Tag Archives: cows

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

“Cows are amongst the gentlest of breathing creatures; none show more passionate tenderness to their young when deprived of them; and, in short, I am not ashamed to profess a deep love for these quiet creatures.”
Thomas de Quincey

Hello 2021!

As we have done for the past four years, the theme for our January issue follows the Chinese New Year. We are entering the Year of the Ox, which hopefully will be better for humanity than 2020’s Year of the Rat.

When I was in India last year, cows wandered the streets as stray dogs do in Mexico. They would approach me and nudge my hand with their head to be petted. These encounters filled me with a strange combination of bliss and sadness. When I returned to Mexico, I went to see some land with a man from my village. There were three cows there and, fresh from my India experience, I approached one and placed my hand on its forehead. Our eyes met and the cow responded to my touch by moving its head towards me. The man who had brought me there looked on quizzically; it was clear he thought I was ridiculous.

So often we overlook the charms of animals that have been domesticated for consumption. As we do with humans, there is a definite hierarchy when it comes to how we dole out our concern for animals. Afterall, I have often made the sassy comment that when people come to a Mexican village and ‘rescue’ a dog, why do they leave the chickens behind? I am being facetious, of course, and this is not a plea that everyone should stop eating meat and welcome chickens into their living rooms (don’t- they are very messy!). I just find it interesting to contemplate how we collectively seem to decide on this hierarchy, and also how it differs from culture to culture.

While I was growing up my mother had a painting that hung in the kitchen of a woman with her hand extended to a cow. Perhaps that is where my fascination came from.

I hope you enjoy this issue. Putting out the magazine has been such a gift during this season when we are separated from so many of our loved ones.

Thank you to the amazing writers, contributors, advertisers and readers who make this possible!

See you in February,

Jane

How Cattle Survive Canada’s Harsh Climate

By Jack Vander Byl

Reading the title, you’re probably thinking about the severe cold weather we Canadians get in January and February, and how cold it must be for cows to be outside. Not so. On a cold, clear, sunny day in January at 30°C below 0, our beef cows are happily lying on the snow chewing their cuds. Their protection from the cold comes with their birth. Calves born in the late fall arrive with a thick hair coat and ready for winter. The rest of the cattle in the herd also grow a thick hair coat for the winter. In the spring, the cattle start rubbing against whatever they can find to slough off this winter coat: fences, trees, buildings, etc. Then they are ready for summer.

Calves that are born in the springtime, however, come with a very slight haircoat to help them cope with the severe heat of plus 30°C summer days. And how do cattle cope with those very hot summer days? They do their grazing early in the morning and in the evening, spending the rest of the day lying in the shade of any big old tree they can find and chewing their cuds. Yes, everything a cow eats, she regurgitates and chews it 70 more times to break it into smaller particles that get passed on down to her other 3 stomachs.

On cold, clear winter days cattle cope very well as long as there is no wind. But if you add some strong wind, cold rain or a severe snowstorm to the cold, the cows eat quickly and head to shelter to chew their cuds. In our case – we’re in eastern Ontario – we have a lean-to on the south side of the main barn so the cows can get out of the wind and snow. A windbreak will also do nicely. If they don’t have a building they can shelter in, they will head to the bush, preferably a cedar bush which gives excellent protection from the wind. If nothing is available, the cattle will form a circle with the calves in the centre to protect them and cows around the outside packed in close together so only their behinds are exposed to the wind, taking turns being on the outside of the ring.

When I joined a veterinary practice in 1975, the dairy cattle in eastern Ontario were all housed in barns of 30 to 70 milk cows. The barns were all packed tight with cattle and not very well ventilated. Cows give off a lot of heat and the barns became too hot for the cows. As a result, we treated a lot of pneumonia in our dairy cows. The farmers were happy because the barns were very comfortable to work in, but the cows are very comfortable at 0°C.

During the summer, the cows had gone to pasture every day during the summer but spent most of the day lying under the trees to get shade. If they were left on pasture too late in the fall, they started to grow a winter hair coat and then the farmers had a big job to clip all the hair off so they wouldn’t overheat in the warm barns.

