentration, if not the ownership of packing plants, had become decentralized. The major leading packing centers, with the same packers owning most of the capacity, were located in Chicago, Kansas City, Omaha, East St. Louis, and St. Joseph. There were lesser centers in Des Moines, Sioux City, St. Paul, and Fort Worth. The packers had so revolutionized the meat trade that butchers in some circles in the 1920s claimed that "not a retail butcher has made a fair profit and a living in the last ten years" because of packer branch houses (Whitaker, 1975, p. 54).

A major transformation of beef packing, which had previously been located near consumers and the transportation centers of larger cities, occurred with the founding of Iowa Beef Packing in Denison, Iowa, later renamed IBP. To lower buying costs, shorten transportation distances, and eliminate intermediaries, IBP put its plants near large feed lots, which tended to be located near sources of feed grains and away from large population centers.

Work on the plant floor was organized to require less skilled and less experienced workers. Thus wages could be considerably lower than in Chicago, Kansas City, or even Des Moines. Focusing on primal cuts, they became know as "kill and chill" plants, shipping to meat processors all the specialty items that were once part of traditional packing plants. Hot dogs, sausages, processed meats, and even hamburger were shipped to other sites for further elaboration and additional value. That also kept work standard and wages low compared to the plants that were closing in the Midwest.

In 1967, IBP perfected an innovation that dramatically changed the industryboxed beef. Instead of shipping beef to customers in whole carcass form, as the industry had done for years, IBP mastered a process in which the packer breaks down the carcass into smaller portions. These cuts are then vacuum-packed and shipped out in boxes. While boxed beef was initially sold to the hotel, restaurant, and institutional trade, they soon shipped it to retail groceries as well.

Through this "butcher friendly" concept, it became possible to eliminate more than 250 pounds of fat, bones, and trimmings, which were of very little value to the retail and food service customer. Boxed meat improved quality, provided easier merchandising at the retail level, improved shelf life, and saved energy, transportation, and labor costs. This major innovation in beef processing came with the 1967 opening of a boxed beef operation at IBP's new Dakota City plant complex. It was the first large-scale beef processing plant in the nation. Dakota City also became the new location of the company's headquarters.

The advent of boxed beef changed the structure and geography of the entire meat industry. Now, instead of shipping carcasses, the packing plants cut the beef down into wholesale pieces and vacuum packed them into boxes. This greatly reduced the amount of work for wholesale butchers and also decreased the amount of space needed for shipping. In the 1970s, fuel and transportation costs were at an all-time high in constant dollar terms. Boxed beef allowed the packer to add more value to the product at the plant, to reduce transaction costs in shipping, and it reduced labor costs for urban retail grocery chains. It also reduced the power of grocery store cutters, as the retooling of the plants in rural areas reduced the power of the workers on the floor. Stores were able to bypass the skilled labor union members for meatpacking and distribution by hiring low-skilled workers to do repetitive tasks that were relatively quickly learned; turnover was high due to poor working conditions but labor was plentiful as long as unemployment was relatively high or there was a plentiful supply of immigrant workers. That strategy that linked new technology to new workers lowered costs and pushed the balance of power in the industry in favor of the packers and the grocery chain and against cattle growers and packing plant workers.


Husbandry. Calves are generally conceived either through artificial insemination (increasingly the case in developed countries) or by bulls, in the case of larger herds, or borrowed for the occasion for smaller herds. Calves are raised on grassland or rangeland with their mothers until weaned, then usually sold to a stocker feeder who will bring them up to around nine hundred to a thousand pounds on rangeland, pasture, or crop residues. Prior to slaughter, cattle often enter a feedlot, where they are fed high-protein feed and fattened.

Artificial insemination (AI) is little used in cow/calf operations in the western half of the United States. Most herds depend on bulls. One bull for each twenty to thirty cows is usually recommended. The biggest deterrent to using AI is the extra labor needed to detect cows in heat on open range and then to confine them for individual insemination. The problem was partially overcome with the approval for use of hormonal materials that can be injected to synchronize estrus. More than half of an entire cowherd may be bred successfully during a single day by a skilled inseminator using AI and estrus stimulation.

Birthing difficulties are one of the most costly problems in calf production. As a result, American ranchers typically breed their heifers to Longhorns in order to get low birthweight calvesbut this results in substandard beef.

Cow/calf producers normally rely on grazing. Nutrients obtained through grazing are usually less costly than those provided through harvested forages, grains, or other processed feeds. In addition, the dispersion of cattle grazing helps to minimize other problems, such as disease epidemics. Lowering the risk of disease decreases production costs and also reduces the need for labor. The western United States dry native range, on which agricultural operations are minimal, provides an overwhelming share of the grazing. The area necessary to support a cow depends on the amount of rainfallthe less the rainfall, the more acres required to support each head of livestock.

