Where does beef come from? Part 2 - A vernacular lesson

We have all heard plenty of words for cattle and the bovine species, but what do those terms really mean?

There are five major cattle breeds used for beef in the United States. First, however, let’s define what exactly is meant by the term “cattle” and what differentiates it from other bovine varieties. By definition, according to many dictionaries, cattle are animals of the Bos genus including but not limited to, “cows, steer, bulls and oxen.” In other words, “cattle” is a classifying term under which all of the previously mentioned varieties belong.

Though the term is used almost interchangeably with the word “cattle,” a “cow” can only be a female, as they are defined as cattle that have “calved” or, in other words, birthed a calf. “Steer,” another term used generally that in reality has a specific meaning, are male bovine that were castrated before sexual maturity and they are used to produce beef. Castration is typically done to avoid hormones that may create a more dangerous and less docile demeanor within the cattle, and some in the industry claim that it improves the flavor of the meat.

The term “bovine” itself is actually a blanket term for all Bos genus animals, meaning bison and buffaloes are included. Bulls, perhaps most obviously, are uncastrated males used for breeding while oxen are yet another castrated adult male, but they are primarily used for “drafting,” or pulling heavy loads, not for beef. Furthermore, if you are extremely curious about the classification of cattle, there are terms relative to sex, sexual organ status and age like calves, heifers or first-calvers, all used in relation to cows, all of which can be differentiated between by using the “Glossary of Terms” on the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association website.

So, after sorting through the terminology, which in this assortment is used to feed the United States? While cattle primarily provide U.S. beef, Michigan State University Extension recommends understanding the history of production to answer this question. Most cattle breeds common in the U.S. are native to Europe and tropical areas. The English were the first to transport cattle to America in large numbers for the settlement of Jamestown, though their primary function was to provide milk, butter, hide and drafting. While some of these milking cows and working cattle were eaten, and today some still do make it into the production mix, there was virtually no beef producing industry in the States for almost the first one-hundred years of the United States. Though the use of cattle as meat dates back to 2500 B.C., most meat in the early days of America came from the hunting of bountiful amounts of wild game. Domesticated animal production was not regularly practiced until about 1870, when the large plains in the West began being used to produce beef. In fact, the USDA did not even start recording beef consumption until the 1910s.

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