Gradually, things changed. Ventilation in the barns improved, and milk production improved as the cows were kept in a cooler environment. So now, all new barns have open sides with a curtain that can be pulled up in the worst of winter; the barns are generally just above freezing – good for the cows but not so good for the farmers and veterinarians who have to work with them. During the summer, these barns have massive fans that move air through the barns very rapidly and cool off the cows. Dairy cows do not go outside anymore.

So, even though the Canadian climate may be harsh, cattle will adapt, as long as they have water to drink and enough food to eat.

Jack Vander Byl is a retired large animal veterinarian who now enjoys helping out at his son’s beef cattle farm in Eastern Ontario.

Sacred Cows

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

The term “sacred cow” and the related expression “holy cow!” probably derive from the reverence Hindus pay to these ubiquitous bovines in India. One lasting memory shared by almost all travelers to India is the sight of cows placidly winding their way through dense vehicular traffic. And most also can easily recall the omnipresent smell of cow dung being burned for cooking and warmth by people living on city streets throughout India.

The cow was also considered holy in ancient Egypt and in other religions that emerged in the Middle East. “New world” religious beliefs, including those of the indigenous peoples of pre-Hispanic Mexico, were for the most part pantheistic and designated specific animals as possessing supernatural powers. However, in those days, cows were unheard of in Mexico.

Many of the indigenous residents of the western hemisphere shared a reverence for the serpent, as can be seen when exploring archeological digs throughout Mexico and Central America. The Mayans also attributed divine powers to creatures that bridged the heavens and the earth – bats, owls, hummingbirds and eagles. Anyone who has risked claustrophobia and climbed up into the inner recess of the temple of Kukulcán in Chichen Itza has also come face to face with another Mayan sacred animal – the red jaguar.

The introduction of Christianity into the western world essentially attempted to wipe out indigenous civilizations’ pantheistic beliefs and their sacred views of animals. Although Christianity refers to Jesus as the lamb of God and represents the Holy Spirit as a dove, the Christian view of the nature of animals is firmly planted in the monotheistic doctrine of Judaism.

The Hebrew scriptures, also called the Bible or the Old Testament, were explicitly written in opposition to the doctrines and beliefs of surrounding religions. The opening chapters of Genesis depict humans as far superior to animals. While oxen are mentioned at least fifty times in the Bible, they are always described as a possession of men. The Bible includes commandments to be kind to oxen – for example, not to muzzle them when they are used for threshing, never to use them for plowing in tandem with a less strong animal, and to allow them to rest on the Sabbath. But humans are viewed as responsible for the actions of oxen, and no doubt is left that humans are in charge of all animals.

Not only is there no holy cow in the Bible, but on the contrary any animals considered sacred by foreign religions are expressly depicted unfavorably. Consider the serpent in the Garden of Eden, a memorably evil fellow if there ever was one. And remember that worship of a golden calf is described as one of the most grievous actions committed by the ancient Israelites.

Admittedly some animals are featured in the Bible in a more or less positive light. A storied talking donkey could see an angel while his master Balaam was blind to the angelic presence. A yearly practice to alleviate Israelites from their sins involved placing the sins on a goat and exiling it off to the desert – the original scapegoat. And some bovines were designated to serve as sacrifices to expiate for sins.

For Jews who eat only kosher food, cattle are favored animals, as long as they are certified as slaughtered humanly and handled properly in food preparation. Remarkably, since Mesoamerica was unknown to those who wrote these dietary rules, the eagle, the owl, the bat, the serpent and the jaguar are not kosher and are never eaten. Of course, the prohibition against consuming them is unrelated to their sacred status in this formerly unknown world.

Christianity in general, and particularly the Catholic religion imported to Mexico, avoids any prescriptions about edible and inedible animals, or of sacred animals. So when you are driving in Mexico and see an ox or a cow or a herd of cattle blocking the road, you can say “Holy cow!” (¡Santo Dios!) simply as an expression of annoyance without any genuine religious overtones.

The History of the Cow in Mexico

By Kary Vannice

In 1521, Capitan Gregorio de Villalobos set sail, probably out of Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola, but there’s evidence he left from Cuba, heading for Veracruz, Mexico, with some heavy weight contraband on board – contraband that would forever change the culture and landscape of North America. Below decks he harbored six cows and one bull, at a time when cattle trading was strictly prohibited in Mexico.

