Don't get me wrong, I like bison near as much as the next person does. They're admirable creatures, symbolic of the Old West, and rulers of the North American grasslands. They're such large yet graceful and fast, and yes, wild animals. But unfortunately they get a bit too romanticized and held, in my personal opinion, at too high a standard so much that some misinformation gets delved out there that is, shall we say, questionable.
A while ago I had a bit of a run-in with one individual who was adamant that bison were the next best thing, so good in fact that nothing could compare, even cattle. I have to say that bison aren't perfect, as incredible and different as they are from cattle in terms of behaviour and what they eat, and there are areas in today's world were cattle actually do a better job than bison can.
So this is a somewhat ignorant comment (quite a bit, to be honest, is on point, but not all) left by a somewhat misinformed, but well-meaning commentator on the same link as my previous post (or, you can just see it here: TreeHugger.com's In Defence of the Cow: How Eating Meat Could Help Slow Climate Change:
Some things that should be obvious but, to my utter amazement apparently are not, to the author and those commenting.... BISON... (Bison bison bison AND Bison bison athabascae) are NOTHING like cows. These are WILD herds that evolved over millions of years of natural selection, weeding out the weaker scions and leaving only individuals with strong genetic adaptation to the pathogens, parasites, prevailing climatic factors and predators of their ecosystem. CATTLE (Bos taurus), on the other hand, are a wholly artificial species, bred from the giant auroch (Bos primigenus) during the Neolithic (or Anatolian) Revolution that developed the beginnings of agriculture. As most artificial (or "domestic") breeds, modern cattle was bred for its commercial aspects... either milk production, for dairy cattle, or meat. They are often prone to parasitic infestations, pathogens, (fungal, viral and bacterial) and would probably adapt, if left to survive in the wild, but millions of them would die in the process, leaving only the few scions that overcame all infections, infestations, freezing winters and stifling, arid summers, until their resilience had been tested and they had successfully bred over a few generations. So, to compare Bison (which, incidentally is much more efficient in its ability to extract nutrients even from relatively poor pasture, unlike Bos taurus, that needs good, clean, rich pasture). FFS Bos taurus can't even tolerate RAGWORT, one of the most common weeds here in the UK... where the cattle has been around for thousands of years, but still does not know better than to avoid the bloody plants! Cows have birthing problems, because so many have been bred out of proportions, too fat, or pelvis too small, because the pressure on their selection has been meat or milk, not good calf-bearing. As to the environmental impacts... The issue is the NUMBERS of cows. This may come as a shock to you all, but actually America is NOT the world and the WORLD has a lot more cows than you can count! 😂 And each one of them generates so mush Methane you could rename them CH4OWS! Here is some info for those interested...
I'd like to take the time to tear apart this comment piece by piece to discuss why and how this person is wrong in most of their assertions.
BISON... (Bison bison bison AND Bison bison athabascae) are NOTHING like cows.
This is more of a half-truth than anything. There's quite a few similarities that bison share with cattle. Both species:
These are WILD herds that evolved over millions of years of natural selection, weeding out the weaker scions and leaving only individuals with strong genetic adaptation to the pathogens, parasites, prevailing climatic factors and predators of their ecosystem.
Only partly right. While there still are wild herds existing in the United States, Canada, and parts of the European Union, there is still a huge majority that are raised commercially on farms and ranches. In Canada, 250,000 are raised this way, and in the US, 500,000 bison are also raised on ranches and reserves, all for the purpose of meat production.
Arguably too, a large number of bison have been interbred with cattle to create more docile animals, and this started in the early 1900s when some ranchers took on the opportunity to protect and ensure the remaining bison did not go extinct. I don't think the interbreeding was done on purpose, though today it's really hard to tell.
Beefalo is also a breed of this successful interbreeding with bison and cattle.
