Depending on who you talk to, bison and cattle can be perceived in a variety of ways. To the restaurant patron, bison and cattle may seem identical. To the rancher, they are polar opposites. To the scientist, bison and cattle are close kin. Regardless of the perspective and similarities, there are concrete differences between bison and cattle.
Bison are short-horned mammals that are members of the scientific family Bovidae. In the United States, bison are commonly called buffalo, though true buffalo are Asian and African members of the same animal family. Bison grow more than 6 feet in shoulder height, 9 feet in length and weigh 2,500 pounds. During the winter, the American species of bison assumes a shaggy, dark brown coat that’s shed and transformed into short, light-brown fur in the spring. In the early 1800’s, there were more than 60 million bison thriving in North America. By 1900, North American bison were on the brink of extinction with only two wild herds remaining that consisted of a couple hundred animals. As of 2011, due to private preservation efforts, the bison population has rebounded to approximately 500,000.
Technically, cattle is a catchall term used to broadly describe members of the family Bovidae, which includes bison, yaks and more, or to describe specific members of the genus Bos within that same family. However, for common usage, domesticated “cows” and heifers -- adult females; bulls -- adult males; steer (castrated males); and calves and yearlings (juveniles) are generally synonymous with cattle. These animals are used for their milk for dairy products and for their flesh, called beef. Even though oxen are also castrated males of this animal type, they are distinguished from being referred to as cattle because they are used for labor instead of commercial products. Cattle are ruminant mammals, meaning their stomach consists of four parts. Cattle are diverse in color with most adults having unbranched horns, yet some cattle do not grow horns. They are distributed worldwide and are viewed as sacred in some Hindu cultures of India.
Scientific and Physical Comparisons
Bison and cattle are both classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Artiodactyla, family Bovidae. However, by most authorities, bison are categorized in the genus Bison, whereas cattle are grouped in the genus Bos. Other authorities classify bison in a subfamily Bovinae as opposed to a separate genus. Closely related bison and cattle have similar physical form and stature. However, being the heaviest land mammals in America, bison are bigger than cattle. In addition to body size, bison and cattle are easily distinguished, in part, because the head and face of bison are structurally different than cattle. Bison heads are also much larger with abundant fur.
Population and Food Industry
Bison and cattle are both used for commercial products. However, where beef is a common staple in the meat market, bison meat is harder to come by. Whereas U.S. ranchers maintain almost 100 million head of cattle, the bison population in the U.S. is approximately 220,000 (500,000 in North America) as of 2011. Yet, as bison is almost exclusively used for meat, cattle supply both meat and milk products in the food industry.