Finn calf at Farm Sanctuary
The Species

Cows

Finn calf at Farm Sanctuary

Social, Contemplative Cows

Howard steer at Farm Sanctuary with friends

Farm Sanctuary’s most contemplative residents, cows (Bos taurus) are deeply social and interact with one another in complex ways—fostering collaborative relationships (they form “grooming partnerships,” just like chimpanzees), learning from one another, and making decisions that benefit other members of the group.

When not contending with fearful captivity, cows spend most of their time wandering, foraging, socializing, and chewing things over, as did their ancient ancestors the aurochs—creatures whose stature and strength were depicted in the earliest cave paintings and human mythologies. Over time, humans’ breeding and treatment of cows as commercial goods (“cattle,” “chattel,” and “capitalism” all derive the same Latin word) has led to abuse of these animals on an enormous industrial scale.

After spending time ambling the pastures with our cow herds at Farm Sanctuary, visitors are often struck by the meditative temperament, placid nature, and sheer size of these gentle giants.

A Brief History of Cows

~5 million years ago to ~2 million years ago

Grasslands Expand, Advent of the Aurochs

As Earth’s terrestrial surface grew cooler and drier during the Pliocene Epoch, vegetation adapted to survive. Forests gave way to prairies, and marshlands transitioned into grasslands. Grazing species acclimatized accordingly, and the creature believed to be the primary progenitor of the modern cow—the sturdy, wide-horned auroch—began its roam across Eurasia and Northern Africa. The earliest fossil evidence of aurochs dates back 2 million years.

~11,000 BCE to ~8,500 BCE

Multiple Domestication Events

Aurochs were first domesticated by humans roughly 10,000 years ago, probably in more than one location. Near present-day India, some were bred into the modern zebu. Separately, populations of Eurasian aurochs were being domesticated in the Middle East and Far East, creating the taurine (or “humpless”) cows of today. One study of fossil DNA suggests that all taurine cows were bred from a population of just 80 animals.

~2,500 BCE to Present

Sacred Symbols of Creation and Maternity

Ancient Egyptian art depicts female forms with arms upraised or headdresses worn to mimic the shape of cow’s horns—the goddesses Hathor and Isis embodied the divine cow who created the stars and the sun god Ra. In Germanic mythology, Auðumbla the cow licked salty stones into the shape of a man, Buri, who became Odin’s grandfather. In Hinduism, cows have been venerated in part to honor the goddess and mother of all cows, Kamadhenu.

~2,500 BCE to ~300 BCE

Harnessing Ox Power

Homer’s tales and Aristotle’s histories tell of armor made from cow leather, soldiers fed on cow meat, and the necessity of the strength of oxen to effectively plow fields. Across the world, humans were inventing and modifying better harness systems. Padded harness collars that didn’t cross an animal’s windpipe began to appear in China around 300 BCE, allowing oxen and horses to pull more weight over longer distances than they ever had before.

~100 BCE to 1250 CE

Fewer Hands, Smaller Cows

By the peak of their empire, the Romans had increased the size of the average kept cow through “improvement” techniques, including specific feed types and cross-breeding. One archaeological study of European sites found that, as the Empire declined, so did the rigor of husbandry—herd-tending labor was expensive, and isotope tests suggest that medieval cows, foraging and relatively free, grew temporarily smaller as a result.

1765

The Cow Jumped Over the Moon

The nursery rhyme that gave a cow astronautic abilities can be traced in present form to a 1765 Mother Goose collection, but its components may date back centuries further. The rhyme, which gave us the idiom “over the moon,” is alluded to frequently in popular culture: Bilbo Baggins recites a long variation in The Lord of the Rings, and Kermit the Frog interviews the cow from the launch pad before and after her leap for a Sesame Street News Flash.

1864

Cities, Milk, and Pasteurization

Before industrialization, cows were kept in urban areas to keep milk’s production close to consumers. As cities grew crowded, dairy herds were moved out, increasing the time between production and consumption—that gap revealed raw milk as a carrier of disease. Louis Pasteur’s 1864 experiments exposing foods to low-level to kill unwanted bacteria were not the first of their kind, but by 1910 New York City had mandated the “pasteurization” of milk.

