April 3, 2017

Bison versus Cattle: Neither are Better or Worse than the Other

A somewhat ignorant comment left by an equally ignorant and misinformed commentator on the same link as my previous post: 
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...

Let me tear this apart piece by piece and discuss why this person is wrong about most of her assertions.
BISON... (Bison bison bison AND Bison bison athabascae) are NOTHING like cows. 
Quite wrong. They are very similar to cattle. Both species:

  • Are large, mammalian, ruminant animals, capable of emitting plenty of methane (more on this later);
  • Have a diet that is comprised of at least 95 to 99% grass;
  • Are cloven-hooved, providing the same amount and type of hoof impact on grasslands and pastures;
  • Are prey animals, yet have an affinity to fight and gore when cornered by a threat; 
  • Often have a single calf at birth and have the same gestation period;
  • Are just as prone to parasites, disease, and predation
  • Can interbreed to give relatively fertile offspring (indicating that there is a very close genetic relation to both species, despite the difference in genuses; a large portion of bison do have some Bos genes in them from past interbreedings in the early 1900s)
  • Are primarily managed and raised by people for meat. There are more bison raised on ranches and farms today than there are out in the wild, as in national parks, forest reserves, protected areas, etc.
  • Will avoid eating plants that taste awful or are bad for them. Bison tend to avoid eating far more forbs than cattle do, leading to a greater likelihood for weeds to infest a bison pasture with poor management practices (i.e., allowing overgrazing to occur) than cattle are. 
Bison do have their differences from cattle, though.
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.

Bison still are seriously affected by climatic factors in their biome. The mortality of calves is determined by climatic factors like harsh winters and available of feed. If there is not enough grass available for their mothers to eat, then the calves suffer as well.

If bison were as adapted to the landscape as this person is claiming, then the bison herd in Grasslands National Park would have grown as large as the bureaucrats in Ottawa had predicted. But the herd never did grow as big as they thought because of the climate, pathogens, parasites, predation, and shortage of feed in the harsh winters.

So bison are not as heroic and strong what was being portrayed here, even though yes, they have been able to exist thanks to natural selection occurring over many, many thousands of years. They can get as weak as cattle as this person has laid claim in her arguments.

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 species name of all cattle is Bos primigenius, with subspecies Bos primigenius taurus and Bos primigenius indicus.

It is correct that cattle were derived from the ancient Auroch. But that they are an "artificial species" is merely speculative and not particularly steeped in much truth. There were a lot of half-wild or feral cattle in Europe and Asia, and plenty still as wild as the old extinct Aurochs. Many of these cattle adapted to their environment through natural selection very, very much like the bison have in North America. Breeds like Galloway and Scottish Highland cattle have come about thanks to natural selection to resist climatic extremes (including harsh winters), parasites, pathogens, etc., making them some of the oldest cattle breeds known to mankind.

What is being plainly ignored here is how many breeds actually started out as being dual-purpose or multi-purpose breeds, used for milk, meat, and draught. Many breeds have existed because of this for hundreds of years, and it's only been in the last 60 years or so, if I'm correct, that these breeds and "modern cattle" have truly diverged into two distinct types being beef only or dairy only. But for the last 10,000 years before now, pretty well all breeds in existence, from then until after basically World War II, were used for more than one purpose.

I'm glad this person acknowledges that cattle can adapt to their surroundings relatively well, but I do believe she completely misses the point in that any and all species are going to suffer a significant mortality rate in the fight for survival of the fittest when forced to adapt to a climate that they haven't been adapted to in the past.

Comparatively, cattle may be the fastest-adapting species if they are forced to become more resilient to parasites and pathogens, and rely much, much more heavily on local forage sources than imported grain from elsewhere in the country, in an environment that they historically have been adapted to in the first place. It may take just a few generations, but that's nothing compared to the many more generations it would take a different species that is adapted to a completely different climate to adapt to one it is not naturally used to. Like polar bears living in the subtropical forests and savannahs, or zebras to the North American boreal forest.

Cattle have a great advantage over bison in that their species is adapted to and is able to thrive, not just survive, on every single continent except Antarctica. Humans have had a bit of help in this, and so has Nature.

This is where this person also misses the point: 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 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.

Beef cattle especially can be allowed to adapt very well to their particular area. But dairy cattle are an entirely different story. They aren't allowed to adapt to that area. They are the ones that are bred to produce far more milk than what is "natural," and fed forages that is grown and harvested for them.

