Explore America's Campgrounds
To the untrained eye, all the cattle grazing in in green pastures might look the same. And while many belong to the same family and share several characteristics, there are important differences between bison, cattle and buffalo. Everyone from farmers to cheeseburger eaters can benefit from a greater understanding of what makes each of these animals unique.
The Bovidae Family
Bison, buffalos and cattle, also known as cows, all belong to the Bovidae family, a group of cloven-hooved animals that can be found in Asia, North America, Europe and Africa. Other bovids include animals like sheep, antelopes, wildebeests and impalas, and they provide consumers around the world with products like meat, dairy, leather and wool.
Sometimes, physical differences alone are enough to tell bovids apart, as is the case in bison vs cow, or the difference between a bison and a bull. There are many different types of bison, cows and bulls, but typically bison are often larger, much more hairy and have larger curved horns. They also have a telltale hump over their neck, often making them appear as if they are hunched over. Cattle, on the other hand, have flat backs, shorter hair and smaller horns.
Domesticated Dairy Producers
Some of the other important differences between bison and cattle are less easy to spot with the naked eye. One of the biggest distinctions is that cattle have been domesticated. This means that over time, they’ve been tamed to live on farms and eat diets that farmers provide for them. Bison, on the other hand, are still considered wild animals, even if they do reside on farms. They don’t need the same type of shelter that cattle do during the winter, and eat by grazing on the land rather than eating what a farmer puts out for them.
Another big difference is that cattle are dairy producers. Dairy farmers across the country raise cattle in order to get milk from then. That milk then gets turned into all kinds of popular dairy products, including cheese and butter. Bison are not milked commercially. If you see a product such as buffalo milk for sale, it likely came from a water buffalo, which is not related to the bison.
Best for Your Burger – Bison and Buffalo vs Beef
One of the biggest questions that arises when looking into the differences between cattle, bison and buffalo is which animal produces the best meat. There are several debates going about bison vs beef or buffalo vs beef on the matter of taste, nutrition and environmental impact.
It’s hard to determine a clear winner, since it mostly comes down to personal preference. Many people enjoy the fattier red meat of cattle, whereas some prefer bison because it has a lower fat content and is richer in iron and protein. Other people may live near a buffalo farm and like to eat local in order to lessen their environmental impact. If you’re feeling indecisive, you could check out the meat from a bison cow hybrid, known as a beefalo, and see what you think.
Freelance writer based in Brooklyn with interest in home, lifestyle, and science topics.