Domestic cows are of special importance to many societies and cultures around the world. They are used for milk, meat, fuel, leather, and other products that make a regular appearance in our everyday lives. In the United States, cows are so prevalent that one can easily see hundreds of these animals grazing in fields along the side of any rural road across the country. Given how common cattle are, it is odd how little many people know about them. For example, while people can name several species or breeds of birds, dogs, and cats, knowledge about various cow breeds is far rarer. While understanding cattle taxonomy is perhaps not vital for most of us, understanding issues related to cattle farming is becoming increasingly important as the world's population grows.
The History of Cattle Farming
Cattle have been domesticated and raised as livestock since at least 9,000 BC. With such a long history, it's no wonder that cows have come to be an important part of human society―they have even been considered sacred in several religions past and present. There are nearly 1.5 billion cows in the world today, and such a large number of large animals is bound to make an impact on the planet. Historically, this impact has often been positive. Cows can be used to graze large tracts of land that are not suitable for growing food crops, for example. This helps improve the efficiency of land use, producing meat in an area that would otherwise not make an economic contribution.
What is a Factory Farm Feedlot?
Many cattle, however, do not roam empty fields forever. In order to make cattle farming itself more efficient, cows are often moved to large industrial feedlots when they reach a certain weight. A feedlot, which is usually an integral part of factory farming operations, is usually a series of small pens, in which cattle are enclosed, sometimes by the thousands, and fed a diet of mostly grains in order to 'beef them up'. This procedure leads to each cow producing a maximum of high quality, flavorful meat before it is slaughtered. Like any industrial process, though, factory farming has its drawbacks.
Water Pollution and Mad Cow Disease
When a large number of cows are penned up in a small area, the amount of waste produced by the animals can be significant. Unless the feedlot's operators have an effective way of dealing with this waste, it can seep into the ground, causing water pollution problems. Another concern with factory farming has been the use of animal byproducts in cattle feed. Using waste from the slaughtering process, such as bones, for filler in the food given to cows has been done both as a means of cutting costs and as a means of achieving the desired nutritional content in cattle feed. Because feeding animal byproducts to beef cows was thought to be responsible for past outbreaks of mad cow disease, it is no longer done in most countries.
Are Cattle Causing Global Warming?
As cattle farming expands and improves through new scientific and technological developments, it is becoming a concern for a new reason. As part of a cow's digestive process, it releases a significant quantity of methane gas through burping. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is thought to make a large contribution to the process known as global warming. For this reason, there is a growing concern that the quantity of cattle farmed and kept in high concentrations by humans is having an important negative effect on the atmosphere. Some estimates suggest that the methane emitted by domesticated cows accounts for nearly 20% of all greenhouse gasses.
The Importance of Understanding Cows
There are benefits and drawbacks to almost every large-scale activity that human beings engage in. As society progresses, it becomes crucial to weigh the pros against the cons to ensure that society remains on the right track. Throughout history, activities that were once common, such as the keeping of slaves, the prescription of strong alcohol by doctors, or the use of asbestos in insulation, have fallen into disuse as their drawbacks have been found to outweigh their benefits. Few people are well-informed about the issues related to large-scale cattle farming, but it may be time for people to educate themselves on this important topic in order to assess whether the process remains beneficial to humanity and to the environment, or whether this activity should go the way of slavery.