Chances are, when you take a refreshing swig of ice cold milk, you don't think too much about the cow that's responsible for the carton sitting in your refrigerator. The fact is, cows are interesting animals and there's more to them than just standing around in a field all day. They have a great sense of smell, good vision and in the right condition, can run faster than a horse.
What's in a Name
The first fact to know about cows is that they're actually adult female members of the bovine family of cattle. Adult males are bulls, if left intact, or steers, if castrated, eventually growing into oxen. If the female hasn't given birth yet, she's referred to as a heifer. Cattle refers to the group, including cows, bulls, heifers and calves, who are the immature cattle.
Cattle vary widely in size, depending on the breed and gender. A mature bull will weigh as little as 1,000 pounds and reach as much as 4,000 pounds, compared to a grown cow, who ranges between 800 and 2,400 pounds.
There are hundreds of different breeds of cattle throughout the world. In the United States, cattle are usually raised for food purposes, falling into three categories:
- Beef cattle, born and raised to provide meat
- Dairy cattle, born and raised to produce milk
- Veal, calves, born to provide meat
Different breeds of cattle are used for different purposes. For instance, Angus, Charolais and Hereford cattle are typically used to produce beef, while Guernsey, Jersey and Ayrshire are raised to produce milk. Cattle in India may live longer lives, as it is illegal for them to be injured or killed because the animals are considered holy in the Hindu religion.
If a cow -- or steer -- is fortunate enough to not have to give her -- or his -- life up for dinner, she can expect to enjoy an 18- to 22-year life span. Cattle have an excellent sense of smell, able to catch a scent from 5 miles away. Their vision allows them a panoramic view to spot potential predators, and their hearing allows them to hear higher frequencies than humans can hear. They can't see the color red, however. The gestation period for a cow ranges between 279 and 290 days, and if allowed, a cow may nurse her calves as long as three years.
These are social animals, preferring the company of their herd; it's rare to see a cow off by herself. Cattle spend a lot of time lying down -- up to 12 hours each day -- though they stand and sit approximately 14 times a day. On average, a cow will eat about 95 pounds of feed and drink approximately 30 gallons of water during the course of the day. If cattle need to run, their cloven hooves help, allowing their toes to spread, especially useful if they have to get through mud.