Animal Info Cows and Cattle Family Life and Reproduction

About the family life and reproduction habits of cows, bulls and calves.



In the wild, cattle are polygamous. Herds are ruled by a king bull, who services all the cows (25 to 50). If another bull defeats the king in battle, he is accepted by the entire herd as its new master-mate. Today, however, artificial insemination enables a prize bull to service thousands of cows a year. In England, a champion Guernsey bull, Murrell Prince, sired more than 15,000 calves, including one prize-winning specimen born 16 years after his father's death.

Heifers become sexually mature cows at between 15 and 27 months; bulls are mature at one year. Gestation is about nine months. Cows can't be milked unless they have given birth, so each female is expected to produce a living calf--sometimes twins--every year. On the average, cows give milk for five or six years, although a few lucky ones are still productive at 20 years or older--"lucky" because when their milk runs out, they are promptly sent to the slaughterhouse.

In the U.S. beef cattle calves are usually born out west in the spring; they stay with their mothers until weaned and are sold off in the fall. For most dairy cattle, family life is practically nonexistent.

Walt Disney painted an enchanting picture of bovine life in his animated cartoon Ferdinand the Bull, but the reality is grim. Calves are branded with red-hot irons; horns are sometimes burned or cut off; bulls are castrated--all without the benefit of anesthesia.

Whereas cattle were permitted to live to the age of eight or nine in previous centuries, and to three or four as recently as 20 years ago, steers today are killed at 18 months, some as early as six months, all in the name of better "baby" beef. Veal calves are often confined in tiny black boxes from birth until slaughter, at less than three months of age.

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