Facts & Meanings

Things You Should Know or Never Knew About Cows and Cattle

My most common pet-peeves regarding cattle is what people commonly do not know about them. Here are some things you should know...or maybe don't know yet.
  • Cows are mature female bovines that have had a calf. Cows are those that are over 2 years of age.
  • Never refer to a cow as a "he." Cows are only "she"'s: see bullet above.
  • There is no such thing as a male cow or a female cow. A cow is a female, period. See the above two bullets.
  • Bulls are intact males that are used for breeding. There are no such thing as a female bull or a male bull. Bulls are male only.
  • Steers are castrated male bovines. They can also be called bullocks, though bullocks, in Europe, more often mean young bulls than castrated bulls, even though the definition can be interchangeable.
  • Heifers are immature or young female bovines that have not yet had a calf. A heifer that has had her first calf is often called a "first-calf" or (least often) "first-calving" heiferHeiferettes are often referred to heifers that still have not yet had a calf and are over 2 years of age. A heifer that concieves and is pregnant is called a bred heifer.
  • calf is the young of a cow that is under a year old and/or not yet weaned. Bull calves are male calves, heifer calves are female. Steer calves are castrated male calves. (Note: Male calves are never born as steers, they're always born as bull calves first before they're manually castrated after birth.)
  • Gestation period (length of pregnancy) for a cow and bred heifer is 9.5 months or ~285 days. You will find several sources state that gestation is around 286 or 283 days. All such sources are still correct. Cows and heifers may have pregnancy periods shorter or longer than this average depending on breed, age, body condition, and other factors. The bull (sire) has no influence on length of gestation of the cow or bred heifer.
  • Don't confuse Estrus with EstrousEstrous is the period that a female animal experiences "heat" periods and "no-heat" periods (average is 21 days) Estrus is the period where a female is in heat (average is 24 hours).
  • Cows do not have periods (also called the Menstrual cycle). This is only a human (and other big apes) physiological attribute. (Chickens don't menstruate either, but that's another topic entirely.)
  • Heifers are ready to breed at ~15 months of age. However, Bos indicus breeds like Brahma and Nelore have heifers that won't be ready to breed until they're around 18 months old. The aforementioned age for breeding is primarily for stock of European (Bos taurus spp.) heritage.
  • Heifers usually become cows when they calve at ~24 months of age. However, some producers still call such females "first-calf heifers." This changes once they're pregnant with their second calf.
  • Cattle can be dangerous even when they don't mean it, so never take them lightly or consider them as calm, gentle creatures. In reality when pushed they are very powerful, incredibly fast and agile beasts that can get quite violent. Bulls are infamous for this, but cows can be just as bad. 
  • Never judge the sex of a bovine by the presence of horns. This is because not all bulls have horns. Many bulls are selected to have no horns, or have been dehorned when they were young calves. Cows are equally selected, regardless of breed. All cows and bulls are capable of having horns or no horns, it just depends on the breeding. For example, all bulls and cows of the Angus breed are polled (born with no horn growth), whereas all bulls and cows of the Texas Longhorn breed all have horns (develop long horns as they grow and mature into adults). You would only judge sex by presence of horns with animal species like pronghorn, springbok, gazelles, moose, deer, and elk (the latter three bear antlers, not horns). 
  • Milk is generated by the udder of a cow. Cows don't have "utters." 
  • Male cattle cannot make milk for obvious reasons.
  • Milk does not have pus in it. If it would cows, or any mammals of any sort, would not exist as they do today. 
  • It won't rain if you see a cow laying down.
  • Cow tipping is a myth.
  • Cattle don't sleep standing up, although they will lightly dose standing for short periods. 
  • Cattle chew what is called cud, which is just regurgitated partly-digested feed.
  • Cattle have one stomach comprising of four chambers, or a single true stomach with three forestomachs which are extensions of the esophagus. They are called Ruminants because of their ability to chew cud or "ruminate" while resting. 
  • Cattle eat grass and hay, thus are herbivores.
  • Cattle do not have upper incisors, only lower ones. They do, however, have top and bottom molars for chewing coarse plant material.
  • Cow-calf simply is an operation that raises cows with calves. They can be commercial operations, where calves are sold to be raised for beef, or purebred operations, where calves are grown to be sold as breeding stock when weaned at 6 months, or as yearlings. Almost all cow-calf operations commonly wean calves at 6 to 8 months of age. 
  • Backgrounding means young weaned steers and heifers are fed a forage-based diet (of primarily grass and hay) before going in a hot "finisher" diet like that in a feedlot.
  • Finishing cattle means cattle go on a high-energy diet to gain weight quickly before being slaughtered. Feedlots are common places where cattle are finished on such a diet. Cattle are finished during a 120 day or 4 month period.
  • Seek a veterinarian for any questions resulting in and concerning the health of your livestock, especially if it's an emergency situation.

