How to determine if cattle are bulls, steers, cows or heifers

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Heifers, calves and a bull in a pasture

If you’re new to the cattle world, keeping bulls, steers, cows and heifers straight is confusing. Even though you once thought that “cow” was a blanket term used for all cattle in all situations, you’ll catch on quickly to the correct terminology.

Bulls

bullA bull, also known as a sire, is a mature male bovine that is at least 2 years old used for breeding purposes. Bulls are usually not used for meat.

Bulls are not castrated because they have desired traits that producers want to use for breeding. Typically, a sire will produce more calves in its lifetime than a cow, according to Extension Beef Cattle Breeding Specialist John L. Evans, Ph.D., at Oklahoma State University Extension.

Bulls are usually larger than other cattle. They have large, muscular shoulders, necks and hindquarters. A hump is usually noticeable on its shoulders. When bulls are full grown, they can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds. According to OSU Extension, young bulls can reach half of their mature weights in as little as 14 or 15 months.

Don’t let a bull’s horns trick you; the breed of cattle determines if a bull has horns or not. Museum of Life and Science explains that many dairy breeds will have horns on both male and female cattle.

Steers

steerA steer is a castrated male bovine. Male bovines are castrated when they are young and before they develop the bull’s physical characteristics, according to USDA. Steers are less aggressive than bulls. Steers are normally raised for meat.

A steer won’t be as muscular as a bull. It’s shoulders won’t be as large or muscular. Another way to tell the difference between a bull and a steer is to check if the bovine has testes. If it does, it is a bull; it if doesn’t, it is a steer. Sometimes, it can be difficult to distinguish between steers and heifers. Heifers have a vulva beneath their tails, while steers do not.

Cows

cows in milking parlorA cow is a mature female bovine that has had at least one calf.

Cows have larger hips and thicker middles. Compared to bulls, they look feminine. Cows should have a slightly angular body shape, lean-looking shoulders and a broad chest, according to University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.

Heifers

heifers ready for showHeifers are young female cattle that have not yet borne calves. Heifers can be used for breeding, and they can also be raised for beef. Heifers are bred once they reach maturity (about 12 to 14 months), according to University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Once a heifer has a calf, she becomes a cow.

Heifers are similar in appearance to cows, but lack the mature characteristics of cows such as prominent hips and thick middles.

Calves

Both baby male and female cattle are referred to as calves. They’re called weaners once they’re weaned, and then yearlings once they’re a year or two old.

Quickest way to determine gender

Don’t rely on the appearance of horns on cattle to determine if an bovine is a cow or a bull. Instead, look between the animal’s back legs. A side view of the animal will offer you the best view to determine the gender. Cows have udders; bulls have scrotum. Steers will not have testes like bulls. Heifers have teats but no visible udder like cows do.

Also, don’t rely on the color of a cow’s skin to determine if it’s a bull or a cow. A bovine’s breed, not its gender, determines it’s color. For instance, Angus cattle are typically black, Jersey cattle are brown and Holsteins are black and white. For information about cattle breeds, refer to Oklahoma State University’s Department of Animal Sciences page.

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Katie Woods is Farm and Dairy’s online content producer. She grew up in Columbiana, OH. Katie likes reading, writing, enjoying the outdoors and DIY projects.

30 COMMENTS

    • Well, I’m glad you did. My grandparents were dairy farmers and I still didn’t remember the difference between a cow and a heifer. So, thank you!

    • Well Mr. SMART ASS,
      I myself was raised in a big city, and never really had the chance to experience being around farm animals. Therefore, I found this article very interesting.

  1. Thank you for clarifying that for people. There are a lot of folks new to the industry. Those of us in farming tend to forget what is was like starting out if you didn’t come from a farm background. There are new folks to the industry all the time.

    • Thank you for your comment, Kristine. We hope that this information will be useful for those individuals who are new to the ag industry!

  2. Sad to say, but this HAS got to be taught and lernt today by the city and suburban crowd.

    As a former HS teacher of decades ago, I am appalled at what passes for “schooling” today. Foolishness.

    Most city-slickers don’t have a clue.

    When I taught in college and industry, I had a devil of a time getting facts across to students. Their retention and interest were like a colander or sieve. It all just “passed thru.” Very little “stuck.”

    Later, I used to give seminars to retirees working in factories and my “gimmick” was to ask the audience what they planned to do when they retired. I asked if they planned on walking in their own back yards. I would then bring out a sprig of an evergreen tree branch and some separate oak leaves and ask the crowd: “Which are deciduous and which are evergreen?”

    80% didn’t have a clue…..

    • Thank you for your comment. We hope that this information will be useful to those outside of the agriculture industry, as well as to those new to farming.

  3. You should correct a couple statements about Bulls. 1. Bulls are not castrated. If so they’d be steers! 2. Certainly the primary purpose for Bulls are breeding, but their meat is in demand for hamburg or extender in others meats to reduce cost.

    • Hi Joe,

      You are correct that bulls aren’t castrated. What is meant by that statement is that bull calves are not castrated because of their desired traits for breeding. I apologize for the misunderstanding.

  4. Katie, I raise Texas Longhorn cattle and after several years of being ask if my Longhorn steers have any calves this year, the answer is yep. Your a brave person to try and explain this and , After you get this all settled try to explain why some breeds , bulls and cows both have horns and some breeds neither have horns. Guess I should say male and females , don’t want to forget the steers and heifers.Wow, just too many choices, not easy raising cattle.

