Modern cows are the result of thousands of years of human management by peoples in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The welfare of cows has severely worsened over the last century, with the rise of factory-farmed cows in the Global North. But food systems are changeable, and there are things individuals and groups can do to make life better for cows and the planet. One step is to learn more about how cows are farmed. Read on to learn about the history of cattle farming, and the problems that today’s farms cause for cows, for humans, and for the environment.
The modern cow’s ancestor was the aurochs, a wild animal that humans lived alongside, hunted, and eventually domesticated. Aurochsen lived in most of Europe, throughout Asia including the Middle East, and in North Africa. The domesticated descendants of Aurochsen are zebu and taurine cattle.
People in the present-day Middle East region bred and raised taurine cows roughly 10,500 years ago, during the Neolithic period toward the end of the Stone Age. During the Neolithic, humans developed agriculture and first began planting crops, and Middle Eastern pioneers also invented the wheel and developed writing systems, mathematics, and astronomy.
Meanwhile, at around the same time as the initial domestication of the taurine cow, people in present-day South Asia were domesticating the zebu, which also spread westward. Evidence of zebu cows in Egypt goes back as far as 2000 B.C. They were shipped to East Africa by 1000 A.D., and traveled along trade routes to sub-Saharan Africa during the period from 700–1500 A.D.
Sanga cattle are domesticated cows originating from East Africa. These cattle appear on ancient Egyptian murals. It was also in Africa that people began breeding zebu with taurine cows, resulting in the “1,000-plus breeds that exist today.” In her book on The Cow Catrin Rutland writes, “In total, there are around 75 breeds of zebus originating from both Africa and India, and the remainder of the 1,000 breeds are taurines or hybrids of the two types.”
Cattle spread to many places throughout the world. The Turano-Mongolian cow is found in East Asia (Mongolia, China, Korea, and Japan), though some regions in Asia preferred to work with the yak or buffalo instead of the cow. Settler colonists from Europe brought cows to the Caribbean in 1493, to Mexico in 1519, to California in 1773, and to Australia in 1788.
The modern cattle farm is a product of industrialization in the United States from the 19th century onwards. In today’s cattle farms, cows are raised and slaughtered in ways that see them less as individuals, and more as a natural resource to mine. Little attention is paid to the welfare of workers, environmental impacts, or the concerns of people living nearby. Cows are now farmed in factory farms, where profit and efficiency are prioritized over animal welfare, human health, and the environment.
For the most part, cows are raised to make beef, milk, and cheese. Beef cattle are farmed on what are called ranches and feedlots or feed yards. Milk-producing cows are farmed on what are called dairy farms. Most dairy cows and cattle raised for beef are farmed in an industrial and intensive way that qualifies the farming operations as factory farms, or in the terminology created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The business of farming cows is usually called cattle farming.
To a lesser extent, cows are also farmed to serve as draft animals—meaning that they haul heavy objects such as plows. Cows are sometimes exploited for entertainment, such as rodeos and agricultural display shows.
The United States is a leading producer of milk and beef. Its cattle farming industry primarily works by gathering hundreds and even tens of thousands of cows into cramped, standardized lots and indoor stalls. In beef farming ranchers have subdivided the work of raising cows for meat into specialist operations—from the cow-calf ranch where calves graze in grassy pastures, to the background ranch and the feedlot. At the background ranch, calves graze and grow until they are sold to a feedlot, where they are typically fed grains to fatten them quickly, often with the aid of antibiotics, steroids, and alkaline supplements. Finally, meat processing companies like Tyson, Cargill, JBS, and National Beef purchase the cows from feedlots and slaughter them, turning the animals into various food products to be sold at grocery stores, restaurants, and cafeterias. Beef cows usually live less than three years before they are slaughtered.
On a dairy farm, baby cows are typically separated from their mothers within a few hours of being born. They are then often confined in individual hutches. Adult dairy cows are mostly kept indoors, sometimes tied to a stall, and are usually milked two or three times per day. After being artificially inseminated multiple times throughout her short life in order to produce milk, mother dairy cows are slaughtered for beef products.