1870 to Present

Automated Milk Pumping on the Rise

As early as 1870, farmers were trying to automate milk pumping, inserting tubes directly into milk-duct openings to increase flow. Vacuum systems were an early advance, and in 1922 the “surge milker” appeared, mimicking the natural tug of a calf’s nursing. Since then, dairy owners have increased production by using multiple vacuum systems within ever-larger “parlors”—some modern rotary units can empty more than 100 cows in less than 10 minutes.

1916

Babe the Blue Ox

“Ox” and “oxen” describe any domesticated bovine used as a draft animal, including cows and bulls. Babe the Blue Ox, the giant travel partner of mythical lumberjack Paul Bunyan, originated in 19th-century stories told by American timber workers in bunkhouses and around campfires. Babe’s fame grew after a 1916 ad campaign for the Red River Lumber Company credited Paul and Babe with stomping the holes that became Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes.

1938

Ferdinand the Bull

“The No. 1 animal of 1938 will almost certainly turn out to be Ferdinand,” wrote Life magazine after the release of Ferdinand the Bull. Preferring the smell of flowers to the thrill of a fight, Ferdinand brought themes of peaceful power and individual identity to a troubled era. In the aftermath of World War II, Jella Lepman, a Jewish author, translated the book, then had 30,000 copies printed and distributed as gifts to deprived German children.

1962

Intensive Breeding and Genetic Homogeny

Born in 1962, “Pawnee Farm Arlinda Chief” was a bull whose breeding sired 16,000 daughters and 2 million known great-granddaughters. By 2016, roughly 14 percent of Holsteins in the U.S. were his descendants. In 2011, USDA researchers found a genetic trait in Holsteins that, when inherited from both parents, would kill a calf in utero—and traced that trait to Chief. The study estimated 500,000 calves had died as a result worldwide in the preceding three decades.

2013

Hunted to Extinction, Revived by Genes?

Aurochs distinct from cows continued to rove eastern Europe in small populations until the Middle Ages, and may have gone extinct as late as 1627. However, because large grazing mammals are vital to maintain biodiversity, European scientists in 2013 began the TaurOs Project. By crossbreeding and selectively “back breeding,” they are working to establish a hearty species similar to aurochs that might repopulate Europe’s wild grasslands.

2019

Dairy Stress

Most dairy cows live a lifelong cycle of pregnancy and giving birth with little rest. One 2019 study found that depriving cows of sleep decreased milk production and protein content. Another identified overcrowding as a primary stressor during “the transition period” (late pregnancy). And the Russian Ministry of Agriculture deployed virtual-reality headsets for cows to find out whether simply seeing images of grassy fields might help.

2019

Beef and Dairy: It’s Why They Suffer

The American agricultural industry slaughtered 33 million cows in 2019 according to the USDA—about 90,000 on an average day. Also in 2019, over 9 million cows were kept to produce dairy. The federal government’s subsidies for beef and dairy farmers—over $30 billion each year, according to one study—have helped consumers to view cows, their body parts, and their milk as cheap necessities.

Cave painting of an auroch.

Photo: Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

~5 million years ago to ~2 million years ago

Grasslands Expand, Advent of the Aurochs

As Earth’s terrestrial surface grew cooler and drier during the Pliocene Epoch, vegetation adapted to survive. Forests gave way to prairies, and marshlands transitioned into grasslands. Grazing species acclimatized accordingly, and the creature believed to be the primary progenitor of the modern cow—the sturdy, wide-horned auroch—began its roam across Eurasia and Northern Africa. The earliest fossil evidence of aurochs dates back 2 million years.

The Someone Project: Cows

Carlton steer at Farm Sanctuary

The Someone Project is a Farm Sanctuary-sponsored research-based initiative documenting farm animal sentience through science. Download our white paper on cows titled Thinking Cows: A Review of Cognition, Emotion, and the Social Lives of Domestic Cows at the link below.

