Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by  Anna Botsford Comstock


The Original Wild Cattle of America

Photo by John L. Rich


Teacher's Story

That in numbers there is safety, is a basic principle in the lives of wild cattle, probably because their chief enemies, the wolves, hunted in packs. It has often been related that, when the herd is attacked by wolves, the calves are placed at the center of the circle made by the cattle, standing with heads out and horns ready for attack from every quarter. But when a single animal, like a bear or tiger, attacks any of the herd, they all gather around it in a narrowing circle of clashing horns, and many of these great beasts of prey have thus met their death. The cow is as formidable as the bull to the enemy, since her horns are strong and sharp and she tosses her victim, unless it is too large. The heavy head, neck and short massive horns of the bull, are not so much for defence against enemies as against rival bulls. The bull not only tosses and gores his victim, but kneels or tramples upon it. Both have effective weapons of defence in the hind feet, which kick powerfully. The buffalo bull of India will attack a tiger single handed, and usually successfully. It is a strange thing that all cattle are driven mad by the smell of blood, and weird stories are told of the stampeding of herds from this cause, on the plains of our great West.

Cattle are essentially grass and herbage eaters, and their teeth are peculiarly arranged for this. There are eight front teeth on the lower jaw, and a horny pad opposite them on the upper jaw. Back of these on each jaw there is a bare place and six grinding teeth on each side. As a cow crops the herbage, her head is moved up and down to aid in severing the leaves, and the peculiar sound of the tearing of the leaves thus made is not soon forgotten by those who have heard it. In the wild or domesticated state the habit of cud-chewing is this: The cattle graze in mornings and evenings, swallowing the food as fast as cropped, and storing it in their ruminating stomachs. During the heat of the day, they move to the shade, preferably to the shady banks of streams, and there in quiet the food is brought up, a small portion at a time, and chewed with a peculiar sidewise movement of the jaws and then swallowed, passing to the true stomach. There is probably no more perfect picture of utter contentment, than a herd of cows chewing their cuds in the shade, or standing knee-deep in the cool stream on a summer's day. The cattle in a herd when grazing, keep abreast and move along, heads in the same direction.


Course of Food in a Cow's Stomach

I. ruminant stomach;
II. where the cud-balls are formed;
III. and IV. true stomachs.

Connected with the grazing habit, is that of the hiding of the new-born calf by its mother; the young calf is a wabbly creature and ill-fitted for a long journey; so the mother hides it, and there it stays "frozen" and will never stir unless actually touched. As the mother is obliged to be absent for some time grazing with the herd, the calf is obliged to go without nourishment for a number of hours, and so it is provided with a large compound stomach which, if filled twice per day, suffices to insure health and growth. The cow, on the other hand, giving her milk out only twice per day, needs a large udder in which to store it. The size of the udder is what has made the cow useful to us as a milch animal.

A fine cow is a beautiful creature, her soft yellow skin beneath the sleek coat of short hair, the well proportioned body, the mild face, crowned with spreading, polished horns and illuminated with large gentle eyes, are all elements of beauty which artists have recognized, especially those of the Dutch school. The ancients also admired bovine eyes, and called their most beautiful goddess the ox-eyed Juno.

The cow's ears can be turned in any direction, and her sense of hearing is keen; so is her sense of smell, aided by the moist, sensitive skin of the nose; she always sniffs danger and also thus tests her food. Although a cow if well kept has a sleek coat, when she is allowed to run out of doors during the winter, her hair grows long and shaggy as a protection. The cow walks on two toes, or, as we say, has a split hoof. She has two lesser toes above and behind the hoofs which we call dew-claws. The part of her leg which seems at first glance to be her knee, is really her wrist or ankle. Although short-legged, the cow is a good runner, as those who have chased her can bear witness. She can walk, gallop and has a pacing trot; she is a remarkable jumper, often taking a fence like a deer; she also has marvelous powers as a swimmer, a case being on record where a cow swam five miles. But a cow would be illy equipped for comfort if it were not for her peculiar tail, which is made after the most approved pattern of fly-brushes, and is thus used. Woe betide the fly she hits with it, if the blow is as efficient as that which she incidentally bestows on the head of the milker. It is to get rid of flies, that the cattle, and especially the buffaloes, wallow in the mud, and thus coat themselves with a fly-proof armor.