The stocker feeder generally uses pasture and rangeland as well as crop residues for feeding. The cattle still harvest most of their own food. Increasingly, stocker feeders are using rotational grazing (particularly in Australia and New Zealand), which helps them raise more cattle better on less land and keep the land in better condition.

There is a disjunction between the cow/calf operator or stock feeders and the feedlots/packers, which results in a very fragmented commodity chain with a great deal of distrust between the stages. The first two stages manage the resource. The last two stages manage the market.

While much of the world prefers grass-finished beef, the United States and Canada have focused on corn-fattened beef. Grain farmers who raised cattle on their uncultivable land fed their cattle using their own grains. While farm feedlots were dominant through the 1960s, changes in the tax laws in the 1970s made investment in "agricultural" enterprises extremely profitable. Capital moved into stand-alone feedlots, first from rural professionals, then from their urban kin and friends, and finally from corporations. The relocation of the feedlots, in turn, impacted corn production. As the large feed lots moved to more arid areas, where waste management was easier and population less dense, demand for corn increased. Beef fattening became more concentrated and shifted west.

Biological and mechanical technology worked together to standardize beef production in order to maximize packer convenience. Packing plants demanded uniform-sized carcasses to maintain the speed of the disassembly line. Adjusting the height of the chain that carried the carcass around the plant was time consuming. At the same time, hormones were being introduced to increase rate of growth and improve feed conversion. While there is some evidence that the injection or implanting of hormones or steroids may toughen the meat and affect flavor, it does add extra weight. Animals were slaughtered at the same age and much higher weights, in essence increasing the supply of beef.

Slaughter and processing. Traditionally, small farmers around the world raised cattle from calf to slaughter (although in many parts of Africa, as in North and South America, beef cattle were not herded by their owners). Once the productivity of the animal had declined or feed supply became scarce, it was either slaughtered for home consumption or taken to an abattoir or butcher to be slaughtered, disassembled, and sold.

The division of labor between cow/calf operations, stock feeder operations, and fattening operations was established in the early part of the twentieth century. By that time, the industry had taken on its current formvery centralized packing operations with close ties to wholesale and retail distributors linked to feedlots, feeders, and cow/calf operations. Industrial concentration increases as the animals grow older. There are a great many cow-calf operations, slightly fewer stock feeder operations for the weaned calves, many fewer feedlots, many fewer packers, and a decreasing number of wholesalers, now mostly linked to retail chains.

Before World War II, retail stores bought quarters and sides of beef and cut them into "primal cuts" and retail cuts. After the war, consolidation of the retail grocery industry proceeded very rapidly, as local butcher shops and single-store operations were closed. One of the major ways supermarkets had of increasing profits was decreasing labor costs. Self-service, which required less labor to gather customer orders, now included meats, replacing the butcher who had previously cut and wrapped meat to each customer's specific request. Supermarket corporations particularly welcomed the central processing of meat, which allowed them to reduce the number of meat cutters who were their highest paid workers. Box beef was an innovation that met the needs of supermarket chains, as net profits declined between 1967 and 1974 to 0.8 percent, 60 percent of their previous level, and real wages grew over 7.5 percent per year, or 50 percent faster than before (Walsh, 1991, p. 452). Thus the retail part of the beef industry was ready for packaging innovation. That innovation, boxed beef, impacted the geography as well as the structure of the meat-packing industry by moving beef processing from urban centers, where, as a mature industry, it was highly unionized, to rural areas near feedlots and sources of grain, particularly corn. As these areas were sparsely populated, it was necessary to recruit a labor force, and new migrants from Asia (particularly Southeast Asia), Latin America (particularly Mexico), and Africa (particularly Somalia) moved to the rural packing plants to take the jobs.

Storage. Consumers prefer fresh beef to frozen beef. Yet beef has a relatively high spoilage rate. Spoilage is averted by keeping bacterial counts low, which is accomplished through plant cleanliness, careful slaughter procedures that prevent E. coli from the intestines from coming into contact with the carcass as it goes to be disassembled, and keeping temperatures low so that the bacteria multiply at low rates. Reducing the oxidation of the meat after aging, that is, minimizing contact with oxygen in the atmosphere, is also a factor. Refrigerated cars and trailer trucks help reduce spoilage, as does consuming the meat shortly after it is produced and slaughtered. Irradiation of beef is now highly promoted by the industry to increase shelf life, but meat processors have been reluctant to introduce this procedure because of consumer concerns related to its impact on beef quality and safety.

Aging the carcass adds tenderness and flavor, but adds cost in terms of storage space and time in inventory. After slaughter and initial disassembly, beef is moved within the packing plant to a refrigerated room kept at a temperature between 34°F and 38°F. This cools the meat and firms it prior to shipment. The meat is generally kept refrigerated for 24 to 36 hours. Fresh beef can be held for several weeks at this temperature, and prime beef is sometimes held for five or six weeks long to "age" it. Fresh chilled beef must be shipped in specially refrigerated cars and ships in order to arrive in good condition.