Download
Carlton steer at Farm Sanctuary

Cow Facts

  • Gidget cow at Farm Sanctuary
  • Mother cows

    and their calves form a strong emotional bond immediately after birth.

  • Cows focus more time grooming sick or injured cows than other members of their herd.

  • Cows swing their tails when they are feeling happy.

  • Cows rely on the bonds they have with each other to cope with stressful situations.

Milton cow at Farm Sanctuary
“Cows have a secret mental life in which they bear grudges, nurture friendships, and become excited over intellectual challenges…”
- The Sunday Times (UK)

Suffering for their Meat, Milk, and Skins

These typically playful, nurturing animals endure immense suffering on factory farms.

  • United States

    33,703,400 cows were slaughtered in the United States in 2018.

  • Global

    302,128,109 cows were slaughtered worldwide in 2018.

factory farming

Cows Used for Dairy

A dairy cow

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Carousel milking parlor for cows

Photo: DedMityay/shutterstock.com

Pregnant cow in the stable with hay

Photo: Valerio Pardi/shutterstock.com

Still wet from birth, a calf is wheeled away from her mother to the veal crates at a dairy farm. Spain, 2010

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Animal Equality

A calf chained to a veal crate throughout the cold winter. Canada, 2014

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

A dairy farm. Israel, 2018

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

A downed cow in California.

Photo: Farm Sanctuary

The milking machine

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Animal Equality

Far from "Happy Cows"

Contrary to the “happy cow” caricatures depicted in dairy industry advertising, these nurturing animals endure systematized suffering on factory farms. Cows used by the dairy industry are intensively confined, continually impregnated, and bred for high milk production with little concern for their well-being.

Millions Imprisoned and Slaughtered

The scale of factory farming is difficult to fathom. In 2017, more than 9.3 million cows—roughly the number of seconds in a four-month period—were used to produce milk in the United States. In the same year, more than 3 million dairy cows—slightly more than the human population of Chicago—were slaughtered for meat.

Constant Impregnation

Cows, like all mammals, must be impregnated to produce milk. Cows used to produce dairy milk spend their lives in constant cycles of pregnancy, withstanding repeated artificial inseminations, giving birth and having their calves removed, and enduring nearly continuous mechanized milking with only a few short months of rest between pregnancies.

Families Separated

Most often within hours of birth, calves are detached from their mothers. Such separation will often cause calves—who would in a natural environment be deriving nutrients from their mothers’ milk—to become sick, eat less, lose weight, and cry so much that their throats become raw and inflamed.

Veal Results from Dairy Production

Male calves, because they will never produce milk, are of little value to dairy farmers. Millions of male calves are sold to be raised and slaughtered for beef, while hundreds of thousands of others are destined for earlier deaths to be sold as veal. While many people consider veal production to be cruel, too few understand that veal producers and the dairy industry are almost entirely interdependent.

Miserable Conditions

Cows in the broad majority of dairy facilities spend their lives indoors, typically on abrasive concrete floors, frequently connected to a milking apparatus. In 2019, the average cow in the U.S. dairy industry was forced to produce more than 23,000 lbs. of milk in a year — more than double the amount produced 40 years before. Breeding cows to produce at such unnaturally high levels, combined with damage caused to the udders by milking machines, contributes to high levels of mastitis. This common, painful swelling of the udder glands can increase the presence of bacteria or fungi in milk.

Normalized, Unnatural Cruelty

To amplify milk production and profit, some farms inject dairy cows with bovine growth hormone (BGH), a genetically-engineered hormone that has been shown to increase the risk of health problems like mastitis and lameness. Though cows use their tails to swish away flies and can suffer immensely during fly season, dairy producers routinely practice “tail docking,” the act of removing a cow’s tail either by cutting it off or by strangulating it with a rubber ring until it withers and falls off. Each method can cause chronic pain. Cows who collapse because they are too sick or injured to walk or stand, known as “downers” within the industry, are often prodded, dragged, and pushed around before slaughter.

