When you first get into the cattle industry, it can be difficult to know how to distinguish your cattle. There are a lot of technical terms that refer to the cattle’s age, gender, offspring, and more. Four of the most important terms to know include cow, bull, heifer, and steer.

To learn what each of these terms mean and how to tell what your cattle is, keep reading.

Important Definitions to Know

  • Cow: Mature female that has given birth to at least one calf
  • Bull: Mature male that is intact and often used for reproductive purposes
  • Heifer: Female between the age of 1 and 2 years and has not reproduced
  • Bred Heifer: Female that is between the age of 1 and 2 years and pregnant but has not given birth yet
  • Steer: Male bovine that was castrated before sexual maturity
  • Stag: Male bovine that was castrated after sexual maturity

What Is the Difference Between Cows and Bulls?

Texas Longhorn Cattle
Image By: Linzmeier1, Pixabay

The terms cow and bull refer to mature bovine that are often used for breeding purposes. Cow describes female bovine that have given birth to at least one calf. Since the cow has given birth before, it is fully mature.

Similarly, the term bull refers to a mature male bovine that can be used for breeding purposes. To be used for breeding purposes, the bull must have its testicles present and intact. This distinction is an important one because it is what distinguishes a bull from a steer.

Are All Cows Female?

Technically speaking, all cows are female. Though colloquially “cow” is used to describe any domesticated bovine, it technically only refers to female bovine that has reproduced.

How to Know if Your Cattle Is a Cow or Bull?

How to know whether your cattle is a cow or bull is relatively easy. If it is female and given birth to at least one calf, it is a cow. Likewise, if your cattle is a male and has its testicles intact, it is a bull. If your cattle has not given birth or does not have its testicles intact, it is neither a cow nor a bull.

If you aren’t sure of the gender of your animal, you should be able to look underneath the animal to determine its gender. Cows will have udders near its back legs. Bulls have a testicular sac between his hind legs.

What Is the Difference Between Bulls and Steers?

Belgian Blue Cattle
Image Credit: YvonneHuijbens, Pixabay

Both bulls and steers are male bovines. However, there is a difference between these cattle. As we learned above, bulls are male bovines that are mature and intact. Bulls are often used for breeding purposes as a result.

In contrast, steers are male bovines that have been castrated well before reaching sexual maturity. Steers are almost exclusively used for beef purposes since they cannot reproduce.

How to Know the Difference Between a Bull and Steer

Determining whether your male bovine is a bull or steer is also easy. If the animal is intact, it is a bull. If it was castrated before sexual maturity, then the bovine is a steer. If you got the animal castrated after sexual maturity, it is a stag instead.

What Is the Difference Between Cows and Heifers?

Much like the difference between bulls and steers, the difference between cows and heifers is subtle. Both terms describe female bovine. The only difference is their level of maturity and offspring.

As a reminder, cows are female bovines that have had at least one calf. Heifers are also female bovine, but they are not fully mature yet but still older than a calf. Most heifers are between one and two years old and have never given birth to a calf as a result. A heifer that is pregnant but has not given birth to its first calf yet is called a bred heifer.

How to Know the Difference Between a Cow and Heifer

You can determine whether your female bovine is a cow or heifer by considering its age and whether it has reproduced. Most female bovine between the ages of one and two are heifers. Most females over the age of two have reproduced and are thus cows.

White Park cattle
Image Credit: wernerdetjen, Pixabay

Other Terms to Know

  • Ox: Bovine used for draft work, usually male.
  • Calf: Immature bovine.
  • Bull Calf: Immature bovine that is intact.
  • Steer Calf: Immature bovine that was castrated shortly after birth.
  • Heifer Calf: Immature female bovine.
  • Freemartin: Infertile or sterile heifer/heifer calf.

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Even though cows, bulls, heifers, and steers belong to the same group of animals, they’re not all the same. Both cows and heifers are female bovine, whereas bulls and steers are male bovine. The distinctions between these terms become even more subtle from there. Cows have had calves whereas heifers have not, and bulls can reproduce while steers cannot.

These four terms are far from being the only terms to know about your cattle, but they are the most important for getting started.

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Featured Image Credit: Clara Bastian, Shutterstock