Distribution. There is increasing vertical integration between the international companies who own the packing plants and retail grocery chains. While beef has traditionally gone through a series of brokers and wholesalers, the links in the commodity chain have been reduced for a number of major grocery chains such as Walmart. This vertical integration has been coupled with an increase in branded beef for supermarket sales, which was unheard of in the early 1990s. Restaurant chains are also forming tighter linkages with packers and even feedlots, stock feeders and cow/calf operators, as consumer demand for particular qualities in appearance and taste, as well as how an animal is raised, become more important.

Changes in the means of procurement over time. Carcasses are graded for quality, which is assumed to be related to taste and tenderness. The price paid by the packing house depends in part on the grade the carcass receives and that day's demand for the different grades. Different nations have their own grading standards. Grading standards change over time, but relatively slowly. In part, that is because each stage of the system defines quality differently.

Despite increasing concentration in feeding and packing, the beef cattle industry is disjointed and dispersed because of its dispersed resource base. There are over one million cow-calf herds in the United States, down 2 percent between 1996 and 1997. The average cowherd consists of fifty cows. Thirty percent of calves come from 700,000 herds, averaging fifteen heads of cattle. Sixty percent of cattle end up in 215 different feedlots. This dispersed base funnels through the auction markets, which still play a dominant role in the cattle industry, into gross economies of scale in the form of feedlots and packing. The cattle industry is a scavenger industry, in that its nutrient fuel base varies widely and ranges extensively, and includes grass, crop residue, and wheat that otherwise might not be used for commercial purposes. And there are difficulties in linking the different parts of the value chain when one part is based on managing the available resources (cow-calf operations and feeder cattle operations) and another is based on responding to market timing (feed lots and packers).

American beef exports have increased from less than one percent of production in the 1970s to around 9 percent by 2000. In general, imported beef competes with U.S. dairy cull cows in the production of hamburger. Imports have averaged 9 to 11 percent of beef consumed in the United States since the mid-1980s, with the level in any year depending on the phase in the American cattle cycle. For example, at the peak of the cattle cycle in 1996, less than 8 percent of the beef consumed in the United States was imported, compared to over 11 percent in 2000.

Preparation and Consumption

Preparation. Beef can be preserved and prepared in many ways. Early preservation involved salt: meat was salted and dried or placed in a brine of salt water. Beef is still salted and dried in many parts of the world, providing portability and flexibility in storage and consumption. The dried beef can be eaten dry or reconstituted in sauces. Prior to the advent of canning, corned beef was shipped across continents to feed armies stationed abroad. But with the advent of the canning process, corned beef could be more easily shipped and stored for a wide range of purposes. Relatively large pieces of fresh beef are preferred in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and the Americas. In Asia and Africa, beef is eaten more often, but in smaller quantities than in the West. In some cultures, beef is a condiment, served in highly flavored sauces with grains and legumes.

Different cultures have different ways of cutting beef and defining beef quality. In France, where hormone injections and implants are illegal, male cattle are not castrated until they gain full size. The preferred animal is older, slow growing, grass-fed, and the meat is darker in color. In North America, animals are killed younger, grow faster through the use of hormones and nutrientrich feeding, and the meat is lighter in color in the meat case. These cuts of beef are often grilled (requiring marbling) or fried. Groups of European origin also bake and boil various cuts of beef. Braising, simmering, roasting, broiling, soups, and stews are other ways that specific cuts of beef are made palatable. Beef is also eaten raw, chopped fine for beefsteak tartare and beefsteak à l'americaine. Beef is often cooked with alcoholic beverages, such as beer and wine, to tenderize it and add flavor.

The introduction of European genetics led to four modern Japanese breeds that are known as wagyu. They are valued because of their wonderful taste and extreme tenderness. The meat is thinly sliced and placed in boiling water along with a variety of vegetables, resembling a traditional method for cooking fish and vegetables for shabu-shabu and sukiyaki. High marbling is required to maintain its tenderness during the boiling process. Beef in served in many cultures with a wide variety of root crops and vegetables

Types of beef. Almost all parts of the animal are used as food. Western cookbooks include recipes for brains, blood, heart, kidneys, liver, lights (lungs), sweetbreads (thymus gland), tongue, and tripe (the lining of the third stomach), which are particularly used in regional cooking. In addition, beef heads were made into head cheese and the feet used in soups in many cultures. Use of these less desirable cuts came from peasant households, who invented delicious but labor-intensive ways to utilize the parts rejected by the upper classes.


