You can grind it into patties and create a meal. You can grill it, BBQ it, bake and stew it. Beef has long been not only a meal staple but a food staple for families from generation to generation. We know that beef is a product that comes from cows, but have you ever wondered how we discovered it could be eaten? Where did the cow originally come from? How did it become a meal favorite?
Beef is the third most consumed meat in the entire world, with the United States, Brazil, and China the largest consumers. A vast majority of Americans can only say their beef comes from a farm to their grocery store.
Let’s take an in-depth and fascinating look at the origin of beef, where it came from and how it became one of America’s favorite to plate.
We’ve been eating bovines, or beef, since prehistoric times. The earliest cave paintings made by man depict cavemen hunting the aurochs, the primitive ancestor of today’s cows.
The Aurochs or wild ox of Europe were roughly six feet high at the shoulder and had spreading, forward-curving horns. All black, they were a species of wild cattle that inhabited Asia, Europe, and North Africa before going extinct in 1627 when the last recorded Aurochs died.
The wild ancestor of modern cattle, evidence points to the domestication of the aurochs in the Near East and the Indian subcontinent between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago. This gave rise to two major domestic types of cattle we can see today: The Taurine, lacking a hump, and the Zebu, which has a hump on its shoulders.
They existed through the Roman Empire, wildly popular as a beast to battle within Roman arenas. However, they were over hunted and by the 13th century, the wide-spread aurochs existed only in small numbers within Eastern Europe.
Aurochs in Britain became extinct during the Bronze Age of man; however, scientific study and research now point out that indigenous British and Irish cattle breeds have had substantial aurochs contributions with Kerry cattle having the most material like the ancient bovine.
While the ancient ancestor of bovines did go extinct, its DNA lives on in today’s domesticated cattle.
There’s no specific evidence to pinpoint exactly when beef became a delicacy, although it’s a good guess it happened shortly after the domestication of cattle.
American Beef: Origins
Raising cattle and consuming beef isn’t confined to the United States. Argentina, Great Britain, and India for example, have a rich history in the breeding and domestication of cattle. But we’re going to focus on how the cow became part of America’s choice cut of meat.
Spanish explorers were the most likely to have introduced the first Longhorn cattle to America, roughly back in 1534. When British colonists came to America, they brought Devon cattle, their source of leather, milk, labor, and meat around 1623.
Many breeds began to be imported into the United States as trade, travel, and as time wore on. French and English colonists brought many new breeds to the Jamestown colony, including Herefords, Aberdeen Angus, Shorthorns, Ayrshire, Charolais, and many cross breeds just to name a few. Some of them were brought to America because they were fantastic dairy producers, others for their meat.
Surprisingly, while beef was being consumed throughout history, it wasn’t a significant part of the American diet until after the Civil War. Up until then, cattle were more widely used for dairy, butter, hides, and drafting. Wild game previously was the main meat dish before beef. After the Civil War, cattle began moving further West and cattlemen discovered that many of the Spanish missions already had amassed large herds.
In the 1860s the mythic American cowboy rose to fame along with the booming beef industry. Texas ranchers began breeding their Longhorns with Hereford and Angus to produce beef that would answer the demand for it.
In the West where the cattle were bred, food crops were more difficult to cultivate but plenty of native grasses were available. These were perfect for grazing cattle where they were moved frequently in cattle drives to feedlot after feedlot to fatten up. They were transported by train to the mid-west, slaughtered, and shipped via refrigerator cars to the heavily populated east where most of the American population lived.
Industrial Age and Today
The Industrial Age changed many things in the United States, including the way cattle are now raised, slaughtered, and processed for consumption. During the early stages of the mechanized beef industry, feedlots were becoming densely packed with cows as America embraced a production line mindset for many aspects of life. As the feedlots became overcrowded, the need for heavy antibiotic usage spiked to keep cattle healthy. Advances in bioengineering created synthetically grown hormones as well as steroids that could be used to increase beef output as well as dairy.
Eventually, the means in which we raise and handle our meat industry has changed once again.
These days, there is an increase in food safety, processing and regulations in place to ensure both consumer demand, and less use of synthetic hormones and antibiotics in raising cows for beef. The U.S and Canada both abide by strict grain-fed programs, making products from both countries very similar in taste and production.
Currently, cattle today that make up our country’s beef supply come from within the U.S. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that 8-20 percent come from foreign sources like Canada or Mexico.
The demand for better treatment as well as grass-fed, eco-friendly and environmentally conscious farming has grown as we learn more and more about our relationships with the ecosystem.
Cattle in this era are experiencing more open pastures, better care, and less man-made control leading to what many have pointed out are healthier lives for both humans and cows.
Grass-fed, free grazing was how the ancient aurochs lived, in a time where cavemen were first painting the animals they hunted. It seems a fitting loop to find the cows today living exactly as their ancestors once did.