There are still bison that are prone to effects of pathogens and parasites. Tuberculosis, BSE, Anthrax, Brucellosis, and other diseases have plagued bison herds in the recent past. Parasites will affect bison just as readily as they will cattle. It's not uncommon to see face flies or other insects bothering bison in the summer. Just like with cattle, disease and parasitic resistance differs greatly between individuals, as you can get individuals that are more disease- and parasite-resistant than others.
Bison are also still seriously affected by climatic factors in their biome. Calf mortality is determined by harsh winters and available feed. If there is not enough grass available for their mothers to eat, then the calves suffer as well because their mothers are unable to produce enough milk for their calves, and the calves themselves cannot get sufficient forage to eat. Deep snow or freeze-thaw cycles that forms a hard crust over the snow surface making it more difficult for bison to nose their way into the snow to dig for the grass underneath can make life more difficult for them in the winter.
Bison can and will die, it's never a matter of if but when. While it's true that the sick, weak, old, or young are likely to die and be "weeded out" of the herd, sometimes its the strong and healthy that may not survive for whatever reason, be it a freak incident, predators got a lucky break, a fatal mistake made, whatever. We humans also play a role in the process of selection for survivability of the herd through hunting; and it's not always the young bulls that get the bullet, often it'll be a cow that will need to go down to fill someone's freezer, or a bull in his prime that has already sired quite a number of calves, but it's time for him to move on and let the younger bulls carry on. It certainly is true that through natural selection the strongest survive, but there's always going to be animals that will die, leaving the next generation to take the place of those that have had to go.
Indeed it has taken millions of years of evolution to get the bison to where they are now, but know that just because they're where their at now doesn't mean that process still isn't continuing onward into the future, hopefully into the next several million years. Nature has never made any species perfect so that they've gotten to the point to where no disease, parasite, predator or injury can kill them, that can and will never happen. Instead these animals have been made with the ecosystem function and role they play in mind, to be grass eaters and to feed those who prey upon them (including us humans).
CATTLE (Bos taurus), on the other hand, are a wholly artificial species, bred from the giant auroch (Bos primigenus) during the Neolithic (or Anatolian) Revolution that developed the beginnings of agriculture. As most artificial (or "domestic") breeds, modern cattle was bred for its commercial aspects... either milk production, for dairy cattle, or meat. They are often prone to parasitic infestations, pathogens, (fungal, viral and bacterial) and would probably adapt, if left to survive in the wild, but millions of them would die in the process, leaving only the few scions that overcame all infections, infestations, freezing winters and stifling, arid summers, until their resilience had been tested and they had successfully bred over a few generations.
First correction: The updated and proper species name of all cattle is Bos primigenius, with subspecies Bos primigenius taurus (European-type cattle) and Bos primigenius indicus (Indo-Asia/Africaaner Zebu-type cattle).
Second correction: Cattle are definitely not a "wholly artificial" species. Allow me to explain.
While it is correct that the ancestral roots of today's cattle can be traced back to the ancient Aurochs, many cattle had actually started out as cattle, along with their old auroch ancestor, long before the Neolithic Revolution (or 10,000 years ago). Many breeds started out well before they were even recognized as breeds; They were merely indigenous bovines of the homeland from where their later-identified "breed" has been identified to have come from.
For example, Piedmontese (long before they were selected to have double muscling, which began in the late 19th century) are derived from the 25,000 year old evolution and integration of the Pakistani Zebu cattle, which made their migration north and west into the boxed-in mountain valleys of Piedmont, with indigenous cattle of that area which had resided there for many years before. Galloway and the Scottish Highland had been living and evolving in their areas of northern Scotland even before the Neolithic period.
There are still a lot of half-wild or feral cattle in Europe and Asia, and plenty still as wild as the old extinct Aurochs, such as the wild Chillingham cattle, and the Nazi-experiment to bring back the old aurochs, Heck cattle. Many of these cattle have long since adapted to their environment through natural selection very, very much like the bison have here in North America. As a matter of fact, many of the breeds that are deemed as quite old may have been living alongside their old Aurochs ancestors, before these truly wild bovids were hunted to extinction.
