True Grit
The Cows and the Steers

Livestock 101: Houston Rodeo lessons for the city slicker

Livestock 101: Houston Rodeo lessons for the city slicker

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Walk around the livestock show and you will see lots of Brahman bulls. Photo by Heather Staible
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An auction drew a major international crowd of buyers. Photo by Heather Staible
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Livestock 101: From left, a bull, a calf and a cow.
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As a native Houston and lifelong Rodeo goer, I pick up a few helpful tidbits every year. Like, no matter how cute those new sandals are, do not, I repeat, do not, wear them to the livestock show. There’s a reason everybody wears boots.

Also, it’s amazing how just one bite into a bacon-topped hamburger all guilt disappears — despite the fact you just marveled at the size of a steer and oohed and aahed over the piglets. Oh, and cowboys dancing to Jay-Z never gets old. There’s just something about Wranglers and rap that is at the very least, highly amusing.

There are some livestock basics, however, that I was a bit confused about. Those boy cows, aren’t really cows and guess what? Those aren’t really udders either. With my proud-to-be-a Texan rep in jeopardy, I got a 4H 411 from Joel Cowley, Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Livestock director, who thankfully didn’t smirk once during our chat.

I’m pretty sure in the cattle hierarchy, you’d rather be a bull, especially since you get to keep your manhood. Technically, a bull is a male capable of reproducing and is prized for its genetics, which is spread among thousands of ranches literally around the world. As a matter of fact, all the animals at the Houston livestock show are the crème de la crème and ranchers come from Latin America and Europe to acquire an elite bull’s genetic material.

A steer, on the other hand, did lose the family jewels and will someday end up on a dinner plate accompanied by a sturdy cabernet. The castrated males are more docile and, without all those hormones, the meat is much more tender.

So then female bovines are cows, right? Well, kinda. What separates the heifers from the cows are calves. Heifers are less than three years old and haven’t had a baby, while cows come of age after giving birth. Just when I was feeling all sad for the steers and their lot in life, I had a surge of empathy for the cows sold at the livestock show. The prize-winning mamas are implanted with the stud bulls ... ah ...  gift of life, and through an embryo flush, can have up to 20 calves born through other cows, but with their DNA.

All that and no dinner? The bull definitely comes out on top of this setup.

The philosophy is the same for all the livestock animals really. In the pig department, a barrow is a young, castrated male pig and a boar is an uncastrated male pig. A sow is a mature female swine, a pig is a young swine, usually weighing less than 120 pounds and a gilt is a young female pig. Upon learning this latter bit of information about a young female pig, I will never look at Gilt Groupe the same way again.

A doe is indeed a female deer, but the term also applies to an adult female rabbit or goat. And while we are on goats, a kid is a young goat (makes sense) and a wether is a castrated male sheep or goat. A ewe is a female sheep, a ram is a male sheep and a lamb is a sheep that’s less than one-year-old.

I also had a couple of Oprah ah-ha moments in my livestock 101 tutorial with Cowley (did I mention he didn’t make fun of me once?) that I am happy to share with other city dwellers. Walk around the livestock show and you will see lots of Brahman bulls. Originally from India, Brahman bulls have developed an amazing resistance to heat, humidity and insects, making it a no-brainer breed for the Gulf Coast region.

Many cattle are the result of combo mating, taking the best elements of two breeds to create a superior animal. So, when you’re wandering around the livestock show, hoping the scent of farm will start to smell like lavender fields, read the signs. A Braford is the mix of a Brahman and a Hereford, 3/8 Brahman and 5/8 Hereford, and came about after a South Florida rancher needed to adapt his pure Hereford cattle to the environment. Enter the Brahman and voila! A new breed was born.

I also learned a bit about Kobe beef, a popular meat that seems to have replaced Chilean Sea Bass as a menu must-have. Kobe is actually the region in Japan where all Japanese cattle or Wagyu are found. "Wa" means Japanese or Japanese-style and "gyu" means cattle and Cowley says Wagyu is still a niche beef in America, but is impressive nonetheless.

“Here in the U.S. Prime is our top beef. In Japan, they start at Prime and go from there,” Cowley says.

Throughout the livestock show, pens are in constant rotation, so one day you can see the sheep and a few days later, check out rabbits. Whatever you do though, don’t call everything a cow.

There's a chance that testosterone-filled bull won’t appreciate it very much.