Traditions. Because of the multiple functions of cattle and their breeding potential to increase wealth, many societies in Asia and the Pacific developed strong taboos against killing cows or healthy bulls. Only worn-out work animals, barren cows, and unwanted calves were sold for slaughter or consumed within the household. Thus many of the ways of cooking beef involved long, slow cooking.

Many cultures around the world consume beef. Its consumption is permitted by all major religions of the world except Hinduism, although Buddhism discourages the eating of the meat of four-legged animals, including beef. For many years, in India, which had a very high cattle population (and even higher if one counts water buffalo), it was illegal to kill cattle, and slaughter of buffalo was highly restricted. Japan only revoked the ban against eating meat in 1882, soon after the Meiji Restoration. Shinto also had strong norms against showing of blood. Thus butchers cut the beef very thinly. Christianity views eating meat, particularly beef, as highly desirable and a sign of self-indulgence. Thus the giving up of meat during holy seasons, such as Lent, and on Fridays becomes a symbol of sacrifice, replicating that of Christ for the world.

Generally, beef is a meat for the wealthy. Nations that are large producers of beef also tend to eat very large pieces of beef relatively often. As nations' fortunes rise and fall, so does their per capita beef consumption. For example, the economic slowdown of the 1980s decreased Peruvian beef consumption, and the economic problems at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century have reduced the traditionally high consumption of beef in Argentina.


While beef provides important nutrients, particularly iron and key amino acids, it is also a source of fat and cholesterol, although the concentration varies, depending on the cut of beef and how the animal was raised.


Ritualism and traditions. Cattle worship was widespread in the cattle cults of the Mediterranean basin. The crescent of the cow horns was seen as imbued with the life-giving power of the crescent moon. Cows, in particular, figure as symbols of fertility in parts of Asia and Africa.

Cattle are viewed as sacred in the Hindu tradition. Beef is not consumed, nor are cattle unduly constrained. But the by-products of cattle form an important part of peasant survival strategies in many rural areas. Their manure provides building materials, fuel, and fertilizer, and the animals themselves provide traction to raise the grains and pulses that are the staples of the South Asian diet. The prohibition against killing cattle ensures that even in times of hunger, the means to produce the following year will be in place.

Cattle have a paramount and pervasive symbolic value in many parts of East Africa, where they represent social status as well as wealth. As a result, the supply of cattle exceeds the demand for their meat, milk, hides, traction, or other uses to which they are put. In particular, the use of cattle for meat and hides or their sale for cash reduces the status of the head of household. More recently, the size of cattle corrals has proven to be an excellent proxy for the household wealth and status in communities in much of Africa. Cattle have critical symbolic importance in ritual, dance, marriage, and other aspects of social relations. For example, in many cultures the marriage contract calls for the payment of bride price to compensate for the loss of the services of the young woman to her parents. This is often negotiated in terms of number of cattle, delivered in installments: at marriage, the birth of the first child, and at the birth of the second child, at which time the marriage process is seen to be complete.

Global and Contemporary Issues

Commercialization. Over 48 million metric tons of beef were consumed globally in 2000, an increase of slightly over a million-and-a-half tons since 1995. Beef production worldwide exceeded consumption in 2000 by over a million metric tons, a pattern of overproduction that has marked the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Generally, beef consumption increases with a rise in middle class incomes. The Argentina consumes the most beef per capita, followed by the United States, Australia, and Canada. The United States consumes the largest total amount of beef annually (around 12 million metric tons a year), followed by the European Union, the People's Republic of China, and Brazil. Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, and the Russian Federation are also major beef consumers.

Between 1995 and 2000, beef consumption increased 49 percent in India and 32 percent in the People's Republic of China. In contrast, during the same period it declined 28 percent in the Russian Federation and 19 percent in Poland. It did not decline further in the Russian Federation because of beef that came in the form of food aid. Unlike Europe, the United States does not have a direct subsidy program for beef, although it often steps in as a buyer to help keep market prices up. That beef is exported as food aid, and used domestically for school lunches and at military bases.

The United States trades an increasing amount of dressed beef internationally. The U.S. had a cattle inventory of 99.5 million head in January of 1998 (USDA/NASS, 1998), compared to a world cattle inventory of 1,323.3 billion head (FAO, 1998). While the numbers of American cattle rise and fall in approximately 18-year cycles, with numbers increasing with each cycle, world cattle numbers have shown a general increase since 1961. The current cycle peaked in 1996. With the large herd destruction in Europe in 2001 due to animal diseases, the herd shrink will increase.

