Complicating the matter is the ability of cattle to interbreed with other closely related species. Hybrid individuals and even breeds exist, not only between European cattle and zebu but also with yaks (called a dzo), banteng, gaur, and bison ("cattalo"), a cross-genera hybrid. For example, genetic testing of the Dwarf Lulu breed, the only humpless "Bos taurus-type" cattle in Nepal, found them to be a mix of European cattle, zebu and yak. Cattle cannot successfully be bred with water buffalo or African buffalo.
The aurochs originally ranged throughout Europe, North Africa, and much of Asia. In historical times, their range was restricted to Europe, and the last animals were killed by poachers in Masovia, Poland, in 1627. Breeders have attempted to recreate cattle of similar appearance to aurochs by crossing of domesticated cattle breeds, creating the Heck cattle breed. (See also aurochs and zebu articles.)
Older English sources like King James Version of the Bible refer to livestock in general as cattle (as opposed to the word deer which then was used for wild animals). Additionally other species of the genus Bos are sometimes called wild cattle. Today, the modern meaning of "cattle", without any other qualifier, is usually restricted to domesticated bovines.
In general, the same words are used in different parts of the world but with minor differences in the definitions. The terminology described here contrasts the differences in definition between the United States and other British influenced parts of world such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.
An intact (i.e., not castrated) adult male is called a bull. An adult female who has had one or two calves (depending on regional usage) is called a cow. Young cattle are called calves until they are weaned, then weaners until they are a year old in some areas, in other areas, particularly with beef cattle, they may be known as feeder-calves or simply feeders. After that, they are referred to as yearlings or stirks if between one and two years of age, or by gender. A young female before she has had a calf of her own is called a heifer ("heffer"). A young female that has had only one calf is occasionally called a first-calf heifer. A castrated male is called a steer in the United States, and older steers are often called a bullock in other parts of the world; although in North America this term refers to a young bull. A castrated male (occasionally a female or in some areas a bull) kept for draft purposes or for food is called an ox (plural oxen). In Australia the term "Japanese ox" is used for grain fed steers in the weight range of 500 to 650kg that are destined for the Japanese meat trade. In North America, draft cattle under four years old are called working steers. Improper or late castration on a bull results in it becoming a coarse steer known as a stag in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. In some countries an incompletely castrated male is known also as a rig. In all cattle species, a female who is the twin of a bull usually becomes an infertile partial intersex, and is a freemartin. Some Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and Scottish farmers use the term cattlebeast. Neat (horned oxen, from which neatsfoot oil is derived), beef (young ox) and beefing (young animal fit for slaughtering) are obsolete terms, although poll or polled cattle is still a term in use for naturally hornless animals, or in some areas cattle that have been disbudded. Cattle raised for human consumption are called beef cattle. Within the beef cattle industry in parts of the United States, the older term beef (plural beeves) is still used to refer to an animal of either gender. Cows of certain breeds that are kept for the milk they give are called dairy cows. The adjective applying to cattle in general is usually bovine. The terms "bull", "cow" and "calf" are also used by extension to denote the gender of other large animals, including whales, hippopotamuses, camels, elk and elephants.
"Cow" has been in general use as a singular for the collective "cattle" in spite of the objections of those who point out that it is a female-specific term, rendering phrases such as "that cow is a bull" absurd from a lexicographic standpoint. However, it is easy to use when a singular is needed and the gender is not known, as in "There is a cow in the road". Further, any herd of fully mature cattle in or near a pasture is statistically likely to consist mostly of cows, so the term is probably accurate. Other than the few bulls needed for breeding, the vast majority of male cattle are castrated as calves and slaughtered for meat before the age of three years. Thus, in a pastured herd, any calves or herd bulls usually are clearly distinguishable from the cows due to distinctively different sizes and clear anatomical differences.
Colloquially, more general non-specific terms may denote cattle when a singular form is needed. Australian, New Zealand and British farmers use the term "beast" or "cattle beast". "Bovine" is also used in Britain. The term "critter" is common in the western United States and Canada, particularly when referring to young cattle. In some areas of the American South (particularly the Appalachian region), where both dairy and beef cattle are present, an individual animal was once called a "beef critter", though that term is becoming archaic.
The term "dogies" is sometimes used in the context of ranch work, as in "Keep them dogies moving". In some places, a cow kept to provide milk for one family is called a "house cow". Obsolete terms for cattle include "neat" (this use survives in "neatsfoot oil", extracted from the feet and legs of cattle), and "beefing" (young animal fit for slaughter).
An onomatopoeia imitating one of the commonest sounds made by cattle is "moo", and this sound is also called lowing. There are a number of other sounds made by cattle, including calves bawling and bulls bellowing (a high-pitched yodeling call). The bullroarer makes a sound similar to a territorial call made by bulls.
A common misconception about cattle (particularly bulls) is that they are enraged by the color red (something provocative is often said to be "like a red rag to a bull"). This is incorrect, as cattle are red-green color-blind. The myth arose from the use of red capes in the sport of bullfighting; in fact, two different capes are used. The capote is a large, flowing cape that is magenta and yellow. The more famous muleta is the smaller, red cape, used exclusively for the final, fatal segment of the fight. It is not the color of the cape that angers the bull, but rather the movement of the fabric that irritates the bull and incites it to charge.
Although cattle cannot distinguish red from green, they do have two kinds of color receptors in their retinas (cone cells) and so are theoretically able to distinguish some colors, probably in a similar way to other red-green color-blind or dichromatic mammals (such as dogs, cats, horses and up to ten percent of male humans).