Bovine Definitions

<Incomplete List> I'll be adding more over time. Comment below if you would like to see any additional words added. 

Abomasum - fourth chamber of a ruminant stomach system. This is considered the "true stomach" since it secretes enzymes that is very similar to the stomach of a non-ruminant animal.

Acidosis - metabolic disorder that causes the rumen pH to decrease significantly, as well as blood pH. It results from cattle consuming too much high-energy feeds--not giving enough time for the rumen microbes to adjust--which produces a significant amount of lactic acid in the rumen. Clinical cases cause animals to stop eating, have greyish foamy diarrhea and eventually die.

Backgrounding - weaned steers and heifers raised on a high-forage or high-roughage diet for the purpose of growth and development, before being finished in a feedlot before slaughter.

Bull - intact male bovine, usually called so when over a year old. Bulls less than 9 months old are often called "bull calves."

Calf - young, immature bovine. Plural is "calves." Calf does not only refer to those that are still nursing at their mothers' side; they also refer to young cattle that are less than a year old and weaned.

Cow - mature female bovine. Colloquially-speaking, cow or plural form "cows" encompasses all bovines, regardless of sex or age. But more properly speaking, a cow is simply a mature female bovine.

Feedlot - location where cattle are raised on a dirt lot and brought feed to eat. Often associated with finishing cattle for slaughter, but also pertains to other cattle types that are simply being fed hay, silage and/or grain but not on pasture. Also known as a "drylot."

Finishing - feeding cattle a nutrient-rich diet that encourages fat deposition and muscle growth 3 to 4 months before slaughter. Includes feeding a high-energy ration that is mostly grain, or grazing cattle on a high-protein and -energy pasture.

Heifer - young or immature female bovine. Heifers younger than about 9 months are often known as "heifer calves."

Mastitis - bacterial infection of the udder. Most common in dairy cows; usually caused by improper hygiene, or injury.

Pasture - large tract of land used for livestock including cattle to graze on. Mainly has grass, but also other edible plants like legumes.

Reticulum - the first stomach chamber, also known as the "hardware stomach" because it is basically a storage place for foreign objects including nails, wire, and string to sit and break down over time, and where partly-digested feed from the rumen is moved into before being regurgitated for the cow to chew as cud.

Rumen - the second chamber of the ruminant stomach, and the largest. It is a fermentation vat where the feed the cow has swallowed is broken down by billions of micro-organisms from bacteria and fungi to protozoa. Anaerobic (no oxygen) environment is conducive to gases like methane and carbon dioxide being produced and released via eructation (burping).

Steer - castrated male bovine. Steers younger than about 9 months are often known as "steer calves." A steer is not born, it is made; bull calves that get castrated are then called steers.

Stocker - a bovine just been weaned that is on a high-roughage diet, no matter if in a feedlot or on pasture, before being finished for beef.

Weaning - a process where a calf is accustomed to eating other feeds and no longer its mother's milk, or milk from a bottle or bucket. It may also be a term where a calf is separated from its mother for a long period of time to discourage suckling and teach the calf to no longer rely on milk from its mother for nourishment.

Weanling - a young bovine that has just been weaned. These are usually around 6 to 8 months of age.

Yearling - A bovine that is about a year old (between 9 and 18 months).

Here is a more complete list of terms:

Beef USA Glossary of Terms A - Z
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