Lives Cut Short

Nearly all cows used for dairy in the U.S. are eventually killed and butchered for human consumption. While cows in a natural setting can live for two decades, the exhausted cows kept for dairy tend to produce less milk as they approach the age of 5 years and are usually considered “spent.” After being slaughtered, they are most often sold and eaten as hamburger.

A dairy cow

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Far from "Happy Cows"

Contrary to the “happy cow” caricatures depicted in dairy industry advertising, these nurturing animals endure systematized suffering on factory farms. Cows used by the dairy industry are intensively confined, continually impregnated, and bred for high milk production with little concern for their well-being.

Carousel milking parlor for cows

Photo: DedMityay/shutterstock.com

Millions Imprisoned and Slaughtered

The scale of factory farming is difficult to fathom. In 2017, more than 9.3 million cows—roughly the number of seconds in a four-month period—were used to produce milk in the United States. In the same year, more than 3 million dairy cows—slightly more than the human population of Chicago—were slaughtered for meat.

Pregnant cow in the stable with hay

Photo: Valerio Pardi/shutterstock.com

Constant Impregnation

Cows, like all mammals, must be impregnated to produce milk. Cows used to produce dairy milk spend their lives in constant cycles of pregnancy, withstanding repeated artificial inseminations, giving birth and having their calves removed, and enduring nearly continuous mechanized milking with only a few short months of rest between pregnancies.

Still wet from birth, a calf is wheeled away from her mother to the veal crates at a dairy farm. Spain, 2010

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Animal Equality

Families Separated

Most often within hours of birth, calves are detached from their mothers. Such separation will often cause calves—who would in a natural environment be deriving nutrients from their mothers’ milk—to become sick, eat less, lose weight, and cry so much that their throats become raw and inflamed.

A calf chained to a veal crate throughout the cold winter. Canada, 2014

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Veal Results from Dairy Production

Male calves, because they will never produce milk, are of little value to dairy farmers. Millions of male calves are sold to be raised and slaughtered for beef, while hundreds of thousands of others are destined for earlier deaths to be sold as veal. While many people consider veal production to be cruel, too few understand that veal producers and the dairy industry are almost entirely interdependent.

A dairy farm. Israel, 2018

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Miserable Conditions

Cows in the broad majority of dairy facilities spend their lives indoors, typically on abrasive concrete floors, frequently connected to a milking apparatus. In 2019, the average cow in the U.S. dairy industry was forced to produce more than 23,000 lbs. of milk in a year — more than double the amount produced 40 years before. Breeding cows to produce at such unnaturally high levels, combined with damage caused to the udders by milking machines, contributes to high levels of mastitis. This common, painful swelling of the udder glands can increase the presence of bacteria or fungi in milk.

A downed cow in California.

Photo: Farm Sanctuary

Normalized, Unnatural Cruelty

To amplify milk production and profit, some farms inject dairy cows with bovine growth hormone (BGH), a genetically-engineered hormone that has been shown to increase the risk of health problems like mastitis and lameness. Though cows use their tails to swish away flies and can suffer immensely during fly season, dairy producers routinely practice “tail docking,” the act of removing a cow’s tail either by cutting it off or by strangulating it with a rubber ring until it withers and falls off. Each method can cause chronic pain. Cows who collapse because they are too sick or injured to walk or stand, known as “downers” within the industry, are often prodded, dragged, and pushed around before slaughter.

The milking machine

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Animal Equality

Lives Cut Short

Nearly all cows used for dairy in the U.S. are eventually killed and butchered for human consumption. While cows in a natural setting can live for two decades, the exhausted cows kept for dairy tend to produce less milk as they approach the age of 5 years and are usually considered “spent.” After being slaughtered, they are most often sold and eaten as hamburger.

Factory Farming

Cows Used for Meat

Hell for a Hamburger

Though they may begin their short lives on rangeland, young calves are nearly always separated from their nurturing mothers and often endure a series of painful mutilations including branding, dehorning, and castration. Within their first year, calves endure the long, stressful journey to a feedlot, where they will be fattened on an unnatural diet to reach an optimum “market weight” and be sent to slaughter. In 2019, 33 million cows were slaughtered for beef in the United States. 