Australia exports the most beef, followed closely by the United States, which is the second largest international beef exporter (primarily high quality beef) and the largest beef importer (primarily low quality beef to be made into hamburger). The United States consistently imports more beef than it exports. Japan is the second largest importer of beef. Between 1995 and 2000, beef exports increased the most in Canada and Brazil, followed by India and Uruguay. China and Australia decreased beef exports during this period, perhaps related to the increased consumption in both those countries. Mexico's beef imports increased over five times during the six-year period, as its economy gained a solid footing. However, imports dropped in many countries during that time period. In South Africa, decreasing imports was coupled by increased production. But in both Poland and the Russian Federation, both imports and production dropped substantially.

Consumption patterns. Beef is increasingly consumed in institutions and restaurants rather than at home, following the trend of most foods. Many cuts of beef require long cooking times, whereas restaurants tend to offer quick cooking cuts such as hamburger and steaks. Condiments and sauces give the meat flavors once provided by long cooking with herbs and spices. A variety of tenderizers are used to substitute for lack of aging, unreliable genetic origins, and short cooking times.

Beef is often eaten in the form of hamburgers, as the whole place and pace of eating changes in America and other places of the world. Where the ritual of family dining continues, beef often has an honored place, but the shift of women's work from the home to the factory and office has reduced that practice. Beef for home consumption is increasingly ground beef, with a growing market in packaged foods that can augment the ground beef and give it a homemade gourmet patina.

Beef that has been prepared to be carried out or home delivered, particularly as pepperoni or hamburger pizza, is increasingly popular, not only among the young but among working couples who would like to eat at home but have no time to cook. Increasingly, work place cafeterias are providing after work take-home meals for company or agency employees.

Institutions serve beef often, including in school lunchrooms (increasingly through franchisers, including fast food purveyors), hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons. There are fewer dietary restrictions on beef than pork among ethnic groups, increasing its utility in many institutional settings.

While beef has long been part of ready-to-eat soups and entrées, there are increasing attempts to make beef easier to cook and tastierperhaps in response to the use of less tasty, less tender, quick-maturing breeds and hormone use to speed growth in the United States, where, unlike in Europe and Japan, early maturity is preferred over taste and tenderness. (However, the USDA firmly states that hormone-raised beef is extremely tasty and tender.) Beef is thus available at retail in stir-fry or fajita slices that have been marinated in a wide array of herbs, spices, and tenderizers. This cuts cooking time and gives a wider menu variety to the working chef and eater.

Types of consumption. Cattle and calf meat is consumed directly as meals and snacks, and its by-products are used in a wide number of foods, from gelatin to ice cream. In the United States, direct per capita beef consumption declined from 81.7 pounds to 63.8 pounds in 1997. More recent data suggests that U.S. beef consumption is increasing from the low in the years 19921996 of 63.5 pounds, in part in response to economic expansion.

Issues surrounding consumption. Cattle have proven to be a source of conflict at all stages of their production and consumption. On rangelands and pasture, there is great concern about: 1) overgrazing and its negative impact on biodiversity, soil quality, and hydrology; and 2) contamination of streams when cattle are allowed to freely wander in them. While research and practical experience have shown that cattle can enhance grassland and rangeland, that is often not the case, and cattlemen and women are generally extremely suspicious of environmental constraints, since they are seen as potentially infringing on the rights of the cattle operators to use their land and the land they rent (whether from the government or from their neighbors) as they see fit.

Cattle raising has been the cause of a great deal of deforestation in tropical areas of the world. Settlers clear land, selling valuable timber to transnational companies. The newly cleared soils are planted with fast-growing pasture that often is relatively impervious to water, increasing runoff. Cattle are grazed for the low end of the beef market, ending up in fast food outlets in developed countries.

In Europe and increasingly in America, there is concern about how cattle are raised and treated. There is growing concern about the stress animals undergo in large feedlots, which some believe affects the taste of the meat. Modern packing plants have tried to decrease stress at the time of slaughter to reduce the adrenalin in the muscle tissues, which toughens the meat and gives it an off-putting flavor. Concern for animal welfare is coupled with health and environmental concerns surrounding large feedlots and packing plants.

Europe does not allow injection or implantation of hormones, which is a standard practice of most producers in the United States. In fact, stocker feeders inject their cattle with hormones on penalty of not being able to sell them to a feedlot. If the cattle are not injected in the neck, meat quality will be negatively impacted around the site of injection, which is often easiest to administer into the prime cuts. Hormones increase the rate of growth and nutrient utilization, but increasing evidence suggests that they negatively impact meat taste and tenderness. They are also viewed as a health hazard in Europe, as well as having a negative impact on animal health, as the use of these steroids puts additional stress on the animal. As a result, Europe banned American beef produced with artificial hormones in 1989, which has resulted in a continuing trade battle.

Mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathies, or BSE) has been linked to the fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) through human consumption of meat from cattle with the prion disease. It is thought to be transmitted from one animal to another through the consumption of bone meal from sick but undiagnosed cattle or sheep and from animals to humans by eating meat that contains prions transferred by the nervous system. Thus the brains and the meat that is in contact with the spinal column are particularly suspect. In parts of Europe, the sale of meat on the bone has been forbidden. As a result, beef consumption has dropped precipitously and exports have been banned altogether.

