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How Are Cows Processed?

Last Updated: 22.04.24


In order to get the most out of your cattle in terms of good-quality milk and beef, the food they eat is one of the most important things. For more info about cattle feed, you can read one of our recent articles on this matter.

In this article, we want to discuss how cows are being processed and see all the stages they need to undergo.


Cows in the Wild

In the wild, the relatives of domesticated cattle wander the grasslands, forests, scrublands, and desserts of every continent but Antartica. The Bovidae family includes over 140 species like the antelope, bison, gazelle, goat, and sheep. From season to season, their survival depends on endurance, intelligence, as well as keen senses.

Most domestic cattle can be traced back to a single common ancestor, namely the aurochs. Now an extinct species, the aurochs were native to southwest Asia. Even though domestic cattle have been selectively bred for thousands of years, their basic anatomy, behavior, and physiology are almost identical to their ancestor.

Cows are strict herbivores and spend most of their time grazing in herds, never wandering more than a few miles from water. In a normal day, they will drink around 30 gallons of water and eat 100 pounds of plant material.

Even though this plant material is full of nutrients, it requires more time to digest. Therefore, to maximize the nutritional value of this food, bovids have developed a four-chambered stomach.  

After the initial chewing, the plant material ferments in the rumen, then it is regurgitated, chewed again, and swallowed a second time. This ruminating process allows the cows to eat considerable quantities of food, and digest it later while they lay hidden in the vegetation. These are crepuscular feeders as they eat primarily at sunrise and sunset.

In addition to this specialized digestive system, Bovids have large eyes that are widely spaced allowing a panoramic vision. They also have divided hooves which are modified for endurance. The horns are their defensive weapons.

When the weather conditions become cold, they will huddle together in order to share body heat, while in high temperatures, they spend most parts of the day laying in the shade and ruminating.

Historically, cows have been admired by many cultures for their extremely gentle behavior and maternal instincts. The bond between a mother and her calf is as powerful as any in nature. Adults create very strong bonds as well because they spend much time each day ruminating, foraging, and grooming each other.

As time passes, a herd grows to include a few generations of relatives, with the oldest member reaching over 25 years of age. Cows have very simple needs and also modest desires.



Cows in Industrial Factories

In industrial animal factories, cows are considered commodities. They become more valuable to the industry, depending on how large and fast they grow. In order to maximize their growth potential, breeding is no longer natural, but it becomes scientific.

The males that are selected for breeding are called bulls. Their sperm is used to inseminate thousands of females artificially. Before they give birth, the females are called heifers. After they produce their offspring, they are called cows.

The males that have not been selected for breeding are called steers, and they get castrated. In the castration process, a knife or a scalpel is used to remove the scrotum and the testicles.

During this process, a lot of blood is lost, and it is very painful because the tissues contain multiple nerves and blood vessels. Sadly, anesthetics are considered an unnecessary expense in many factories.

Besides castration, the horns of males are either burned or cut off. This process damages arterioles and venules. There is a third act of mutilation, namely branding. A mold of wither red-hot or freezing metal is used to burn a number into the animal’s skin.

In normal circumstances, cows spend the first six to eight months of their lives grazing. Although this grazing period manages to satisfy some instinctual needs, cows face many dangers in unnatural confinements.

Since they are restricted to a particular area, the cows often have no refuge from extreme weather. Many of them can die due to intense heat, hypothermia, and even seasonal floods. For example, in 2009, about 91000 cattle died due to flooding and extreme winter weather, in North Dakota.


Industrially Farmed Cattle

After a few months of grazing, the cows are transferred to confined feedlots. The goal is to add significant weight in a short period. During the next six to eight months, they are fed with high-protein grain-based feed.

Around 90% of industrially farmed U.S. cattle have growth hormones added to their feed. This is a very debated subject because many organizations consider that these added hormones could cause serious health issues for humans. Still, the American Public Health Association states that the hormone residue in beef poses no threat to human health.

At about 14-16 months old, when they reach approximately 1200 pounds, the cows are transported to a slaughterhouse.



At the slaughterhouse, the cows pass through a chute. It starts out wide and then it narrows. Each animal is placed in a stunning box that is designed to restrain the cow, so she can be stunned. The process involves penetrating the brain without severing the brain stem.

The tool that is most commonly used for the procedure is a captive bolt pistol. Basically, the pistol is placed firmly against the cow’s forehead and fired. The pointed bolt enters the brain causing the animal to spasm and collapse.

Next, the cow is chained by the rear legs and raised off the ground, at which point the animal’s throat is cut. Another incision is made from the neck to the abdomen. This is called the bleeding process.  



Beef Processing

The meat-packing industry manages the processing of cattle, harvesting the beef, packaging, and distributing the beef products. The end product is sold by packers to the final consumer in grocery stores or other retail outlets.

Beef products are not only sold within the United States, but they are also exported to Europe and Asia, for example. Much of the beef production is sold to food services that include restaurants or institutions and companies that prepare meals outside the home, for resale.

The cattle industry includes the production of cattle for various purposes like beef, dairy, hides, as well as other products. On a yearly basis, the total weight of all the United States cattle produced for the beef industry is approximately 25 billion pounds.

To make things a bit simpler, there are three major phases in the production of beef cattle. The first one is the beef cow producing a calf. The second phase is raising the weaned calf to the desired weight, and the third phase is the feedlot finishing of the cattle.

Also, it is important to distinguish between beef cattle and dairy cattle. The first ones are raised for meat production, while the second category, for milk production. Processing the cows involves many people, multiple procedures, and various stages.



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