There is a fairly extensive range of emotions expressed in cattle language, from the sullen bellow of the angry animal to the lowing which is the call of the herd, and the mooing which is meant for the calf; and there are many other bellowings and mutterings which we can partially understand.

Every herd of cows has its leader, which has won the position by fair fight. Add a new cow to the herd, and there is at once a trial of strength, to adjust her to her proper place; and in a herd of cows, the leader leads; she goes first and no one may say her nay. In fact, each member of the herd has her place in it; and that is why it is so easy to teach cows each to take her own stanchion in the stable. In a herd of forty cows which I knew, each cow took her stanchion, no matter in what order she happened to enter the stable.


A Pet Holstein

A cow at play is a funny sight; her tail is lifted aloft like a pennant and she kicks as lightly as if she were made of rubber. She is also a surefooted beast, as anyone can attest who has seen her running down the rocky mountain sides of the Alps, at a headlong pace and never making a mistake. In lying down, the cow first kneels with the front legs, or rather drops on her wrists, and then the hind quarters go down, and then the front follow. She does not lie flat on her side when resting, like the horse when at ease, but with her legs partially under her. In getting up, she rests upon her wrists and then lifts the hind quarters.

The Usefulness of Cattle

When man emerged from the savage state, his first step toward civilization was domesticating wild animals and training them for his own use. During the nomad stage, when tribes wandered over the face of the earth, they took their cattle along. From the first, these animals have been used in three capacities: First, for carrying burdens and as draught animals; second, as meat; third, as givers of milk. They were also used in the earlier ages as sacrifices to the various deities, and in Egypt, some were held as sacred.

As beasts of burden and draft animals, oxen are still used in many parts of the United States. For logging, especially in pioneer days, oxen were far more valuable than horses. They are patient and will pull a few inches at a time, if necessary, a tedious work which the nervous horse refuses to endure. Cows, too, have been used as draft animals, and are so used in China today, where they do most of the plowing; in these oriental countries milk is not consumed to any extent, so the cow is kept for the work she can do. In ancient times in the East, white oxen formed a part of royal processions.

Because of two main uses of cattle by civilized man, he has bred them in two directions; one for producing beef, and one for milk. The beef cattle are chiefly Aberdeen-Angus, Galloway, Short-horn or Durham, and Hereford; the dairy breeds are the Jersey, Guernsey, Ayrshire, Holstein-Frisian and Brown Swiss. The beef animal is, in cross-section, approximately like a brick set sidewise. It should be big and full across the loins and back, the shoulders and hips covered heavily with flesh, the legs stout, the neck thick and short, and the face short; the line of the back is straight, and the stomach line parallel with it. Very different is the appearance of the milch cow. Her body is oval, instead of being approximately square in cross-section. The outline of her back is not straight, but sags in front of the hips, which are prominent and bony. The shoulders have little flesh on them; and if looked at from above, her body is wedge-shaped, widening from shoulders backward. The stomach line is not parallel with the back bone, but slants downward from the shoulder to the udder. The following are the points that indicate a good milch cow: Head high between the eyes, showing large air passages and indicating strong lungs. Eyes clear, large, and placid, indicating good disposition. Mouth large, with a muscular lower jaw, showing ability to chew efficiently and rapidly. Neck, thin and fine, showing veins through the skin. Chest, deep and wide, showing plenty of room for heart and lungs. Abdomen, large but well supported, and increasing in size toward the rear. Ribs, well spread, not meeting the spine like the peak of a roof, but the spine must be prominent, revealing to the touch the separate vertebrae. Hips, much broader than the shoulders. Udder, large, the four quarters of equal size, and not fat; the "milk veins" which carry the blood from the udder should be large and crooked, passing into the abdomen through large openings. Skin, soft, pliable, and covered with fine, oily hair. She should have good digestion and great powers of assimilation. The milch cow is a milk-making machine, and the more fuel (food) she can use, the greater her production.