Foot and mouth disease outbreaks can cripple production and exports, as occurred in Britain, Argentina, and Europe in 2001. In contrast to BSE, foot and mouth disease is not transferable to humans, but it is easily passed among hooved species and greatly reduces the productivity in infected cattle herds. Increased globalization of the food system may be related to both outbreaks.

See also Ecology and Food; Goat; Mammals; Meat; Pig; Sheep; United States: Midwest.


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Rouse, John E. World Cattle. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.

Walsh, John. "The Social Context of Technological Change: The Case of the Retail Food Industry." The Sociological Quarterly 32, 3 (1991): 447468.

Whitaker, James W. Feedlot Empire: Beef Cattle Feeling in Illinois and Iowa, 18401900. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1975.

Willham, R. L. "Genetic Improvement of Beef Cattle in the United States: Cattle, People and Their Interaction." Journal of Animal Science 54 (1982): 659666.

Cornelia Butler Flora

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CATTLE arrived in Florida before 1600 with early Spanish settlers. A shipment in 1611 initiated cattle raising in Virginia; the Pilgrims began with a few of the Devonshire breed in 1624. Black and white Dutch cattle were brought to New Amsterdam in 1625. John Mason imported large yellow cattle from Denmark into New Hampshire in 1633. Although losses of cattle during the ocean voyages were heavy, they increased rapidly in all the colonies and soon were exported to the West Indies, both live and as salted barreled beef.

Interest in improved livestock, based upon English efforts, came at the close of the American Revolution when Bakewell, or improved longhorn cattle, were imported, followed by shorthorns, sometimes called Durhams, and Devons. Henry Clay first imported Herefords in 1817. Substantial numbers of Aberdeen Angus did not reach the United States from Scotland until after the Civil War. By the 1880s, some of the shorthorns were being developed as dairy stock. By the 1860s other dairy breeds had been established—the Holstein-Friesian breed, based upon stock from Holland, and the Brown Swiss. Even earlier, Ayrshires, Jerseys, and Guernseys were raised as dairy cattle.

Cattle growers in the Northeast and across the Midwest relied on selective breeding, fencing, and haymaking, as well as built structures. Dairying began in New York State and spread across the northern regions of the country. Cheese production increased in the North during the Civil War. Butter making was a substantial source of income for many rural households. Cattle-raising techniques in the southern regions included open grazing, the use of salt and cow pens to manage herds, as well as dogs and whips to control animals. Southern practices included droving, branding, and roundups early in American history.

During the Civil War, longhorn cattle, descendants of Spanish stock, grew up unchecked on the Texas plains. After other attempts to market these cattle failed, Joseph G. McCoy made arrangements to ship them from the railhead at Abilene, Kansas, and in 1867 the long drives from Texas to the railheads began. Midwestern farms diversified by fattening trailed animals on corn before shipping to market, leading to the feedlot industry. In 1868 iced rail cars were adopted, allowing fresh beef, rather than live animals, to be shipped to market. Chicago became a center for the meatpacking industry.

Overgrazing, disastrous weather, and settlement by homesteaders brought the range cattle industry to an end after 1887. The invention of barbed wire by Joseph Glidden in the 1870s made fencing the treeless plains possible, ending free-ranging droving of cattle. Fencing allowed selective breeding and also minimized infection from tick fever by limiting the mobility of cattle.

While dairy breeds did not change, productivity per cow increased greatly. Dairy technology improved, and the areas of supply were extended. Homogenization, controls of butterfat percentage, and drying changed traditional milk production and consumption. The industry also became subject to high standards of sanitation.

By the 1980s, hormones and antibiotics were used to boost production of meat and milk while cutting costs to the producer. By 1998, 90 percent of all beef cattle were given hormone implants, boosting weight and cutting expenses by 7 percent. In the 1990s, mad cow disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was identified in Britain. Related to a human disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, it was believed to be caused by feeding infected rendered animal products to cattle. Worldwide attention focused on cattle feeding and health. In 2001, foot-and-mouth disease swept through herds in many countries. Neither disease appeared in U.S. cattle.

Artificial insemination technology grew significantly. Eggs from prize cows were harvested and then fertilized in the laboratory, and the frozen embryos were implanted in other cows or exported to cattle-growing markets around the world. In 1998 the first cloned calf was created in Japan; by 2001, researchers at the University of Georgia had reproduced eight cloned calves. Cattle by-products from meat slaughter were significant in the pharmaceutical and health care industry. In 2001, artificial human blood was experimentally synthesized from cattle blood.