Cattle are often raised by allowing herds to graze on the grasses of large tracts of rangeland. Raising cattle in this manner allows the use of land that might be unsuitable for growing crops. The most common interactions with cattle involve daily feeding, cleaning and milking. Many routine husbandry practices involve ear tagging, dehorning, loading, medical operations, vaccinations and hoof care, as well as training for agricultural shows and preparations. There are also some cultural differences in working with cattle- the cattle husbandry of Fulani men rests on behavioural techniques, whereas in Europe cattle are controlled primarily by physical means like fences. Breeders utilise cattle husbandry to reduce M. bovis infection susceptibility by selective breeding and maintaining herd health to avoid concurrent disease.
Cattle are farmed for beef, veal, dairy, leather and they are less commonly used simply to maintain grassland for wildlife- for example, in Epping Forest, England. They are often used in some of the most wild places for livestock. Depending on the breed, cattle can survive on hill grazing, heaths, marshes, moors and semi desert. Modern cows are more commercial than older breeds and, having become more specialized, are less versatile. For this reason many smaller farmers still favor old breeds, like the dairy breed of cattle Jersey.
In Portugal, Spain, Southern France and some Latin American countries, bulls are used in the activity of bullfighting; a similar activity, Jallikattu, is seen in South India; in many other countries this is illegal. Other activities such as bull riding are seen as part of a rodeo, especially in North America. Bull-leaping, a central ritual in Bronze Age Minoan culture (see Bull (mythology)), still exists in southwestern France. In modern times, cattle are also entered into agricultural competitions. These competitions can involve live cattle or cattle carcasses.
In terms of food intake by humans, consumption of cattle is less efficient than of grain or vegetables with regard to land use, and hence cattle grazing consumes more area than such other agricultural production. Nonetheless, cattle and other forms of domesticated animals can sometimes help to utilize plant resources in areas not easily amenable to other forms of agriculture. These factors were not as important in earlier times prior to the Earth's large human population.
A 400-page United Nations report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states that cattle farming is "responsible for 18% of greenhouse gases. The production of cattle to feed and clothe humans stresses ecosystems around the world, and is assessed to be one of the top three environmental problems in the world on a local to global scale.
The report, entitled Livestock's Long Shadow, also surveys the environmental damage from sheep, chickens, pigs and goats. But in almost every case, the world's 1.5 billion cattle are cited as the greatest adverse impact with respect to climate change as well as species extinction. The report concludes that, unless changes are made, the massive damage reckoned to be due to livestock may more than double by 2050, as demand for meat increases. One of the cited changes suggests that intensification of the livestock industry may be suggested, since intensification leads to less land for a given level of production.
Some microbes respire in the cattle gut by an anaerobic process known as methanogenesis (producing the gas methane). Cattle emit a large volume of methane, 95% of it through eructation or burping, not flatulence. As the carbon in the methane comes from the digestion of vegetation produced by photosynthesis, its release into the air by this process would normally be considered harmless, because there is no net increase in carbon in the atmosphere — it's removed as carbon dioxide from the air by photosynthesis and returned to it as methane. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, having a warming effect 23 to 50 times greater, and according to Takahashi and Young "even a small increase in methane concentration in the atmosphere exerts a potentially significant contribution to global warming". Further analysis to the methane gas produced by livestock as a contributor to the increase in greenhouse gases is provided by Weart. Research is underway on methods of reducing this source of methane, by the use of dietary supplements, or treatments to reduce the proportion of methanogenetic microbes, perhaps by vaccination.
Cattle are fed a concentrated high-corn diet which produces rapid weight gain, but this has side effects which include increased acidity in the digestive system. When improperly handled, manure and other byproducts of concentrated agriculture also have environmental consequences.
Grazing by cattle at low intensities can create a favourable environment for native herbs and forbs; however, in most world regions cattle are reducing biodiversity due to overgrazing driven by food demands by an expanding human population.
Gandhi explains his feelings about cow protection as follows:
"The cow to me means the entire sub-human world, extending man's sympathies beyond his own species. Man through the cow is enjoined to realize his identity with all that lives. Why the ancient rishis selected the cow for apotheosis is obvious to me. The cow in India was the best comparison; she was the giver of plenty. Not only did she give milk, but she also made agriculture possible. The cow is a poem of pity; one reads pity in the gentle animal. She is the second mother to millions of mankind. Protection of the cow means protection of the whole dumb creation of God. The appeal of the lower order of creation is all the more forceful because it is speechless."
Cattle are represented in heraldry by the bull.
The world cattle population is estimated to be about 995,838,000 head. India is the nation with the largest number of cattle, about 281,700,000 or 28.29% of the world cattle population, followed by Brazil: 187,087,000, 18.79%; China: 139,721,000, 14.03%; the United States: 96,669,000, 9.71%; EU-27: at 87,650,000, 8.80%; Argentina: 51,062,000, 5.13%; Australia: 29,202,000, 2.93%; South Africa: 14,187,000, 1.42%; Canada: 13,945,000, 1.40% and other countries: 49,756,000 5.00%. Africa has about 20,000,000 head of cattle, many of which are raised in traditional ways and serve partly as tokens of their owner's wealth.
Cattle today are the basis of a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. The international trade in beef for 2000 was over $30 billion and represented only 23 percent of world beef production. (Clay 2004). The production of milk, which is also made into cheese, butter, yogurt, and other dairy products, is comparable in economic size to beef production and provides an important part of the food supply for many of the world's people. Cattle hides, used for leather to make shoes and clothing, are another widespread product. Cattle remain broadly used as draft animals in many developing countries, such as India.