Beef Cattle

The physiological habits of the beef and milch cattle have been changed as much as their structure. The food given to the beef cow goes to make flesh; while that given to the milch cow goes to make milk, however abundant her food. Of course, there are all grades between the beef and the milch types, for many farmers use dual herds for both. However, if a farmer is producing milk, it pays him well to get the best possible machine to make it, and that is always a cow of the right type.

A Geography Lesson

All the best breeds of cattle have been evolved in the British Isles and in Europe north of Italy and west of Russia. All our domesticated cattle were developed from wild cattle of Europe and Asia. The cattle which roam in our rapidly narrowing grazing lands of the far West are European cattle. America had no wild cattle except the bison. In geography supplementary readers, read about Scotland, England, the Channel Islands, the Netherlands, France and Switzerland and the different kinds of cattle developed in these countries; for example, "A Holland Dairy," in Northern Europe, Ginn & Co.

How to Produce Good Milk

There are three main ingredients of milk—fat, curd and ash. The fat is for the purpose of supplying the animal with fat and we make it into butter; the curd supplies muscle, or the lean meat of the animal, and is the main ingredient of cheese, although cheese to be good should contain a full amount of butter fat; the ash, which may be seen as residue when milk is evaporated, builds up the bone of the animal. The best butter cows are those which give a larger per cent of fat and a small per cent of curd, like the Jerseys; the best cheese cows are those which give a fair per cent of fat and a larger yield of curd, like the Ayrshire and Holstein.

A cow for producing cheese, is not profitable, unless she gives seven thousand pounds of milk per year; a butter cow, a Jersey for instance, should produce five thousand pounds of milk per year to be really profitable.

The stable where milch cows are kept should be thoroughly cleaned before each milking, and should be swept each day; the cows' udders should be brushed, and the milkers should wear clean aprons and should wash their hands before milking. Milk should never be strained in the barn, but in some place where the air is fresh. If milk is perfectly clean, it will keep sweet much longer; sterilized milk put in bottles will keep sweet for weeks and even months. Loud talking should not be permitted in the stables while the cows are being milked, and each cow should be milked by the same person for the entire season.


The Perfect Milch Type

Milk to be legally sold in New York State must possess three per cent of butter fat. For upper grades or first year work in the high school, there could not be a more profitable exercise than teaching the pupils the use of the Babcock milk tester.

The Care of the Milch Cow

The importance cannot be over-estimated of teaching the pupils in rural districts, the proper care of milch cattle for the production of milk. The milch cow is a perfect machine, and should be regarded as such in producing milk. First, she should have plenty of food of the right kind, that is, a well-balanced ration. Second, she should have a warm, clean stable and be supplied with plenty of good, fresh air. A cold stable makes it necessary to provide much more food for the cow; a case on record shows that when a barn was opened up in cold weather for necessary repairing, the amount of milk from the cows stabled in it, decreased ten per cent, in twenty-four hours. There should be a protected place for drinking, if the cattle must be turned out of the barn for water in winter; it is far better to have the water piped into the barn, although the herd should be given a few hours each day in the open air. A dog should never be used for driving cows. To be profitable, a cow should give milk ten months of the year at least. Calves should be dehorned when they are a few days old by putting caustic potash on the budding horns, thus obviating the danger of damaging the cow by dehorning.

In a properly run dairy, a pair of scales stands near the can for receiving the milk; and as the milk from each cow is brought in, it is weighed and the amount set down opposite the cow's name on a "milk sheet," that is tacked on the wall, near by. At the end of each week, the figures on the milk sheet are added, and the farmer knows just how much milk each cow is giving him, and whether there are any in the herd which are not paying their board.