Cattle, first brought to the Caribbean islands by Christopher Columbus, had not yet made their way to Mexico. Spanish stock raisers, afraid they would lose their monopoly for the supply of cattle to the Spanish settlements, had petitioned the crown to institute severe restrictions on the delivery of brood stock to Mexico. They had good reason – the vast landscapes of Mexico made for ideal grazing country.

Modern day cows come from a breed of animal that was domesticated about 10,000 years ago in Asia. This huge beast, called an auroch, was about twice the size of a cow today and originated in India, spread into China, then the Middle East, and eventually to northern Africa and finally to Europe.

When European sailors brought cattle to the Caribbean islands they were a thin-legged, wiry Moorish-Andalusian breed known as “black cattle” (ganado prieto). Turned loose and left on their own, it didn’t take long in their new lush surroundings for them to evolve into the heavy-boned, swift breed that Villalobos smuggled into Mexico.

These first cows arrived in Mexico just as Cortés and his men were completing their conquest of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. By the end of 1521, the conquistadors had all the money and power they could want, but they found the local meat supply not to their liking. Thus, Cortes himself petitioned King Charles V of Spain to lift the restriction on cattle importation.

To supply his men with the meat they desired, Cortés developed a breeding program in the high-altitude valley of Mexicalzimgo (around what is now San Mateo Mexicaltzingo, south of Toluca) and started the tradition of cattle raising in Mexico. The modern-day practice of branding is even attributed to Cortes, who it is said branded all his cattle with three crosses, the first brand recorded in North America.

Soon, missionaries also arrived on the shores of Mexico. As they established communities around their new age culture and religion, rich European landowners mounted native Indians on well-trained horses and began teaching them to handle cattle using methods originating from the Iberian Peninsula in Spain. Missions became the impetus for encouraging the local indigenous people to raise livestock, to supply a steady stream of meat to the growing population of Anglos arriving from Europe.

Native cow handlers quickly blended their local knowledge with their new skill of horsemanship and surpassed their European counterparts in both skill and precision. The wide open spaces of Northern Mexico became a major center for raising cattle. Ranching, farming and trading of livestock became the primary economic activity in that region, which we know today as Texas.

Over the next two hundred and fifty years, the cattle industry grew in Mexico, which at the time included New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, Texas, and western Colorado. With such a vast territory and no way to contain herds to a specific tract of land, huge roundups were often held to collect cattle for sale and transport. With their expert horsemanship and roping skills, the hard-riding vaqueros and charros controlled the chaos and laid the foundation for our modern day cowboy culture.

During the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, the number of wild cattle increased as ranchers on both sides turned their attention toward the war effort and no longer had time to organize the huge roundups required to regroup the scattered herds.

After the war ended, with a newly established border, the two countries developed common routes for moving large amounts of cattle between the north and south. The most famous was the Chisholm Trail, which became the path for the greatest movement of cattle ever known. This established a trade network for cattle between the two North American countries and cemented a strong ranching culture in both countries that remains to this day.

An extension of ranching culture in both the USA and Mexico is the rodeo, where charros show off their skills in horsemanship, cow handling, and bull riding. Another Spanish tradition that would not exist without the cow, and is still practiced today in some Mexican cities, is the bull fight.

While the ranching and cowboy culture remain strong in many of the states in both Mexico and the United States, the cattle industry has largely become an industrial affair. Today, industrially raised cattle account for nearly half of the cattle in each country.

In 2016, Mexico reported over 16 million head of cattle within its borders, the vast majority of which would not be considered “open range” cattle, but instead are raised in feedlots to produce meat for both Mexican and foreign markets.

In 2019 beef ranked 58th among Mexico’s top 100 exports, bringing in over a billion dollars in revenue for the country. And that amount does not take into account any of the byproducts such as tallow, rawhide, bones, horns and hooves.

The 2020 beef export numbers may be even stronger because of the pandemic. When factories in the United States were forced to shut down due to COVID-19 protocols, Mexico beef producers came to the rescue. Between January and May, Mexico’s meat export numbers were 32.6% higher than they were in 2019.

So, from its first illegal origins on the shores of Mexico 500 years ago, the humble cow has not only shaped a distinct part of Mexican culture but has also become a major economic contributor to the Mexican economy.