Cows, Bulls, Heifers and Steers: What Are the Differences?

A conversation on any topic of any depth will be liberally sprinkled with lingo…

Sometimes, lingo is just a stylistic choice, a way to quickly and easily identify who is an insider, or “read up,” on a topic and who is not.


Other times lingo is very important, and serves valuable purposes when it comes to conveying information.

Talking about cows or cattle in general is no different, with terms like bull, steer, heifer, cow and more being tossed around all the time.

Are these terms just synonyms, or do they mean something more? What is the difference between a cow, bull, heifer and steer?

A cow is properly a female cow that is at least 2 years old and has birthed at least one calf. A bull is a mature and intact male cow. A heifer is a female cow younger than two that has not birthed any calves. A steer is a castrated male cow.

As you can see, these terms are not synonyms, and understanding them, say nothing of using them correctly, is important whenever you are discussing the topic.

You’ll also want to know all about these various terms and what they mean for your herd if you keep cattle.

Mixing up a young heifer for a mature bull could be disastrous, and if you need steers, the last thing you want is a bunch of young bulls having the run of the place!

In any case, learning these terms mean you can stop just using the term cow generically over and over. Keep reading, and I’ll tell you everything you ever wanted to know about cattle lingo…

What is the Name for a Female Cow?

A female cow is called either a cow or a heifer depending on her age and whether or not she has birthed any calves.

More generally, cow can also refer to any member of the species, although this is disagreeably imprecise for most purposes around the farm or homestead.

What is the Name for a Male Cow?

A male cow is either a bull or a steer. A bull is an intact and sexually mature male cow. A steer is a castrated, mature male cow.

Does “Cow” Always Mean “Female”?

No, not always. As mentioned above cow is also the generic term for any member of any breed of the domestic cow species.

Cow can refer to a cow, heifer, bull or steer when used in generic conversation. But, if you’re being in any way specific, cow should always refer to a female of the species.

Are Bulls Always Male Cows?

Yes. A bull is an intact, sexually mature male cow. End of story.

However, some people mistakenly use the term bull to refer to any immature cow that has horns. Unknown to some, it isn’t only the males that may have horns.

Many breeds of domestic cows are born with horns, males and females alike, and even though the males will always have the largest, longest and most impressive horns, females also get their own!

Nonetheless, female cows, with or without horns, are never called bulls.

What is the Name for a Baby Cow?

A baby cow is a calf, and multiple baby cows are referred to as calves. Specifically, a calf is a young cow that is under one year of age.

Another term to know for baby cows is weanling, or weanlings, plural. A weanling is a young calf, typically between 6 and 9 months old, that has been successfully separated or weaned off of its mother’s milk.

What are the Differences Between Cows and Bulls?

In the simplest terms, cow refers to a female member of the species. Bull refers to a male member of the species. Be sure to read up on the specific terminology below, though.

What are the Differences between Bulls and Steers?

The difference between a bull and a steer is a matter of its sexual organs, specifically whether or not it has been castrated. Referring to cattle, “castration” means “neutering,” the removal of the testicles.

A bull is an intact male. A steer is a male that has been castrated. Bulls may reproduce, steers may not.

However, there are some other significant differences between the two!

Bulls are as a rule much larger, more muscular and stronger than a steer of the same or an equivalent breed.

They’ll be more aggressive, more dominant, have longer horns, and generally have a bad attitude concerning people and other cows generally, specifically concerning competing males.

Steers on the other hand, while still large, will have shorter horns, smaller overall size, less muscle, and be less aggressive.

However, they’re also typically more mild-mannered, tend to be easier to handle and are less problematic for other members of the herd and for humans.

What are the Differences between Cows and Heifers?

The difference between cows and heifers is only one of age end of reproductive success.

Broadly speaking, a heifer is any young female cow, younger than 2 years old specifically, that has not produced at least one calf.

Conversely, a cow, for our purposes, is a female that is at least 2 years old and has produced at least one calf. That’s all there is to it!

What are Some Other Terms for Cattle Owners to Know?

There are quite a few other specific terms in cattle lingo that you should know… Some of the most important are below:

  • Bloom: a descriptor that refers to the appearance of shiny, healthy and clean fur or hair on a cow.
  • Bovine: term referring to cows and related species, and also anything related to any of the species. For instance, bovine diseases, bovine care, bovine feeding.
  • Breeder: the owner of any cow that produced a calf at the time of calving.
  • Cattle: any group of cows, regardless of sex or age. Also a descriptive term for any animal species that is biologically bovine.
  • Conformation: reverse to the overall build, musculature and appearance of a cow.
  • Dam: pronounced like it looks. Refers to the specific mother of a calf whereas cow is used generally.
  • Dehorn: generally, the removal of the horns of any cow at any age. Specifically refers to the removal of horns from a mature cow.
  • Disbud: generally, the removal of a cow’s horns. Specifically, the removal of a cow’s horns shortly after birth, usually via cauterization.
  • Disposition: the attitude or temperament of a given cow. You want cows with a friendly disposition, believe me!
  • Dry Cow: any female cow that does not produce milk.
  • Dystocia: a difficult birthing of a calf.
  • Estrus: refers to a female cow that is sexually receptive and ready to breed; in heat.
  • Paddock: any fenced in area that is inside a larger grazing area. Typically employed as part of an intensive grazing strategy.
  • Polled: a term referring to any breed of cow that is born naturally hornless.
  • Wean: To take a calf from its mother so that it can no longer nurse.
  • Yearling: any cow, heifer, steer, bull that is between 1 and 2 years of age.

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