My original plan for this post was to talk about the difference between dairy and beef cows. Then I realized that we (farmers and veterinarians) use the word “cows” when we usually mean “cattle.” So what’s the difference? Well, cows are girls. Cattle are boys and/or girls. So let’s start there.
Bovine – a term for cattle, male or female, young or old. We use this more on the medical side than anywhere else.
Cattle – multiple bovines, males and/or females of any age. (These happen to be all girls, but they range from 3-10 years old.)
Cow – a female bovine who has given birth to at least one calf. (This calf was born on Wednesday, February 1!)
Heifer – a female bovine who has not had any babies.
First-calf heifer – a female bovine who has given birth to her first calf. At this point, she can also be called a cow.
Bull – an intact (not castrated) male bovine. As soon as a calf is born it can be called a bull.
Steer – a castrated male bovine. Most bulls are castrated in the first few weeks of life. Steers are in general easier to handle than bulls, and their meat tastes much better.
Calf – The definition of this term is a little bit loose. It is basically a “young” bovine, usually less than a year old. Calves are usually started on a solid diet around 2 months of age, but their primary diet is milk (either directly from mom or as milk replacer) until they are 4-6 months old. (This was one of our calves that was born last year. This heifer calf was less than one week old when I took this picture.)
Weanling – a calf that has been weaned from nursing, usually around 4-6 months old. Beef calves are kept with their moms, so at weaning the cow-calf pair are physically separated. Dairy calves are not kept with their mothers but are fed milk replacer. At weaning time, dairy calves are switched from a primarily milk diet to a solid diet. (Don’t worry, we’ll talk a lot about this later, I promise. I know there are a bunch of questions about dairy farming.)
Yearling – A calf this is one year old. (These three heifers were born on our farm last spring. One of them is the calf in the photo above, one year later.)
We use the term “cows” all the time, to talk about more than one bovine (male or female), but technically a cow is a girl. Just one more of those communication things that farmers and veterinarians do, when we think everyone else knows exactly what we are talking about.
What other words do you hear that confuse you?