So it's the dairy cattle that are the "artificial" breeds that will have the most trouble adapting to a harsh environment. They will see much 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.
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).
Again, bison aren't much different from cattle in that a large part of their diet is grass. But yes, let's compare bison with cattle, because there are some key missing pieces in this particular section.

Arguably, bison select for much more grass and sedges than forbs. Cattle can (and have) actually get away with eating much more forbs than bison do and will, and will readily eat a lot of forbs that are leguminous or just plain taste good along with grass.

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 thistle. 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.

There was a study done (How Bison Grazing Habits Affect Plant Composition) where researchers compared the effects of bison versus cattle on pasture composition 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.

Cattle are more adept at grazing in smaller, fragmented areas of grassland because they are able to keep their grazing much more uniform in smaller patches, and utilize more plant species than just grasses. Bison, on the other hand, prefer much more open landscapes to roam around on and have greater selectivity from, especially since their diet, unlike with domestic cattle, is 99 percent grass, not 95 percent grass.

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."

It is very true that bison can utilize coarser plant material than cattle. But it's very wrong to think that that means "poorer pasture." Poor pasture is pasture that is overrun with weeds and many undesirable species due in large part to poor management. Poor pasture is also pasture with thin forage stands, making for less forage available for any grazing animal.

So one must 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 dozen dimes to a 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! 
As I said, dimes to donuts bison wouldn't want to eat ragwort either. They are largely grass-eaters and would happily avoid this horrid-tasting, alkaloid-poisoning weed than prove this person "right" at how much "better" bison are than cattle.

In my last blog post I talked already a bit about ragwort and the reasons why it's gotten away as a noxious weed in New Zealand. The reasons are largely because of overgrazing, since this weed does like to proliferate itself on pastures. Pigs, cattle, and horses won't touch it, but sheep and goats will to an extent.

And you can't make a sheep out of a cow. Sheep have their own differences in adaptations to be able to eat even more forbs than cattle do; same with goats, which is why they're great weed-eaters than other animals.

This is why humans didn't domesticate just one species of animal. Humans have domesticated several species over the past several thousands of years, and it's not just because of the ability to get different meats, milk, and eggs. No, in part it has to do with different jobs each species can do to benefit both the people and the animals themselves.

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.
 I don't know where this came in, but it must be a part of her rant that she wanted to throw in.

While this is partly true, birthing problems also occur because of severe changes in the weather, hormone imbalance due to changes in nutrient uptake, or other stressful things causing the calf to present in weird positions in the birth canal. Cows can also be much too thin and have birthing problems. And the bull can be a large part of the blame too.

Now I don't know if that's the case in New Zealand where this person hails from, but in North America beef cattle are actually selected to be good mothers and to be able to calve without or with very little assistance. It's pretty 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.

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!
There are about 1 billion cattle in the world, actually, so yes those cows can be counted.

While this last bit sounds like her brain kinda went into shut-down-post-blather-mode, I can tell that she, again, doesn't know quite what she's talking about. (Actually in part I can barely make out what she's trying to say here too.)

But let's look at cattle population by country (via Beef2Live). The country with the most number of cows in the world, is India, with 30.39% of the world's bovine population (at over 303 million head). The United States has only 9.57% of the world's population at around 93.5 million head. And Canada, my favourite country, sits at 12.1 million cattle, which has just 1.2% of the world's bovine population.

That is very, very telling. And in India, a large number of cattle are allowed to roam freely on the streets in cities and in the countryside, emitting all the methane and eating whatever seemingly good-eating garbage or small blades of grass they can find. There still is quite a number of cattle raised for milk too, and many are also exported out of the country to be killed for beef.

But here's where I get to show you the real ignorance of this person. Cattle are made as scapegoats (or "scapecows") because of their methane output when in fact they are not the only species that produces 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. So it's really not fair to point to cows as the blame for methane output.

Besides, 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. So while this Kiwi gal was partly right, she was still a bit wrong too.

So are bison better than cattle? No. Bison are no better nor no worse than cattle are. Both species have their advantages and disadvantages, and both are better at some things and worse at others.

A better blog post to read about that compares bison with cattle can be found below, along with a few more sources I thought I'd add to give some perspective on the bison versus cattle debate.

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.)
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