Beef Cattle Biology and Terminology

For more detailed definitions please click these links to see our Glossary or Terminology pages.

  Cattle are ruminants, meaning that they have a unique digestive system that allows them to synthesize amino acids. This allows them to thrive on grasses and other vegetation.

  Cattle have one stomach, with four compartments. They are the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum. The rumen is the largest compartment. It can hold up to 40 gallons of digestible feed in a mature cow. The abomasum is most like the human stomach; this is why it is known as the “True Stomach.”

   A ruminant is any hooved animal that digests its food in two steps, first by eating the raw material and regurgitating a semi-digested form known as cud, then eating the cud. Ruminants include cows, goats, sheep, camels, llamas, giraffes, bison, buffalos, deer, wildebeest, and antelope. The suborder Ruminantia includes all those except the camels and llamas, which are Tylopoda. Ruminants also share another anatomical feature in that they all have an even number of toes.

  Ruminants have a stomach with four chambers which are the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum. In the first two chambers, the rumen and the reticulum, the food is mixed with bile to form the cud (or bolus). Especially, cellulose is broken down into glucose in these chambers using symbiotic bacteria. The cud is then regurgitated, chewed slowly to completely mix it with the bile, and it further breaks down fibers. The re-swallowed cud then passes through the rumen into the next stomach chambers, the omasum, where water is removed. Then, the cud is moved to the last chamber, the abomasum. The digested food in the abomasum is finally sent to the small intestine, where the absorption of the nutrients occurs.

  It is interesting to note that almost all glucose produced by the breaking down of cellulose is used by the symbiotic bacteria. Ruminants take their energy in the volatile fatty acids produced by these bacteria: acetic acid, propionic acid and butyric acid.

  A popular misconception about cattle (primarily bulls) is that they are enraged by the color red. This is incorrect; cattle are totally color-blind, and can only see in grayscale. The main source of this rumor is the fact that Matadors traditionally use red-colored capes to provoke bulls into attacking. In fact, the red color is merely traditional; the movement of the cape is the attractant.

  Young cattle are called calves. A young male is called a bull-calf; a young female is called a heifer (pronounced “heffer”). Male cattle bred for meat are castrated unless needed for breeding. The castrated male is then called a bullock or steer, unless kept for draft purposes, in which case it is called an ox (not to be confused with the related wild musk ox). An intact male is called a bull. An adult female over two years of age (approximately) is called a cow. The adjective applying to cattle is bovine.

  There is no singular equivalent to “cattle” other than the various gender and age-specific terms (though “catron” is occasionally seen as a half-serious proposal). “Cow” is probably the closest to being gender-neutral, although it is usually understood to mean female (females of other animals, such as whales or elephants, are also called cows.) Some Canadian, Scottish, Australian and New Zealand farmers use the term “cattlebeast”. “Neat” (horned oxen, from which we get “neatsfoot oil”), “beef” (young ox) and “beefing” (young animal fit for slaughtering) are obsolete terms. Cattle raised for human consumption are called beef cattle. Cows of certain breeds that are kept for the milk they give are called dairy cows. Herds are counted as, for example, “one hundred head”. The term cattle itself is not a plural, but a mass noun. Thus one may refer to some cattle, but not three cattle.

  The terms bull and cow are also used for the male and female of some other species, including other bovids such as American Bison, but also less closely related species such as moose, elk, elephants, whales, and sea lions. The terms are used primarily to refer to animals that have polygamous or harem mating systems, though “bull” in particular may be used because humans find the male of a species daunting.

  For definitions of many of the words, sayings, terms and lingo used in the beef cattle industry please see our Glossary or Terminology pages.