Castration by Cutting, Crushing, or Strangulation

Castration is thought to improve meat quality and tenderness, so male calves are most often castrated within their first few months. Testes can be removed surgically with a scalpel, spermatic cords can be crushed with a clamp, or blood flow to the scrotum can be constricted until the testes die and fall off. Each method causes pain that can last for days. 

Branded with Fire

So farmers can easily and cheaply identify their cows and claim ownership, they will still intentionally scar their cows (often on the same day as castration), by pressing branding irons as hot as 950 °F into the cows’ skins. Castration and branding are each known to cause fear and pain, but pain relief is rarely provided.

Man-Made Growth

Between 6 months and 1 year of age, cows are moved from pastures to feedlots to be fattened for slaughter. Ruminants like cows have chambered stomachs because they eat primarily grasses and foliage that need to be softened and re-chewed as cud, but on feedlots they are most often fed a corn- or grain-based diet that includes antibiotics and anti-bacterial agents (and, occasionally, aftermarket human food products, including candy). Such practices bring most cows to a “market weight” of 1,200 pounds in just 6 months.

Isolated From View

In the U.S., 4 out of 5 cows grown for beef are fattened in large, isolated feedlots in just 5 states—Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. Since calves are born all over the country, they often endure long and stressful trips from their places of birth without food, water, or protection from the elements. Most city-dwelling Americans, unless they travel on trains or interstate highways, rarely see these cows in truck trailers, in rail-transport cars, or at the vast feedlots for which they are destined.

Sent to Slaughter

When they reach a sufficient “market weight” (usually before 3 years of age), cows in the beef industry are trucked to slaughter. In the U.S., the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act requires that livestock be rendered insensible to pain before shackling and slaughter. “Captive bolt stunning”—the explosive driving of a metal rod into the cow’s forehead and, often, into the animal’s brain—is commonly used to render cows unconscious. However, investigations have found that some animals are still conscious when their throats are cut.

Cattle on a cattle transporter truck

Photo: Winui/shutterstock.com

Cowboy roping a young calf for branding and castration.

Photo: CLP Media/shutterstock.com

A branded cow.

Photo: FlyBMW/shutterstock.com

Black Angus Cows Eating Corn in a Trough

Photo: Brandt Bolding/shutterstock.com

Cows on a midwestern feedlot.

Photo: rthoma/shutterstock.com

Cow looks out through bars on a transport truck parked at the Turkish Border

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Eyes On Animals

Cattle on a cattle transporter truck

Photo: Winui/shutterstock.com

Hell for a Hamburger

Though they may begin their short lives on rangeland, young calves are nearly always separated from their nurturing mothers and often endure a series of painful mutilations including branding, dehorning, and castration. Within their first year, calves endure the long, stressful journey to a feedlot, where they will be fattened on an unnatural diet to reach an optimum “market weight” and be sent to slaughter. In 2019, 33 million cows were slaughtered for beef in the United States. 

Cowboy roping a young calf for branding and castration.

Photo: CLP Media/shutterstock.com

Castration by Cutting, Crushing, or Strangulation

Castration is thought to improve meat quality and tenderness, so male calves are most often castrated within their first few months. Testes can be removed surgically with a scalpel, spermatic cords can be crushed with a clamp, or blood flow to the scrotum can be constricted until the testes die and fall off. Each method causes pain that can last for days. 

A branded cow.

Photo: FlyBMW/shutterstock.com

Branded with Fire

So farmers can easily and cheaply identify their cows and claim ownership, they will still intentionally scar their cows (often on the same day as castration), by pressing branding irons as hot as 950 °F into the cows’ skins. Castration and branding are each known to cause fear and pain, but pain relief is rarely provided.

Black Angus Cows Eating Corn in a Trough

Photo: Brandt Bolding/shutterstock.com

Man-Made Growth

Between 6 months and 1 year of age, cows are moved from pastures to feedlots to be fattened for slaughter. Ruminants like cows have chambered stomachs because they eat primarily grasses and foliage that need to be softened and re-chewed as cud, but on feedlots they are most often fed a corn- or grain-based diet that includes antibiotics and anti-bacterial agents (and, occasionally, aftermarket human food products, including candy). Such practices bring most cows to a “market weight” of 1,200 pounds in just 6 months.

