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Forum Home > General Discussion > Telling the Difference Between Bulls, Cows, Steers and Heifers

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First of all, as mentioned in the Facts about Cows and Cattle Page, the definitions of cattle should be known first:

  • Cow: A mature female bovine that has had at least two calvesBull: A male intact bovine used for breeding cows and heifers
  • Heifer: An immature female bovine that has never had a calf
  • Steer/Bullock: A male neutered (or castrated) bovine that is commonly used for beef. Bullock is a European term used for this type of bovine; steer is North American. A steer is typically one that has been castrated at younger than 6 months of age.
  • Stag: A male bovine that has been castrated after reaching puberty (which is around 12 months of age)
  • Freemartin: A heifer that is sterile and may have male (bullish) characteristics. Freemartins always come about when sharing the placenta with a twin brother in the womb.
  • Ox (Plural Oxen): A male castrated bovine that is trained and used for draft work.
  • Calf: A general term for a young bovine that is suckling off the cow (typically that which is 0 to 8 months of age)
  • Bull Calf: A young male bovine
  • Heifer Calf: A young female bovine
  • Cattle: A general plural term encompassing all types of cattle.
  • Cattlebeast/bovine: a singular term for these creatures who's sexes cannot be determined. Most people like to call cattle in general cows, simply because it is a much well-known and popular term to use than bovines or cattlebeast.
  • Horns vs. polled: It is a myth that only bulls are horned and only cows are polled. The reality is that both sexes can be horned and/or polled. If you are relying on whether an animal has horns or not as a means to identify the sex of the animal, please remember that this is the least reliable means of defining that bovine as, for instance, a cow or a bull.

The best way to tell if a cattlebeast is a cow is to look between the back legs and see if there is an udder there. An udder (NOT an "utter") is a pink bag-like organ that has four teats (cylindrical "knobs" that hang down from the udder) that generates milk for a young calf to drink. Most cows you will see will have a calf at side, except for dairy cows or beef cows that are being dried up for the next calving. Cows typically are smooth from the head all the way down to the tailhead, with no shoulder crests (like bulls have) and not as much muscling around the shoulders and hips like bulls do. Bos indicus cows (those that have the loos eskin and long floppy ears) have a hump on their shoulders, but it is much less defined than that in bulls of the same species of bovine. If you look under the tail, you will see a slit with a prepuce hanging down from it. If you can't see it you can see it when the tail is swishing flies away or for some reason or other, is held to the side. This is where the vulva is located, the area where cows (and heifers) urinate from, accept the penis of bulls to be bred, and where their calves are born from. All cows have this, and it is a bit more defined and larger in cows than in heifers. Vulvas are located below the anus.


This is what a typical cow (dairy) looks like:

This is what a beef cow looks like (note that female bovines also have horns, as depicted below):

A bull, on the other hand, are typically massive beasts. When they are among the cowherd, it's pretty easy to pick out the bull among the herd because of his larger size, and his masculinity in comparison to the more feminine-looking cows or heifers he's with. Not all bulls have horns. The only way you are really going to tell if it's a bull or not is to, just like with the cows, look between his back legs to see if there is a football-shaped sac hanging down. It is easy to see when you are getting a side-view of him, when you're behind him,and when he's walking. They also have a sheath or hairy prepuce on their underline (right in the middle of their belly that is parallel to the ground) where their penis is housed. Most sheaths are more defined in bulls than in steers, and a lot of bulls will have this pink "thing" hanging slightly exposed from their sheath. That is the end of their penis you're seeing, at least the foreskin part of it. Cows and heifers do not have this sheath; some may have some loose skin hanging from the same area, but others will not have this. Bulls typically have a large muscular crest over their neck and shoulder (with Bos taurus cattle like Angus, Simmental, or Texas Longhorn, it is mostly on their neck), and are typically very muscular on their shoulders and their hind quarters than cows are. Most will have a big blocky appearance, with their legs held a bit more apart than cows would due to the muscling in the shoulders. In the Bos indicus breeds, bulls typically have a sphere-shaped hump over their shoulders, much more defined and pronounced in bulls than in cows.

A typical bull (note the lack of horns):

Note that in additional to no horns, bulls can be any colour besides brown,including black and white like with this Speckle Park bull and the Holstein bull below:


This is a dairy bull, more specifically a Holstein bull:


Steers  have similar conformational qualities as bulls do, except that they lack that sac between their legs and their navel or sheath is much less defined. However steers still retain the hair hanging down from the middle of their belly, and this is, like bulls, where their penis ishoused and where they urinate from. This little hair is pretty much the only way to tell if this animal you are looking at is a steer. Steers typically appear more feminine than bulls do, lacking the characteristic muscular hump and depth over the neck and shoulders. Sometimes, when steers and heifers are living together, the only way to tell if the animal you are looking at is a steer is if the vulva is absent. If there's nothing else under the tail except the anus, and said animal has no testes, then it's a steer. Steers are not born as steers, they are born as bull calves and are made into steers by the processof castration when they are young.

Stags, as the definition mentioned above, are those animals that have been castrated when or after they have reached puberty.

This is what a steer looks like:

This is what a stag (or staggy steer) looks like:


Heifers are typically young females that a) were born as females (often called heifer calves) and b) retain female characteristics like cows do. Heifers are typically younger than cows, and often, to an experienced cattle person, a heifer or a first-calf heifer can be easily distinguished by noticing the youth of the animal and her size in relation to older more mature cows. These types of cattle are usually ones that are still growing past when they have their first calf, and reach full maturity by the time they are 3 or 4 years of age. Heifers have no sac between their legs, nor do they have the sheath and little hair hanging down typical of bulls and steers. They have almost no udder, just little teats that are difficult to see between the back legs except if you are kneeling down close beside her. They have a vulva underneath the tail (which is below the anus), but it is smaller and a little less defined than in mature cows. The udder and vulva increase in size both when the heifer, that has been bred, is about to calve. Even then the udder is typically smaller in heifers than in cows.


A heifer:

And to compare a young heifer (the calf) with a mature cow (the heifer's dam):

September 20, 2011 at 1:27 PM Flag Quote & Reply

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