Are Oxen Cows?

As the Year of the Ox sets in, you might have steak or otherwise bovine burger in front of you and wondering if the ox is the same thing as a cow. If you weren’t doing that, you might be wondering now. Sounds like it’s one of those rectangles and squares comparisons. But is that the case? Are oxen cows? Also what’s up with cattle anyway?

The Cattle Category

Turns out there are some rectangle-and-square comparison shenanigans going on here, but not in between oxen and cows. The cattle banner covers both oxen and cows–so every ox is cattle, but not all cattle are oxen. Alternatively you can call them bovines, so we can put all the oxen and cows into the bovine box. 

If you’re wondering how many cattle are around today, it actually has been higher before. Which might seem a little unintuitive considering how much we humans just consume everything in excess. Not that there aren’t an excessive amount of cattle, we’re still hitting almost 990 million cattle on the low end of estimates. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has some bigger numbers though, with 1.5 billion cattle worldwide

Having a bunch of cattle around probably isn’t too surprising considering we domesticated them over 10,000 years ago. Plus, we use cattle for a lot. From meat, milk, hide, riding/draft for working fields, fuel from their dung, and some people even keep them as pets. That’s not even to mention the religious significance cattle have; many would probably point to Hinduism or Buddhism if you asked them what religions had relationships with cattle. 

Domesticating Cattle

Turns out, we’ve largely mapped the genome for cattle. Maybe because we work with them all the time. It also probably helps that all cattle can actually be traced back to their progenitors. All domesticated cattle are descended from as few as just 80.  Which is like a single herd. Anyway, it’s something to think about. 

If you’re curious, our cattle progenitors were the aurochs, the first of which were domesticated during the Neolithic Revolution. We got the zebu cattle and the taurine cattle from these early domestication efforts; zebu cattle are the Indian subspecies while the taurine variant is from Eurasia. Aurochs are extinct now, they were gone from Greece by 5th Century BC. Evidence suggests they were still kicking in Bulgaria up to the 17th Century. 

So the Ox and Cow

Oxen and cows are not the same thing, and you might reflexively go “oh well one’s male and one’s female.” Which is half right. Cows are female cattle and used for milk. Outside of the context of cattle, we apply the term “cow” to other mammals as well, like moose, elephants, sea lions, and whales (cow moose, etc.). Bulls are male cattle, and we apply it as a prefix to other large mammals in the same way we do for cows. 

Intact bulls are non-castrated, and bulls are castrated when people want better control of them. This is important when we talk about oxen.

Oxen are any cattle trained as draft animals, that is any cattle as a working animal. Most commonly, castrated bulls are used for this purpose. But intact bulls and cows can be used too, depending on where you are. So there you go, cows are female cattle, but oxen are not male cattle. They normally are, but an ox is just any cattle that’s being used for work. 

We’ve thought a lot about cows, so think about anything but here.