Cows on a midwestern feedlot.

Photo: rthoma/shutterstock.com

Isolated From View

In the U.S., 4 out of 5 cows grown for beef are fattened in large, isolated feedlots in just 5 states—Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. Since calves are born all over the country, they often endure long and stressful trips from their places of birth without food, water, or protection from the elements. Most city-dwelling Americans, unless they travel on trains or interstate highways, rarely see these cows in truck trailers, in rail-transport cars, or at the vast feedlots for which they are destined.

Cow looks out through bars on a transport truck parked at the Turkish Border

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Eyes On Animals

Sent to Slaughter

When they reach a sufficient “market weight” (usually before 3 years of age), cows in the beef industry are trucked to slaughter. In the U.S., the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act requires that livestock be rendered insensible to pain before shackling and slaughter. “Captive bolt stunning”—the explosive driving of a metal rod into the cow’s forehead and, often, into the animal’s brain—is commonly used to render cows unconscious. However, investigations have found that some animals are still conscious when their throats are cut.

cows running in slow motion at Farm Sanctuary
“They are all individuals and all have their own characteristics. They are tremendously curious. They have emotional storms.”
- Tim Sell, chair of the UK’s National Farmers Union

Featured Cow Rescues

Finn calf at Farm Sanctuary

VIDEO 4:17

The Adventures of Finn

Download Audio

Transcript

Well, listen to this. A cow on the loose in New Britain.


Everyone's tagging me and saying, Mayor, there's a cow on the loose in town. Mayor, what are you going to do? There's a cow walking down my street?


I heard through social media that there was a cow wandering around, what appeared to be my neighbor.


Mayor Stewart says it's somewhere on the New Britain Water Department property.


He'd been on the run for weeks-- for several weeks-- successfully evading people that wanted to get him.


[MUSIC PLAYING]


I would love to get it up there and figure out where we're going to set up. Because there's no room for error on that ridge, and if this thing slides out, we're done.


His name came about, I should say, when we realized this was real.


We figured if we named him, he couldn't be eaten.


So I thought of Finn. He's this little adventurous boy in the woods.


He's been successful, for a month, hiding from people that want to find him, so.


Wow. OK.


I did see him walk in the ridge and there was tracks going that way.


[MUSIC PLAYING]


Seeing everybody come together to help Finn, has been really one of the most special things about this whole experience.


I wonder what Finn is thinking right now.


Am I good?


Yeah, you're still coming to the right.


OK. So it stays here.


OK.


OK, cool.


You did it, man!


My knuckles are white.


[LAUGHING]


Now we've got to finish.


Mario, you know, kind of rallied the team, as darkness fell, to put up all the gates, and bring out the feed, and set the whole thing up. And right as we were wrapping up, we look down this path where Finn had been sighted before. And Mario says, there's Finn.


It's like he wants to be here.


You can do it, Finn. Please, come on. Come on, baby.


Maybe we'll get lucky tonight. That'd be awesome.


I hope so.


He was in my backyard. I don't think when you're that close, you can overlook it. And I've read so many stories where animals were spared from slaughter because they escaped. I wanted his story to be that.


Awww.


You have no idea what this means-- I have no idea what this means to me.


What it means to him, that's the important part.


His best life started last night. So, I'm just so grateful to all of you.


Finn did save himself. If the billions of animals who aren't so lucky could, they would.


[UPBEAT MUSIC]


I will probably transition to no meat at all. It will take me some time. But I think, based on this, I couldn't look into his face today and think that there could be anything else but a sanctuary for him.


I would like to think he feels super safe right now. You know, shouldn't be anybody chasing him anymore. So he should have a happy life.


For Farm Sanctuary to volunteer to come out here and do this and pick up on Finn's story, we're eternally grateful to you. I know Finn will be as well.


[MOOING]


[MUSIC PLAYING]

VIDEO 4:17

The Adventures of Finn

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