References—Elements of Agriculture, Warren; Agriculture for Beginners, Burkett, Stevens and Hill, p. 216; First Principles of Agriculture, Vorhees, p. 117; Elements of Agriculture, Sever, p. 57; Elements of Agriculture, Shepperd, chapters 15 and 22; First Principles of Agriculture, Goff and Maine, p. 154; Agriculture Through the Laboratory, School and Garden, Jackson and Dougherty, chapter 8; The Dairy Herd, Farmers' Bulletin No. 55, U. S. Dept. of Agr.; Care of Milk on the Farm, Farmers' Bulletin No. 63, U. S. Dept. of Agr.


The Cow

Leading thought—Certain characteristics, which enable the cow to live successfully as a wild animal, have rendered her of great use to us as a domestic animal.

Method—Begin the lesson with leading the pupils to understand the peculiar adaptation of cattle for success, as wild animals. This will have to be done largely by reading and asking for oral or written work on the following topics: "The Aurochs," "Wild Cattle of the Scottish Highlands," "The Buffaloes of the Orient," "The American Bison," "The Cow-boys of the West and their Work with their Herds," "The Breeds of Beef Cattle, Where they Came From, and Where Developed," "The Breeds of Milch Cattle, their Origin and Names." The following questions may be given out a few at a time and answered as the pupils have opportunity for observation.


1. What are the characteristics of a fine cow? Describe her horns, ears, eyes, nose and mouth. Do you think she can hear well? What is the attitude of her ears when she is listening? Do you think she has a keen sense of smell? Is her nose moist? Is her hair long or short? Smooth or rough?

2. The cow walks on two toes. Can you see any other toes which she does not walk on? Why is the cow's foot better adapted than that of the horse, to walk in mud and marshes? What do we call the two hind toes which she does not walk on? Can you point out on the cow's leg those parts which correspond with our elbow, wrist, knee and ankle? Is the cow a good runner? Is she a good jumper? Can she swim?

3. For what use was the cow's tail evidently intended? How do the wild buffalos and bisons get rid of attacks of flies?

4. How much of cattle language do you understand? How does the cow express pleasure? Lonesomeness? Anger? How does the bull express anger? What does the calf express with the voice?

5. Is there always a leader in a herd of cows? Do certain cows of the herd always go first and others last? Do the cows readily learn to take each her own place in the stable? How is leadership of the herd attained? Describe cattle at play.

6. At what time of day do cattle feed in the pasture? When and where do they chew the cud? Do they stand or lie to do this? Describe how a cow lies down and gets up.

7. How do wild cattle defend themselves from wolves? From bears or other solitary animals?

8. For what purposes were cattle first domesticated? For how many purposes do we rear cattle today?

9. Name and give brief descriptions of the different breeds of cattle with which you are familiar. Which of these are beef and which milch types?

10. What are the distinguishing points of a good milch cow? Of a good beef animal? What does the food do for each of these? Which part of the United States produces most beef cattle? Which the most milch cattle?

11. What do we mean by a balanced ration? Do you know how to compute one? What is the advantage of feeding cattle a balanced ration?

12. How many pounds of milk should a dairy cow produce in a year to be profitable if the product is cheese? If the product is butter? Why this discrepancy? What must be the per cent of butter fat in milk to make it legally salable in your state? How many months of the year should a good cow give milk?

13. Why should a cow be milked always by the same person? Does the milker always sit on the same side? Why should loud talking and other noise at milking time be avoided? Should a dog be used in driving dairy cows? Why?

14. Why is a cool draughty barn an expensive place in which to keep cattle? Why is a barn, not well-ventilated, a danger?

15. Why and where is the dehorning of cattle practiced? When and how should a calf be dehorned?

16. Why should milk not be strained in the barn? Why is it profitable for the dairy farmer to keep his stable clean and to be cleanly in the care of milk? How does the food of cows affect the flavor of the milk? Why should a farmer keep a record of the number of pounds of milk which each cow in his dairy gives each day?

17. For what are oxen used? Wherein are they superior to horses as draft animals? Do you know of any place where oxen are used as riding animals?

18. How many industries are dependent upon cattle?

19. Give oral or written exercises on the following themes: "How the Best Butter is Made;"  "The Use of Bacteria in Butter;"  "How Dairy Cheese is Made;"  "How Fancy Cheeses are Made."

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