The old breeds like Hereford, Galloway, Tarentaise, Marchigiana, Piedmontese, and Scottish Highland cattle have survived for this long thanks in part to natural selection to resist climatic extremes (including harsh, cold winters and hot summers), parasites, pathogens, as well as being very adaptable to rugged terrain, and foraging without requiring extra grains, among other things, has made them some of the healthiest, toughest and most rugged cattle breeds known to mankind, not to mention Nature.
These cattle are in no way "artificial"; of course they've been domesticated over time, but for many breeds even still today, the traits that many of these cattle have exhibited for thousands of years, before the advent of agriculture, have remained favourable and desirable to those people who care for them, to the point that it is quite ignorant to call all cattle in general "artificial."
The only time the term "artificial" may apply is if the commentator has only known cows as those infamous black-and-white bovine milking machines called Holsteins...
Many breeds started out as multi-purpose animals; for milk, meat, and draft power. Some breeds had more selection towards draft and meat, others more meat and milk. It's only been in the last 100 years that certain breeds have well and truly diverged into two distinct types of cattle. The popularity of few breeds over the years for their specialized purpose of either milk (primarily dominated by Holstein/Friesians, followed by Jerseys and Brown Swiss), or beef (Angus is hugely popular in North America, and popularity for few Continental breeds to meet the feedlot market demand has also expanded their popularity, such as Simmental, Charolais, Limousin, Gelbvieh and Maine-Anjou) has certainly skyrocketed. Breeds that were once very popular for draft work, such as the Chianina, old Shorthorn, old Herefords, and others, have given away to more selection for meat since their jobs as oxen was replaced by motorized, fossil-fuel consuming vehicles. Even today, though, many breeds still are raised for dual-purpose and to be tough and adaptable to the area they must live in; they may not be able to compete in the dairy-only or beef-only classes, but they can excel at being a part of a system where they're expected to be more than just milk producers or to be fattened for the meat market.
The resiliency of cattle can be thanked in part to the human aspect that recognizes the natural ability of cows being able to raise and look after their calves with no help, and forage without needing extra TLC in the form of grain. Cattle that are quite new to an area that is particularly rough may take a few generations to become adapted to. This isn't anything new to ranchers or farmers.
Ranchers and cattlemen of many generations understand that in order to have good cattle for their area, they must either put a lot of money into making those cattle work for them (whilst remaining forever at risk running themselves bankrupt or so burned out that they decide to quit cattle and go into crops instead), or significantly reduce costs by allowing Nature to help them select the best cattle that is better adapted to the environment and ecosystem they are to live in. There's the phrase cattlemen use: "Let the cows weed/cull themselves out." In other words, raise those cows primarily on grass adapted for the area, and let the cows that do poorly in that environment on that grass show themselves so that they can be removed from the herd.
I speak primarily of beef cattle, as well as most dual/multi-purpose cattle, who are basically allowed to become well adapted to their particular area, to develop pathogen and parasite resistance through some form of natural selection, and to be raised in a way that doesn't require much in the way of additional TLC. But when we start looking at commercially raised dairy cows, like the Holstein, which spend most of their lives inside a barn, they aren't given the capacity for their breed to become as hardy, tough, and adapted to their area which may have rugged terrain or tough winters. They are the ones that are bred to produce far more milk than what is "natural," and fed forages that are grown and harvested for them.
I strongly suspect that the commenter here is confused about all cattle in general and thinking that *all* cattle refer to these Holstein dairy cows that would indeed have the most trouble adapting to a harsh environment, and supposedly have all these troubles with these pathogens and parasites and such. No doubt this one particular breed, the most popular [dairy] cattle breed in the world, would certainly have more death loss of their own breed over several more generations than what you'd expect for tough beef breeds like Galloway, Hereford, Angus, Scottish Highland, or Devon.
