The impact of cattle farming

With over a billion cows populating our planet and thousands of years of bovine breeding, how is the world changing?

(Image source: Pixabay)

Cows have been providing products for us for millennia, and are more useful to us than any other farm animal. We encounter cow products every day, whether that’s eating a beef burger, putting milk in our tea or wearing a leather jacket.

Widespread across the globe, cow species have been bred in vast numbers, with unique characteristics to suit their environment and cater for the world’s population. Their incredible versatility makes them a staple of our diet, contributing to around 24 per cent of all meat consumption.

Approaches to cow farming differ greatly depending on location, as well as the conditions cows face. As the world’s biggest dairy producer and consumer, India is home to millions of sacred cows. They roam the streets in the subtropical heat and provide products to the people. Meanwhile, winters are so long and hard on one Russian dairy farm that the farmer provides cattle with a taste of the ultimate paradise: cows on this farm wear virtual reality headsets that project scenes of lush pastures and balmy sunshine. The Moscow farm adopted this approach after research showed a link between a cow’s emotional experience and the quality of its milk production.

Animal agriculture has come a long way – especially for cattle. The abundance of bovines we see in our fields today are the result of thousands of years of breeding. Originally stemming from a group of as little as 80 animals, this drastic increase in population has inevitably impacted the environment over time. But is this for the better or worse?

The environmental consequences of cattle farming range from the detrimental effects on the ozone layer that a billion cows passing digestive gases has to the change in landscape and removal of trees in the creation of farm-friendly areas. Cattle farming generates income for millions of farmers, though many aim to achieve more sustainable farming. A useful by-product of cattle, manure can be used as fertiliser, soil amendment and even for construction. High in nutrients and energy, it is valued as a renewable source on many farms. 

In more recent times, the industry has been put under more scrutiny than ever before as people question the impact of dairy farming and its significant contribution of greenhouse gases. As the world’s population continues to increase, food production also rises. Environmentalists continue to analyse the impact of our food sources – and animal agriculture is in the spotlight.

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 134, written by Ailsa Harvey 

For more science and technology articles, pick up the latest copy of How It Works from all good retailers or from our website now. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device. To make sure you never miss an issue of How It Works magazine, subscribe today!