Everyone knows we get beef, milk, and leather from cows, but did you know that we also make jewelry, paintbrushes, shampoo, and even fire extinguishers from cow parts?
Cows are of course useful for food, but various other cow parts are extremely useful for humans in different manufacturing processes in almost every industry.
In this article, we’re taking a look at 17 products you would never think were made using cow parts and learning about the strange processes used to turn cow byproducts into useful everyday products.
Products Made from Cows
Number one on our list is shampoo, which often contains an ingredient called keratin, which is collected from the hard hooves and horns of cows and other livestock.
Keratin is found naturally in the human body and helps to keep our hair and nails healthy so it makes sense that shampoo manufacturers would include this useful protein in their products.
In the case of cows, keratin is found in their hooves and horns, which are not useful for meat production. Since most cows have horns, this provides a use for a part of the animal that would normally be discarded.
2. Stained Glass Windows
Stained glass windows are made from shapes of colored glass held together with special dividers made of lead, called cames.
To join these lead cames together, a flux material is required to ensure the lead doesn’t oxidize while it’s being soldered.
The most common soldering flux used for lead window cames is called oleic acid, which is commonly sourced from the unwanted fatty byproducts of the meat industry, which are rendered and turned into several oils. (Oleic acid comes from animal fat or oil)
Next time you’re admiring an ornamental church window, spare a prayer for the cow whose fat was used in its production!
3. Gummy Bears
Many people already know that cow bones are a source of gelatin, which is used in several types of jelly foods.
Gelatin is extracted from connective tissue found in cow bones, ligaments, tendons, skin, and hides and is one of the key components of gummy bears and other Jell-O snacks.
4. Fire Extinguishers
Some types of foam fire extinguishers contain the same keratin protein found in shampoo, which helps the fire retardant material spray out in a useful foam instead of a liquid.
Keratin is extracted from cow bones, hooves, horns, and skin and is used in lots of industrial processes.
Cow hair (usually from their tail or mane) is sometimes used to make high-quality paintbrushes.
Many artists swear by natural brushes, arguing that the natural taper provided by using real hair gives them finer control over their painting compared to synthetic fibers.
These types of brushes are sometimes called camel-hair brushes, even when the hair comes from cows.
For thousands of years, humans have been creating decorative jewelry with all kinds of weird and wonderful materials.
Many jewelers and artists continue to create beautiful pendants, rings, and other jewelry made from bone.
Over the last 10,000 years, many civilizations would have used the bones of their domestic cows to make jewelry and other ornamental pieces.
Read More: The story of the domestication of cows
7. Tennis Rackets
At the highest levels, tennis rackets are strung with a natural fiber found in the intestines of cows.
These types of rackets are called gut-string rackets, named after the gut of the cow, where the fibers are found.
Although cheaper synthetic strings are also available, gut-string rackets are popular among professional tennis players because they provide more elasticity and better overall performance.
For thousands of years, humans have been making candles from a material called tallow.
Tallow is a hard fatty substance that is extracted from around the kidneys and loins of large animals like cows, sheep, and goats.
Tallow from cows is especially prized because it is harder than tallow from sheep or goats and thus cow tallow candles burn for longer.
Tallow is usually off-white, completely odorless, and solid at room temperature, making it the perfect material for use in candle making.
It seems counterintuitive to think that soap would be made from the remains of dead animals, but even today many soaps and cleaning agents contain animal fats, including tallow which is also used to make candles.
Soap is made by mixing some type of fat or oil with an alkali salt, and fragrance.
Nowadays, many soap manufacturers use synthetic oil or wax instead of animal fat, however many manufacturers continue to use tallow or hard animal fats in their soaps, including some prestigious brands like Ivory, which is made from Sodium Tallowate (animal fat mixed with salt).
10. Rubber Tires
In the industrial processing of rubber to make car tires, a special chemical called Stearic Acid is used to keep the rubber together and allow the rubber to stick to itself.
Stearic acid can be found in most plants and animals (including humans), but it’s most commonly extracted from animal fats, which are made up of 30% stearic acid.
Up until the mid-80s, insulin was derived solely from the pancreases of pigs and cows.
Since the insulin found in cows was almost identical to the insulin found in humans, insulin from cattle was used to treat diabetes in humans.
Nowadays, most insulin is created synthetically in a laboratory using a process involving bacteria from the human gut, however porcine or bovine insulin is still manufactured by a small number of pharmaceutical companies.
Some steroids and other medicines are made using chemicals found in the adrenal glands of cows.
Adrenal glands are found in all mammals (not just cows) and are used for producing hormones which help regulate stress, metabolism, and blood pressure.
There is mixed opinion on the effectiveness of adrenal extract, so it’s probably not something you’re going to see prescribed by your doctor!
13. Plastic Surgery
Plastic surgeons sometimes use soft cartilage and ligaments from cows and pigs to reconstruct damaged or lost tissue in humans and other animals like dogs and cats.
This method is typically only used in serious reconstructive surgery where a local skin graft isn’t possible.
14. Fine China
Some methods of manufacturing china include adding the ashes from burned bones to the clay before it’s hardened.
This type of china is called Bone China and is highly sought after for its superior strength and durability compared to other china.
In China, where this type of porcelain originated, bones from Asian Cattle (Bos Indicus) were in plentiful supply and would have been the most common bones used, although bones from any animal would work just as well.
When animal fats from cows and other livestock are turned into oils, a chemical called glycerol is created as a byproduct.
Glycerol is used in all sorts of products, including in antifreeze, where it’s mixed with water to form a solution with a very low freezing point.
Read more: Why are cows so fat?
16. Photographic Film
Photographic film works by holding photosensitive crystals inside a thin film of gelatine, which is derived from cow bones.
Every type of photographic film used today uses gelatine, because it not only holds the crystals in place, but interacts with them chemically when they react to the light, creating a permanent image on the photographic film.
Nowadays, most video and image photography is digitally captured, cutting out the need for any film entirely.
Our final entry is something you may have seen yourself, but not noticed exactly what you were looking at.
Cow horns are widely used to make buttons and other fasteners, because the horn has an aesthetically pleasing decorative pattern (black and cream splotches) and can be polished to a high shine.
Even some modern plastic buttons are made with two-tone plastic, and mixed in such a way as to resemble the cow-horn pattern found on older buttons.
Well, there you have it! There are thousands of uses for cows apart from just meat and dairy.
Cow parts are found everywhere, in billion-dollar manufacturers making rubber car tires, in small artisan glassworkers making stained glass ornaments, and even in the rackets of the worlds’ pro tennis players.
The best way we can honor the slaughtered animal is by ensuring that every part of them is used for something, and I hope you can see that’s definitely true for cows!
Stuart is the editor of Fauna Facts. He edits our writers’ work as well as contributing his own content. Stuart is passionate about sustainable farming and animal welfare and has written extensively on cows and geese for the site.