But Holsteins aren't all breeds of cattle, and they don't describe the incredible capability of survival that many other breeds may have if left to their own devices. That's not to say that there are beef cattle that fall into this harsh level of expectation, however the fact is that there tends to be more variability within individuals than within breeds; just like with the bison (or any other animal), some animals are going to be more prone to be weakened by diseases and pathogens than others.
So, to compare Bison (which, incidentally is much more efficient in its ability to extract nutrients even from relatively poor pasture, unlike Bos taurus, that needs good, clean, rich pasture).
As far as being ruminant grazing herbivores, bison really aren't much different from cattle in that a large part of their diet is grass. The commentor has it only partly right that bison make use of more roughage than cattle can, but again this is only partly right. There are some key missing components here that I think would make you think twice about regarding bison as in every way "better" than cattle...
Studies (such as THIS one from the University of Arizona) show that bison tend to select for much more grass and sedges than forbs (or your broad-leaved plants), making forbs less than 2% (some earlier studies cite less than 10% such as THIS one) of their diet. Cattle are considered quite a bit less selective in their grazing habits, in that they will readily eat more forbs and shrubs that bison would sooner leave behind. This more than likely harkens back to the age-old woodland/savannah habitat where cattle originally came from, with a much higher forb component than grass, unlike the prairie grasslands bison have evolved on for thousands of years.
Cattle can do very well on pasture that has a large volume of legumes (60% or higher) and have even been trained successfully to eat broad-leaf weeds like Canada thistle, and leafy spurge. Cattle will also strip leaves off of deciduous trees and shrubs even when there's plenty of pasture to graze on. You don't see bison doing much of that; very, very rarely would you catch a bison stripping leaves off a willow tree compared with a cow!
There was a study done (From the February 2000 edition of the Tallgrass Gazette: How Bison Grazing Habits Affect Plant Composition) where researchers compared the effects of bison versus cattle on plant species composition (basically grasses vs. forbs) after several seasons of grazing. The results were surprising: The bison pasture revealed a lot more forb biomass because bison were purposefully selecting for grasses and overgrazing the pasture in search for those grasses, ignoring those forbs. But in the cattle pasture, the plant composition was still largely grass with few forb species because cattle were consuming both grasses and forbs. While there was greater species richness in the bison pasture, most of these species were actually annual forbs (the weeds), compared with perennial plants that were still grasses, such as the native big bluestem.
From this, is it really true that cattle require "cleaner" pastures and grazing spaces, than bison? From the studies done and shown here, the obvious answer to that is No. "Good, clean, rich" pastures aren't enough for cattle; they will do more than just fine on pastures that have a much wider diversity of plant species--much more than just grass and sedges--to meet their nutrient needs. In other words, if a pasture has a whole host of forbs that cattle can be quickly trained to eat (like dandelion, thistle, lamb's quarters, chickweed, hawkweed, willow herb, pigweed, kochia, and many others), and are in fact quite edible and palatable to these animals (not to mention highly nutritious), this is in fact far better for cattle than for bison. It appears that it's the bison that need the cleaner pastures that are full of grasses and much less forbs to get any nutritional value from.
In addition to all this, cattle are also more suited for grazing in smaller, fragmented areas of grassland because they are able to keep their grazing much more uniform in smaller patches, and utilize a more diverse plant species palate. They also don't have the sudden urge to travel for miles. Their domestication also allows them easier handling and moving (generally speaking, human training to stockmanship practices helps a great bunch too), particularly when they're raised and grazed in a system that requires daily or hourly moves from one paddock to another. Bison, on the other hand, prefer much more open landscapes to roam around on, move when the get the urge to, and have greater selectivity from.
Here is another similar study that looked at grazing habits of cattle versus bison. Part of the abstract reads, "Cattle include more forbs in their diet, and they use wooded areas and riparian zones more intensively. At similar annual stocking rates, the amount of grass remaining at the start of the dormant season is higher under year-long bison grazing compared to growing season cattle grazing. There are inherent differences between bison and cattle, suggesting that they be managed differently. Under our respective management regimes, bison are less productive than cattle, but they require less processed feed and labor inputs."
