What's the Difference: Cows, Steer, Bull, Heifer

Prior to owning a farm, I, like many of you, would see a herd of cattle out the window on a car trip and loudly tell the car, "cows!"  Little did I know, they weren't all cows, the correct term for a herd is cattle.  So why aren't they called cows? What's the difference?

Cows vs. Heifers 

Cows are female mothers.  They have given birth to a calf.  They cannot be called cows until they actually give birth.  While pregnant they are either called pregnant heifers or replacement heifers.  So what's a heifer? A female that has not had a baby yet.  

So let's take Red for an example.  Currently she's a cow.  She's had two babies so far, Junior (boy) and Cinammon (girl).  When we bought Red she was an 11-month old heifer, then she was bred becoming a pregnant heifer, and now she's a cow.  She will be called a cow until she dies.  Her daugheter, Cinammon is a heifer. 

Steer vs. Bull

Our bull (intact male) has been on our property for almost three years now.  He's bred all the cows and is the sire of the herd.  We only have him.  He also doesn't have a name since there is just one.  I don't know what we are going to do if we ever get a second.  Since bulls are intact and can breed, they have more testosterone and can be more aggressive.  Thankfully our bull is scared of humans and will run when we get in the pasture with him.  However we do still have to keep our head on a swivel, because he is intact, if a female is in heat all bets are off - who knows how he will react to what he could percieve as a threat. 

Steers are males that have been castrated.  Junior, Red and the bull's male baby, was castrated within a few weeks of life and became a steer.  Steer can get almost as big as a bull, but they don't have the male hormones pumping through them as much, making their meat taste better.  They are also more friendly and less agressive, meaning they can be put in a herd together.  

If getting a male bottle calf, it's important to make them a steer.  They start thinking humans are cattle and if they are bulls they will become aggressive and try to fight the human.  This is why we only have one bull and make the others steer.


So overall there are bull (father), cow (mother), heifer (daughter), steer (son).  Steer are the ones typically eaten, bulls are around for breeding, and the females get to be moms and hang out with the herd for the rest of their life.  We can talk social structure another time (which cattle suprisngly have!). Let me know if you have any questions!