  5. I still laugh every time I hear the story of the city kids visiting the farm. One young boy asked the farmer why the cow did not have horns. The farmer was gracious and patient. He said, “There are at least three reasons why this animal might not have horns. Some cattle breeds don’t have horns. Sometimes the horns are removed for safety reasons. Or, the horns may not have grown and developed fully yet. But, the reason this “cow” does not have horns is that it is a horse.”

  6. I’m a City slicker and a Latin Percussionist and drum maker who has to buy and mount skins on different types of drums including Bongos and Congas of which there are three official types and names for. And these drums sound different depending on whether it has a cow a bull, a steer or a calf skin on it. People ask for a particular animal because of thickness and sound qualities to mach there playing style etc, but don’t know really what distinguishes one fom the other and I was confused about what the difference was between a Steer and a Bull as well as a heifer apposed to a cow and this article answered all my questions and clarified these things for me. And I appreciate that, now I can inform other drummers who may not know so they can be more informed too. I never can understand how and why educators criticize people for not knowing what they think others should already know. If they knew all these things then they the teachers would have to maybe milk cows or build drums for a living.
    Seasoned Citizen, do you know the differences between the three different types of congas drums and or thier respective names? Before you go googling that is.

    The joke about the cow that was a horse is funny!

  7. This is a great detailed account of these types of bovine. I am a student who is doing Meat Inspection as one of my courses. Truly, when you are explaining such kind of details sometimes it is amazing on how it seems to be baffling to some students! Especially those who have not been exposed to farm animals. But this does not guarantee us to taunt them. Learning never ends, not all things we expect people to know are known by them. Thank you very much.

  8. Oh Thank you for clarifying for detail. It makes me feel interest how to distinguish cow. Although I am not good at speak English, I understand everything! Thank u

  9. I have a little nephew who came the farm for the very first time. Understand that our family has been in Ag for centuries before we came to the U.S. in the late 1800’s. Wow is the family changing; when my nephew first saw a cow he said, “Look at the big kitty.” So I explained it all to him about goats, horses and cattle. He is very smart and quickly caught on to the terms bull, heifer, cow, though steer took a bit of explaining. “Why, why would they do that,” he said. “Doesn’t it hurt them?” Then he told me that he was a bull and asked me if I was one? I wasn’t ready for that, it blew me out of the water.

    When we got back to the house he said, “Mama, did you know you are a cow?”

    Kids are great and lots of fun, but never underestimate them, especially on the farm.

  10. Hi Katie,

    I’m a new consumer of purchasing meat directly from a farmer. I’m finding that there is a lot to be learned about sustainable farming, grass fed, natural, organic, etc. I know this conversation is different in scope, but the point is unless you are raised on a farm or gain exposure beyond knowing a cow’s sound is “moo” there is a lot to learn. Thank you for posting stuff for people who need 101 education about what may be common knowledge for others. Cow and horse…that means we need to do more to ensure people from various backgrounds are exposed to learning beyond the toils of their neighborhood. This is a job for parents and educators alike. I appreciate what you are doing!

  11. Are there Holstein(black and white) bulls? Or only cows are Holsteins? I’m trying to remember if I ever seen one? Maybe I don’t understand something? Educate me!

  12. Holstein is a dairy breed. The color doesn’t determine the sex. Which means you can have a Holstein bull (male), heifer (young female), cow (an older female, usually over 1 1/2 yrs old or older), steer (a male that has been castrated = male parts removed or banded).

  13. thanks for the reply, so then there can be bulls, cows, steers and heifers for any breed? So I would guess there are Black Angus cows? I live in Lancaster County, PA and I should know this stuff, but most cows here are Holsteins with a few Guernsey here and there. Anyway, thanks for educating me!

  14. Yep! Dairy or beef breeds, it doesn’t matter. Thanks for being willing to ask! I know how you feel about being around one type of farm. I grew up where there were all dairy farmers in a rural area. We raised a few beef cattle and I had horses. There wasn’t any remarks about the cattle, but I was always criticized for having my horses. I heard ‘What are you doing with those hay burners?’, more than once! Didn’t make you feel like you could ask your neighbors anything.

  15. ok, I’ll be on the lookout for Black Angus cows. So horses are hay burners? Never heard that! I live in Amish country, so I see a lot of horses and mules. Most people don’t know exactly what a mule is. That’s why I wasn’t sure if some types of steers are sorta like mules. Anyway, thanks for your info.

  16. Can you clarify this for me? I once worked for Swift & Company and, at that time (1966-69) most beef was from steers (males). I don’t remember selling any cows (females) to restaurants or big supermarkets. We may have sold Heifers, but I don’t remember for sure. Would USDA grade Heifers or Cows? Or just Steers?
    Thank you.

  17. Yes. USDA grades heifers and steers but, they will probably have different considerations for carcass quality. Also, the company that is buying the meat may pay differently for a light weight carcass, or a dense carcass from an old animal. Other than that, there really isn’t any way to know which carcass came from a heifer, cow, steer, or bull. (Although, it may be on the carcass tag for point of purchase information.) Some companies purchase by hanging weight and will deduct if the carcass is not optimal quality, while other companies will buy live and pay so much per head or live weight. When live, you can expect most companies to pay a little less per head for heifers vs. steers. A LOT less for old cows and bulls. Hope that helped answer your question!

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