Grazing on public lands in the West was criticized in the 1980s, focusing attention on federal government–administered leases. At the same time, holistic grazing techniques grew in popularity, resulting from Allan Savory's work to renew desertified pastures through planned intensive grazing.

In 1998, slaughter cattle weighed 20 pounds more (with an average total of 1,194 pounds) than the year before; smaller numbers of cattle were going to market, but the meat yield was higher. The number of beef cattle slaughtered dropped 12 percent between 1998 and 2000. Per capita beef consumption dropped between 1980 and 2000 by 7 pounds, to 69.5 pounds per person, but began rising in 1998–1999. Total retail beef consumption rose from $40.7 billion in 1980 to $58.6 billion in 2000. In 1999, average milk production per dairy cow was 17,771 pounds per year; the total milk production was 163 billion pounds.


Carlson, Laurie Winn. Cattle: An Informal Social History. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001.

Jordan, Terry G. North American Cattle-Ranching Frontiers: Origins, Diffusion, and Differentiation. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993.

Laurie WinnCarlson

Wayne D.Rasmussen

See alsoCowboys ; Dairy Industry ; Livestock Industry ; Meatpacking .

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cattle, name for the ruminant mammals of the genus Bos, and particularly those of the domesticated species, Bos taurus and B. indica. The term oxen, broadly used, refers also to closely related animals, such as the buffalo and the bison. Narrowly used, ox refers to a mature castrated male used for draft purposes. In referring to domestic cattle a grown male is a bull, a grown female a cow, an infant a calf, and an animal between one and two years old a yearling. A female that has not given birth is a heifer; a castrated male is a steer.

Most cattle have unbranched horns consisting of a horny layer surrounding a bone extension of the skull; these horns, unlike those of deer, are not shed. Some cattle are naturally hornless. Western, or European, domestic cattle (Bos taurus) are thought to be descended mainly from the aurochs, a large European wild ox domesticated during the Stone Age, extinct since 1627. A smaller species, the Celtic shorthorn, was the most important domestic ox of the Stone Age and may also be involved in the ancestry of B. taurus. The zebu, or Indian ox, B. indica, is the humped domestic species of Asia and Africa. Several B. indica breeds have been developed in the United States into the Brahman breed. The yak, B. grunniens, and other cattle species, wild and domestic, exist in Asia. Domestic cattle were first brought to the Western Hemisphere by Columbus on his second voyage.

In various societies throughout history wealth has been measured in terms of cattle—cattle is related to capital and chattel, and pecuniary is derived from pecus [Lat.,=cattle]. Breeding for improvement of beef and dairy qualities, practiced by the Romans, was established on scientific principles in the middle of the 18th cent. by English livestock breeder Robert Bakewell (see animal husbandry; breeding). Important beef breeds include Angus, Hereford, Simmental, Charolais, Limousin, Gelbvieh, Brahman, and Shorthorn. Important crossbreeds include Brangus (Brahman x Angus) and Santa Gertrudis (Shorthorn x Brahman). Major dairy breeds include Holstein-Friesian, Jersey, Guernsey, Brown Swiss, Ayrshire, and Milking Shorthorn. The importance of dual-purpose breeds has declined.

Cattle are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Artiodactyla, family Bovidae. See also beef; dairying.

See publications of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture; A. L. Neumann and K. S. Lusby, Beef Cattle (8th ed. 1986); V. Porter, Cattle (1992).

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The domestication of cattle began in prehistoric times. Ancient Sumerian inscriptions refer to the raising of cattle, and from the third millennium b.c.e. they are depicted in Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian drawings as used for plowing (see *Agriculture) and milking. Domesticated cattle (Bos taurus) probably originated from the wild ox (Bos primigenius; see Wild *Bull) from which were domesticated the short- and long-horned cattle, two species found in ancient Egyptian drawings. Yet another ox reared was the humped zebu (Bos indicus). The Bible mentions cattle among the possessions of Abraham (Gen. 12:16), of the other Patriarchs, and of Jacob's sons both in Ereẓ Israel and in Egypt. In the wilderness, the Israelites had a considerable number of cattle. The spoil which they took from the Midianites alone amounted to 72,000 head (Num. 31:33). Cattle were extensively raised in the ample pasture lands of Transjordan, especially in Gilead, which was given as an inheritance to the cattle-raising tribes of Reuben and Gad (Num. 32:1–4, where both sheep and cattle are meant). The "kine of Bashan" were renowned, and being stronger than other breeds of cattle gored them (Amos 1; cf. Ps. 22:13). David appointed special supervisors over the herds that grazed in the broad pastures in the valleys and in Sharon (i Chron., 27:29). With the consolidation and expansion of agriculture in Ereẓ Israel, particularly in the mountainous regions, pasture lands progressively diminished, and cattle began to be reared in sheds where they were fed from mangers. Their feed consisted of shredded straw (Isa. 11:7), grass (Job 40:15), or a mixture of shredded straw and pulses (Isa. 30:24), and in mishnaic and talmudic times chiefly of vetches (see *fodder). Cattle were raised for work in the field and for their meat which was eaten particularly on solemn occasions (cf. Gen. 17:7). Calves fattened for this purpose are referred to as "fatted calves" (i Sam. 28:24) or "calves of the stall" (Jer. 46:21). The provision for Solomon's table included, besides "oxen out of the pastures," also "fat oxen" (i Kings 6:3). Cattle were extensively used for *sacrifices. "Curd of kine" (Deut. 32:14; cf. Judg. 5:25; Job 20:17) was a highly prized food. Cattle are mentioned hundreds of times in the Bible and various terms are used for them. Some are synonyms, while others indicate the cattle's age, sex, characteristics, or employment. Bakar is the generic term for cattle, other terms being alafim ("oxen"), and abbirim ("bulls"). Names indicating sex are par ("young bull"), parah ("cow"), and shor ("ox" or "bull"). Those indicating age are ben-bakar ("young bull"), eglah ("heifer"), and egel ("bull-calf").


