Have you ever wondered what occupied the land at the southeast corner of the Dauphin Street and Sage Avenue intersection? Driving past, you’ll see that acres of tall grass and opportunistic trees cover the ground where cows from the Graf Dairy Farm once grazed. The farm covered 36 acres in what was West Mobile in the 1900s, but today, the property is little more than a quiet tribute to Mobile’s cattle history.
These enormous bovines are more than just 1, 400-pound lawn mowers. Cattle-raising continues to be the most common agricultural venture for Alabama farmers looking to make a buck. In fact, the Encyclopedia of Alabama calls the cattle industry “one of the pillars of agriculture in the state.” So what’s Mobile’s cow history, and what does the industry look like today?
COW TIPS Cattle are large, domesticated quadrupeds that are raised as livestock, for meat and dairy products, and as draft animals for pulling large objects. The word cattle is derived from the medieval Latin word “capitale” meaning “sum of money, ” reinforcing the idea of many that owning cattle is the oldest form of wealth. Mooooove over, gold.
HOLY COW! Though there exist more than 800 breeds of cattle worldwide, Holstein cows are the dominant milk producers, making up 90 percent of Alabama’s dairy cows. Holsteins are black and white, like the cows you would see in a children’s book, and weigh between 1, 300 and 1, 500 pounds. Although the Gulf Coast heat can distress a cow and thereby limit its milk production, Robert Middleton, of the local Middleton Farms, says his cows each produce around nine gallons per day.
A BUNCH OF BULL There are more than a few misconceptions about cattle. First, despite the rumor that cows have four stomachs, they only have one with four different chambers: the rumen, reticulum, omasum and abomasum. Also, cattle are red/green color-blind, so the crimson hue of that bullfighter’s cape has zero effect on the bull’s mood. The waving motion of the cape, though, sure does seem to make him mad.
GET IT STRAIGHT A heifer is a female of the species who has never had a calf. Once a heifer has a calf, she is immediately considered a cow and is able to produce milk. A bull is a mature male that is used for breeding, and a steer is a male that has been neutered. Also, veal is the meat of a calf as opposed to beef, which is the meat of an adult.
Our history in Cattle
- In the 16th century, Spanish missionaries introduced cattle-raising to the Native Americans. French colonial records trace the first official documentation of the practice in Alabama to Dauphin Island and surrounding Mobile Bay settlements in 1701. By the American Revolution, a few notable Mobile residents boasted cattle herds numbering in the hundreds.
- Following the Civil War, Alabama’s cattle industry benefited for a number of reasons, most notably the conversion of many Black Belt cotton farms into grasslands. When a plantation owner in Marion Junction, Alabama, introduced johnsongrass, a tall Mediterranean grass that spreads quickly in local soil, the cattle industry further propagated. Though many considered the grass a weed, cattle farmers celebrated it for its many grazing benefits.
- Although 1836 marks the first year of dairy farming in the state of Alabama, it’s interesting to note that the state’s first creamery (where dairy products are processed) opened in Fairhope in 1908.
- According to historian John Sledge, even the Middle Bay Lighthouse keeper and his wife owned a dairy cow in the early 1900s. “When the couple had a baby and the mother was unable to nurse, the keeper built a corral on the gallery and brought in a milk cow.”
- Among the famous cattle in U.S. history are the Wall Street bull statue, the flying cow from the blockbuster “Twister” and President William Howard Taft’s Holstein, Miss Wayne, that grazed on the White House lawn. A dairy cow known as “Mrs. O’Leary’s cow” is perhaps the most notorious, as she is rumored to have kicked over the lantern that started the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.
- Today, the state ranks ninth in the U.S. in the number of farms with beef cows (25, 000), and the annual market value of Alabama’s milk production before processing is $31 million.
text by Breck pappas • photo by Jeff and Meggan Haller