At this point it's worth acknowledging that it is very true that bison can utilize coarser plant material than cattle. But it's also very wrong to think that that means "poorer pasture." Understanding the meaning of words and phrases is important here. I mentioned above that cattle are adept at being trained to eat weeds and thrive on a more diverse palate than bison.
But regarding something called "poor pasture" one needs to really tread carefully, and unfortunately the commenter was swinging her "facts" around like a reckless, pissed-off bull in the middle of a china shop. Poor pasture is one that is full of unpalatable, undesirable plant species, is quite compacted, is made up of a thin plant stand that has little forage value if not very little for animals to even eat (and this doesn't matter if this is regarding sheep or bison), and prone to erosion and drought conditions. Poor pasture is created by poor management, not by the type of animals on that pasture. It doesn't matter whether you have sheep or pigs or bison or llamas or horses, how the human element manages that pasture determines whether it's going to be a good pasture, or a poor one.
Let this be a lesson to you: NEVER confuse "poor pasture" with coarser, harder to digest plants like sedges or "hard" grasses.
This is why I don't like it when someone scoffs at management practices as nothing more than "PR campaigns" and uses the whole "reason" that cattle are poorer-doing on native pastures because they can't eat ragwort.
I'll bet you a million bucks to a chocolate-glazed donut that bison wouldn't dare touch ragwort either!!
FFS Bos taurus can't even tolerate RAGWORT, one of the most common weeds here in the UK... where the cattle has been around for thousands of years, but still does not know better than to avoid the bloody plants!
Sorry, but as was already mentioned above, there's a very high and likely chance that bison wouldn't eat ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris syn. Senecio jacobaea) either. Again, bison are 90 to 98% grass-eaters and would also happily avoid this horrid-tasting, alkaloid-poisoning (compounds which are toxic to cattle, horses, pigs, and poultry) weed. The only other animals that have much less of a problem eating this weed are sheep, goats, and deer. Like bison, these animals are also quite selective, but unlike bison, prefer a far higher diet comprised of forbs and shrubs than either bison or cattle.
In my previous blog post (see Pasture Weed Management Solutions vs. Going Vegetarian) I talked a bit about ragwort and the reasons why it's gotten away as a noxious weed on pastures in New Zealand (and the United Kingdom). Mismanagement resulting in overgrazed pastures and lack of sufficient herbage cover is the primary reason why this weed has become so prolific on many pastures. This plant is opportunistic and will grow in areas where there is bare ground (or soil exposed) and little competition from other plants.
Cows have birthing problems, because so many have been bred out of proportions, too fat, or pelvis too small, because the pressure on their selection has been meat or milk, not good calf-bearing.
At this point it's safe to assume that she is trying to further justify her position of being strongly anti-cattle, with these last couple of points to put down for good measure. I'm just following along here, and obviously these last two aren't much related to where we started with being so very pro-bison... but they're worth debunking here too.
The problem with this comment is that it's only partly true, and that's only because she's being a bit too extreme in her viewpoints. Just like with her erroneous assumptions about how cattle came about from the old Aurochs, her views on dystocia assume only a certain sector that focuses on single-trait selection (either for milk or for meat) exists, and nothing else. This makes for a real one-sided, and rather biased point of view which doesn't tell the whole truth; only the part that she's created as her own version of reality.
I'm not denying that dystocia does happen with single-trait selection for more milk, versus more focus on maternal abilities and good body conformation. It certainly can happen with some beef breeds that have been selected for more growth and feed conversion abilities, not for maternal characteristics. However, birthing problems also occur due to severe changes in the weather, hormone imbalance due to changes in nutrient uptake, or other stressful factors that can cause the calf to present in weird positions in the birth canal. Cows don't have to be just too fat, they can also be much too thin and have problems giving birth. The bull can take a large part of the blame too.