How much a cattle farm costs depends on how much wealth your family, banks, and the government are willing to give you to help you run a farm, and this depends on who you are. For example, Beth Hoffman and her husband started a grass-fed beef farm on 540 acres owned by their family and spent at least $70,000 per year running the farm, including costs such as the lease ($13,000) and cattle ($30,000). Hoffman told Civil Eats that as a propertied white person she benefited from significant racial and class privilege that has been historically denied to Black farmers and Indigenous people, allowing her greater access to land, capital, and the support of banks and government, even if the farm she was trying to start was not a typical example of what the farm system normally supports.
On average, the cost of running a livestock farm in the U.S. in 2020 was $160,203, according to the USDA. Farmers pay rent, and wages for workers, and purchase feed, livestock, and services. Services include veterinarians, medical supplies, electricity, water, other utilities, farm insurance, and renting or leasing equipment. Farmers also have to spend money on farm supplies, tractors, fuel, and other expenses, such as construction to improve their farms.
For independent and midsize cattle farmers in the U.S., farming is becoming a less reliable way to make money. The industry’s profits seem instead to be mostly funneled toward large companies that benefit from selling affordable foods on a massive scale. Even those profits rely on externalized costs: that is, climate change, water use, harms to smaller farms and competitive markets, and harms to workers in factory farms and throughout the food chain.
From 1996 to 2018, the median farm income was negative, according to the USDA, and that number rose to just $296 in 2019. Most farmers in the United States are poor, living at or below the official poverty line, and supplement their income with other jobs. Three-quarters of farms in the United States make gross sales of $50,000 per year.
Farms, and factory farms in particular, are dangerous places to live and work—for cows and for people. Cattle farms are also major causes of environmental damage.
There are no federal animal welfare laws governing how farmed animals are treated, and not enough state laws to bridge the gap and prevent practices that cause cows pain. At most farms, cows endure painful surgeries without anesthesia, such as castration and dehorning at cattle ranches, or tail-docking at dairy farms. Ranches and slaughterhouses have also been caught incorrectly stunning cows, meaning that the cow might be conscious while she bleeds to death, or is skinned and dismembered.
Cattle farming is a primary driver of major environmental destruction: from deforestation of lands for cattle grazing and raising crops (which are mostly fed to livestock), to overuse of land and water, and water pollution in the form of manure and nitrogen runoff. In terms of water use, eating one quarter-pound hamburger is the equivalent of taking a month’s worth of showers. Cattle farming’s greenhouse gas emissions, including its deforestation practices, contribute significantly to climate change. Watch our video about how cattle farming and farms that raise soy as animal feed for livestock are leading causes of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest here.
The conditions on most cattle farms make them the “perfect breeding ground for future diseases like COVID.” The deforestation of natural ecosystems to make way for pastures and feedlots increases human contact with wildlife, making it more likely that zoonotic diseases originating in animals spread to humans. Selective breeding at factory farms limits the genetic diversity of animals, making it easier for diseases to spread among them. The confinement of cows in feedlots, where cows often stand or sit in their own feces, also makes it easy for bacteria to spread among the animals. In response, cows are given antibiotics, which in turn encourage bacteria to develop resistance and become harder or sometimes impossible to treat.
Most of the bovines we share the planet with are domesticated species from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, yet the way that they are currently farmed and the vast use of resources involved is a hugely harmful outgrowth of modern capitalism and the colonial development of the Americas. The cattle farming business is difficult to break into and to survive in, and people trying to do so risk harming the welfare of cows, human health, and the planet. While this article has offered a grim picture of life as a farmer or a farmed cow, it’s important to remember that there are alternatives to eating meat and supporting the excesses of the existing food system, including switching to a plant-based diet and supporting the passage of laws that address broader systemic food issues.