By Frank G. Vice, DVM, BS Pharm
In the ancient world, before cattle were domesticated, people were hunters and gathers. Survival was difficult and required the tribe of early humans to constantly seek enough food to feed everyone. The obstacles of hunting and gathering forced these people to look for alternative food supplies. One logical resource involved the domestication of the available wild animals, but only a small number of species were capable of herd management. As the early years of cattle domestication progressed, rudimentary animal husbandry and agriculture techniques were learned. Controlled and secure animals provided the formation of food security from a replaceable diet which no longer required food to be gathered. As food security improved, permanent community settlements developed resulting in less incentive to search for food. As life progressed during the following years, and cattle domestication evolved into cattle breeding, unique beef characteristics were considered and selected with the feeling that cattle should be physically strong but not vicious. It was further felt that these early cattle should be easily managed and frequently bred, allowing predictable stock replacement since gestation is only nine months. Their unique digestive system functioned to allow slow digestion of hay and grass supplied from a forage diet. Most authorities agree that the primitive Auroch cattle, found throughout ancient Europe and Indi, were the foundational breeding stock for early domestication. Through persistent husbandry skills and agricultural techniques of breeding and domestication, these primitive wild Eurasian cattle were converted into a dependable food animal. It is sad to report that the naturally wild Auroch population fell into extinction due to aggressive over hunting along with specific breeding and domestication attempts.
As bovine domestication continued throughout Europe and India, each region developed specific breed characteristics that would define cattle throughout the ages. The distinctive humped back cattle (Bos Indicus) developed in India and remained isolated for generations while cattle from Europe experienced constant review for desirable characteristics and herd improvement. It was the early Spanish and Portuguese shipping industry, along with ocean travel and European exploration, that contributed to the collection and mixing of the various early breeds. These blended breeds represented cattle from all over Europe and India. Cattle were collected and shipped following their purchase from ancient cattle markets from around the world. As these newly purchased cows were shipped to Spain, they were mixed with other breeds, ultimately developing hybrid characteristics. The new breed characteristics included changes in body size, presence of horns, and dominant color patterns. Most cattle breeds cannot be dated accurately before the 1700’s, therefore it is difficult to determine the exact breed origins. However, during the 15th century, the voyages of Columbus and other Spanish explorers traveled across the Atlantic and transported cattle as a part of the “Columbian Exchange”. During that century, exploration to the new world was motivated by discovery of new shipping channels and a northwest passage to the orient, along with the desire for wealth from new territories. History indicates that during these voyages Columbus delivered black long horned cattle to parts of the Caribbean and possibly Mexico. At that time, cattle were not indigenous to North America and did not arrive until these exploration voyages. These animals, collected from Spain, included cattle from Andalusian and Asturias. These original cattle were probably the foundation stock for the longhorn breed that populated Mexico, Florida, and southwest Texas during the 15th and 16th centuries. In those early days, the human population was scattered throughout this large land mass which offered limited localized settlements. This allowed cattle to become free range grazers and roam for nearly a century.
During this time, farming was not organized and cattle roamed free. There was no selective cattle breeding and genetic improvements in North America. However, the European breeding programs were advancing, developing specific breeds with larger frames and muscle mass. General agricultural growth in cattle husbandry and grassland improvement were progressing rapidly, giving central Europe a boost in cattle performance. It was soon realized that adequate body growth was dependent on a constant supply of dry forage and grass since these were the primary nutrient sources for ruminant herbivorous. Great Britain was becoming famous for its growth and development of cattle breeds, largely due to individual farmers making an effort to select desirable characteristics. These breed traits were based on physical selection well before the science of genetics was considered or understood.
Great Britain along with central Europe was changing, growing with education and new science. During the 17th century, European politics began to change along with the human desire for immigration and expansion to the new world. There were many reasons driving immigration. It was the age of discovery and exploration with the idea of religious freedom. Following the protestant reformation, oppressed segments of European reformers were seeking a new life in a new world. In the early 1600’s, voyages by English pilgrims established settlements along the northeastern coast of America. It was during these voyages that settlers began transporting English cattle to the new world. Crossing the Atlantic and beginning a new life in a new land was a struggle for humans and animals. Early growth of new world cattle was slow and limited due to diverse breed types and low numbers. Life was hard and most farmers were dependent on cattle for farming, rarely slaughtering them to eat. The sophistication of cattle breeding had not been considered by the early American farmers in the 17th century. America’s infrastructure had to be built and early settlers were still dependent on the English home land. England was more progressive. Herdsmen of that day continued to adhere closely to trait selection
in their cattle, while developing and maintaining specific selected traits for several repeating generations. The strong European breeding programs instituted during the 1700’s were instrumental in the development of the red-white faced Hereford and Black Angus beef cattle. It was because of these early breeding techniques that the American beef industry grew and benefitted from the development of European beef cattle. As the years progressed, beef slowly became a part of the American diet, beginning during the revolutionary war and growing in demand during the civil war. During the 19th century, cattle numbers were accumulating. Large herds could be found in the western territories, a result of cattle growth from the earlier influence of Spanish herds. The American demand for western beef was increasing, helping the early beef industry to take shape. As the beef demand grew, transportation was required for shipment to the mid-western packing plants. Early understanding and appreciation of the inhumane experience cattle endured while traveling along the railroad from Texas to Illinois was neglected for years. Cattle crowded into boxcars without water or room to move was a way of life and did not change until after WWll. It was during this time that the trucking industry began to dominate cattle shipment. Even though there had been governmental food quality concerns implemented since colonial days, these were only minimal standards without regulations or oversight. There were no meat inspectors available during those early years. The United States Department of Agriculture had been created in 1862, during the Abraham Lincoln administration but this early congressional act offered only causal industry oversight. It was during the Theodore Roosevelt administration that a young newspaper reporter named Upton Sinclair traveled to Chicago to write a series of articles about the local meat packing process. These articles exposed the unhealthy conditions involved in America’s food preparation.
His investigation was documented in a book titled “The Jungle”. This book revealed unsanitary conditions in which food, especially beef, was prepared for human consumption. These serious issues were addressed by the Theodore Roosevelt administration, which resulted in the creation of the 1906 Congressional Pure Food and Drug Act.
The author wishes to thank the following educational sources for their literary contribution; “Veterinary Medicine, An Illustrated History” Dunlop and Williams, 1996; “ Development of the Beef Industry” Wilson, Macdonald and etal 1965; “A glimpse into beef cattle industry, Madeline McCurry-Schmidt, November 2011; “How it Works: The U.S Beef Industry; Justin Rhinehart; 2015; “The Jungle” Upton Sinclair;