Generally, though, at least in North America, beef cattle are actually selected to be good mothers and to be able to calve with minimal to no assistance. It's fairly easy to select for cows with good maternal capabilities because, as I mentioned above, the ones who just can't hold their own show up quite readily; and it's just a matter of selecting the right bull to put stronger maternal characteristics into the herd.
As to the environmental impacts... The issue is the NUMBERS of cows. This may come as a shock to you all, but actually America is NOT the world and the WORLD has a lot more cows than you can count! 😂 And each one of them generates so mush Methane you could rename them CH4OWS!
This particular section is particularly loaded, which will require an entirely different article. But I think I can summarize my points well enough here.
As far as environmental impacts are concerned, from what I can discern from her final concluding thoughts on being so anti-cattle, no the issue is definitely not with the number of cows. It's far more to do with how they are managed.
And yes, the number of cows can be actually be counted; I may not be able to count them, but there are others out there with nothing better to do but do it all for me, and henceforth make it so nice to find via Google. So, according to Beef2Live, there are just slightly over 1 billion head of cattle in the world (2018 statistics).
Of course America isn't the world, but just for shits and giggles, let's look at cattle population by country (via Beef2Live). The country with the most number of cows in the world, is India, with 30.44% of the world's bovine population (at over 305 million head). The United States has only 9.42% of the world's population at around 94.4 million head. And Canada, my favourite country, sits at 11.6 million cattle, which has just 1.16% of the world's bovine population.
But again, numbers are irrelevant. The WAY that cattle are raised creates the most problems in regards to environmental impacts. Methane output is just a tiny symptom, and a symptom that has largely been taken out of context in more ways than one.
Cattle are not the only species that produce a lot of methane. Bison are notorious for producing a lot of methane as well, as are sheep, goats, water buffalo, deer, caribou, and many others. It's really not fair to point to cows alone as the sole blame for methane output.
Besides, around pre-settlement, bison represented between 84 and 93% of all emissions from wild ruminant animals. Today, because the bison population is far smaller than that of domestic bovine (and deer today take a larger chunk of the pie for being the highest number of wild ruminants producing methane), their methane emissions don't amount to as much as they did pre-settlement. And it's because of that that cattle get pointed at for being the largest source of methane.
Not only that, but what most people don't seem to understand is that methane is just part of the carbon cycle. Methane was never a significant issue in the pre-settlement, pre-Industrial Revolution era from the billions of ruminants that were running amok all over the world (Africa, Eurasia, North America, South America), mainly because there was intact grasslands and other plant communities (forests, savannahs) that functioned readily to help oxidize much of the methane before it reached the upper atmospheric echelons. Methanotrophs and hydroxyls from intact soil microbial communities beneath the ground surface, and with photosynthesis by perennial vegetation these ruminants ate and trampled and stimulated to regrow, all work together to destabilize methane and reduce its potential to create the well-known heating effect it has in the atmosphere.
If you want to read more detail into the methane crux of bovines, I suggest you check out Ruminations: Methane Math and Context by Post-Vegan, and WilderCulture's Flatulence, Wildfires, and Bogs: The Madness of Measuring Methane.
Overall, from staying with me through all this mess, the question to ask is: Are bison really better than cattle? Yes, and no. Bison are no better nor no worse than cattle are. Bison have attributes that make them better at other situations and locations than cattle, and cattle have attributes that makes them more favourable in situations and areas that bison would produce disappointing results with.
Here are a few good sources and posts on the bison vs. cattle debate that will give some wider perspective, which you may find interesting.
Bison Good, Cattle Bad?? - The Prairie Ecologist (This is a very good article to read.)
Bison Versus Cattle: Are They Ecologically Synonymous?
Are cows just domestic bison? Behavioral and habitat use differences between cattle and bison - Western Watersheds Project (Note: I'm not in agreement with a large part of what this organization represents, however this particular article they wrote makes some interesting points. But do take this with a grain of salt, as this group is quite anti-cattle grazing.)
Range Nerd, Forage & Grazing Fanatic and a Bovine Enthusiast. A love for farming, and for the soil.
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