March27, 1998.  



InWhitehall it never rains but it snows. Paper. Last Friday alone two truckloadsof documents arrived for scrutiny by Lord Justice Phillips' inquiry into BSE.As someone whose life over the past 18 months has more or less consisted ofcampaigning for this inquiry, I have a weather front of my own. It is not a badplace to start. It is a case history of the first BSE patients: cattle.


Theearliest records of domestication date back to 7000BC, and come from Asia andthe eastern Mediterranean. Cattle noticed tasty crops growing and wandered nearto settlements to munch. The animals were then tamed by penning, hobbling andcastration. Domestication was certainly complete by 2100BC, when cattle were asymbol of wealth. In her elegant book Food in History, Reay Tannahill notes aSumerian scribe recording: "The oxen of the gods ploughed the city governor'sonion patches. . ."


Cattle-breedingin Britain was brought in by the Romans, whose army favoured beef. Cattle soonbecame the dominant form of wealth. The Latin word for money, "pecunia",is from "pecus", meaning cattle, which also refers to horses and sheep.The word "cattle" derives from the middle English "catel",in turn from late Latin "capitale". "Beef" evolved from theAngloNorman "boef" or "buef', this from the Latin"bovem". "Cow" is the oldest term of the lot, from the prehistoricIndo-European word "gwous". The scientific name is bos primigenius.


Tosay cattle are ruminants refers to the rumen, the first part of the animal's four-chamberstomach, a sort of fermentation vessel that allows cattle to digest grass. Torefer to cattle as ungulates is a grand way of saying they have hooves. Whileall cattle still have hooves, the same cannot be said of horns. Modern stockbreak down into two basic camps: shorthorns and longhorns.

Thewild cows that roamed Europe, the aurochs, were longhorns. The last auroch reportedlydied in Poland in 1627. The vast majority of modern cattle are shorthorns,courtesy of breeding programmes and the practice of pollarding (hence the term"poll" cattle). A 1994 handbook, Farm Livestock, lists dehorningunder the heading "Some routine jobs". It advises: "Cattle arebetter

withouttheir horns, to avoid damage to people and other animals. This can be done byusing a hot iron (first injecting an  anaesthetic)."


Themodern dairy cow, without horns, will weigh between 380kg and 560kg, with Jerseyslighter and Friesians heavier. It will have taken 15 to 18 months to reachsexual maturity, when it will come on heat for one day out of every 20. It willbe fertilised by artificial insemination and its pregnancy will last 91/2months. Farm Livestock recommends: "Let the cow lick the calf if they are

tostay together. If it is to be taken away, do not let the cow see the calf at all."


Afterspring and autumn calving, a common country sound is cows baying in anguish fortheir calves.


Thefirst four or five days' milk is an extra-rich substance called colostrum, whichserves to activate the calf's intestinal tract, but which is unfit for humanconsumption. After this the cow will produce milk for about 10 months. Milkedtwice a day, morning and evening, its lactation will peak at two months anddwindle gradually until it is dried off and rested for reinsemination. The moderndairy cow will live for six years, produce four calves and four lactations,during which it will give, depending on the breed, from 4,200 to 6,000 litresof milk per year.


Nextweek: the science of milking


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