F.S. Bodenheimer, Ha-Ḥai be-Arẓot ha-Mikra, 2 (1956), 355–63; J. Feliks, Ha-Ḥakla'ut be-Ereẓ Yisrael (1963), 51–56; Dalman, Arbeit, 6 (1939), 160–79; Lewysohn, Zool, 129–34. add. bibliography: Feliks, Ha-Ẓome'aḥ, 292.

[Jehuda Feliks]

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cattlebattle, cattle, chattel, embattle, prattle, rattle, Seattle, tattle •fractal •cantle, covenantal, mantel, mantle, Prandtl •pastel • Fremantle • tittle-tattle •startle, stratal •Nahuatl •fettle, kettle, metal, mettle, nettle, petal, Popocatépetl, settle •dialectal, rectal •dental, gentle, mental, Oriental, parental, rental •transeptal •festal, vestal •gunmetal •antenatal, fatal, hiatal, natal, neonatal, ratel •beetle, betel, chital, decretal, fetal •blackbeetle •acquittal, belittle, brittle, committal, embrittle, it'll, kittle, little, remittal, skittle, spittle, tittle, victual, whittle •edictal, rictal •lintel, pintle, quintal •Bristol, Chrystal, crystal, pistol •varietal • coital • phenobarbital •orbital • pedestal • sagittal • vegetal •digital • skeletal • Doolittle •congenital, genital, primogenital, urogenital •capital • lickspittle • hospital • marital •entitle, mistitle, recital, requital, title, vital •subtitle • surtitle •axolotl, bottle, dottle, glottal, mottle, pottle, throttle, wattle •fontal, horizontal •hostel, intercostal, Pentecostal •greenbottle • bluebottle • Aristotle •chortle, immortal, mortal, portal •Borstal •anecdotal, sacerdotal, teetotal, total •coastal, postal •subtotal •brutal, footle, pootle, refutal, rootle, tootle •buttle, cuttle, rebuttal, scuttle, shuttle, subtle, surrebuttal •buntal, contrapuntal, frontal •crustal • societal • pivotal •hurtle, kirtle, myrtle, turtle

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cattle Large, ruminant mammals of the family Bovidae, including all the varieties of modern domestic cattle (Bos taurus), the brahman (Bos indicus) and hybrids of these two. The family also includes the yak, the wild gaur, the wild banteng and the kouprey. Different terms are used to indicate the sex and age of domestic cattle. The male is born as a bull calf and becomes a bull if left intact; if castrated, it becomes a steer, bullock or ox if used as a draught animal. The female is a heifer calf, growing to become a heifer and, after calving, a cow. In Hinduism, the cow is sacred. Horns, sometimes appearing only on the male, are permanent, hollow and unbranched. Domestic cattle are raised for meat, milk and other dairy products. Leather, glue, gelatin and fertilizer are made from the carcass.

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cat·tle / ˈkatl/ • pl. n. 1. large ruminants (Bos taurus) with horns and cloven hoofs, domesticated for meat or milk, or as beasts of burden; cows. 2. similar animals of a group related to domestic cattle, including yak, bison, and buffalo. The cattle family (Bovidae) also includes the sheep, goats, goat-antelopes, and antelopes.

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Charolais cattle (shâr´əlā´), breed of beef animal with a rugged, muscular appearance and solid creamy to wheat-colored coat. Originated in France, it was first imported to the United States in 1936 by way of Mexico.

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bovine animals collectively; other live animals, as fowl, bees, etc.; slaves; people considered to be rubbish or trash; the mob; lazy servantsSlang Dictionary, 1874.