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Cow, Steer, or Heifer? What’s the Big Difference?

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Cow terminology has become fairly popular in modern day culture, especially the word heifer, but did you know that not all female cows are called heifer? In fact, not all cows are actually referred to as cows.

There is a big difference between the terms cow, steer, heifer, and bull when it comes to cattle. It all can get a little confusing so it is important to learn the differences, especially if you plan on being around cattle in some aspect or another.

Three cows in the mountains with sky in background

Knowing the right terminology for cattle is vital for not only understanding their monetary value but also being able to communicate effectively with other cattle enthusiasts.

Heifer vs Cow

Many people mistakenly believe that a heifer is a cow, but that is not the case. It is vital to know the difference between them.  

Are All Female Cows Heifers?

All female cows are not heifers. A cow is a female domesticated bovine that has given birth to one or more calves in their lives while heifers are young female domesticated bovine that are no longer considered calves but have still not had their first calf yet.

You could say that all female cows were once heifers but they are not anymore. 

What Do You Call an Old Cow?

Old cows that are no longer able to become pregnant and produce calves are called cull cows. They are given this name because they need to be culled, or removed, from the rest of the herd since they are no longer producing calves.

set of heifer eating straw outside the cow farm

How Can You Tell the Difference Between a Cow and a Heifer?

You can tell the difference between a cow and a heifer by comparing the size of their bodies and looking at their udders. Cows will be larger overall in size than a heifer because they are older and more mature.

Heifers will have udders that are small and harder to see. Cows will have larger, far more developed udders because they have carried large amounts of milk in them.

What is a Free Martin?

A free martin is a heifer that is an infertile female bovine that was born alongside a male twin. While in utero, the male’s hormones cause a genetic abnormality in any female twin that results in infertility.

Almost all free martins are infertile; it is extremely rare for one to be fertile. From the outside, free martins are not easily distinguished from fertile heifer, but veterinarians can test for it to be sure.

Steers vs Bulls

Male cattle are classified as either steers or bulls. There is a noticeable, distinct difference in the two that is easy to identify visually.

What is the Difference Between a Steer and a Bull?

When it comes to cattle, a steer is a male domesticated bovine that has been castrated. Male calves that are not intended for breeding are usually castrated, by testicle removal, before they are six months old.

A male bovine that is fertile and has the potential to reproduce either now or in the future is classified as a bull. Most small cattle farm owners only need one bull in the pasture to fertilize their whole herd.

steady black bull and other bulls on background

How Can You Tell the Difference Between a Steer and a Bull?

You can tell the difference between a steer and a bull by looking for testicles. An adult bull will have large, noticeable testicles while a steer will have no testicles at all.

You do not have to get too close to a bull to check for testicles, and you should not for safety reasons. Wait for the bull to turn its body away from you and look below its behind area for testicles.

Does Bull Meat Taste Different Than Steer Meat?

While some farmers prefer one over the other, for the most part, bull meat does not taste different than steer meat. A study published by the Cambridge University Press in 2010 showed that there was not a noticeable difference in the taste, juiciness, or the fat in the meat harvested from steers and bulls. (source)

Are Steers or Bulls Better Suited for Meat Production?

Bulls grow larger faster than steers do, so some farmers prefer bulls for meat production. Faster growth means less time they have to feed, shelter, and care for the animal.

Steers can still grow just as large, but it will take longer to reach maturity which means more food and care. Steers are better suited for meat production on smaller farms that want to avoid keeping multiple bulls in the same pasture.

Bulls are better suited for meat production on large farms that want to save time and money. If the farm is equipped to care for a large number of young bulls, then their rapid growth is worth the reward.

What is a Steer Good For?

Steers are good for several things including meat production as well as being a friendly farm animal or pet. Many farm owners raise or purchase steers for the sole purpose of harvesting them for their meat.

Steers are also great options for farm pets because they are often significantly more docile and friendly than bulls or even female cows. Petting zoos and small farms will often keep steers strictly because they are easy to manage, do not pose a threat to females, and make great pets.

At What Age Can Male Calves be Castrated?

Male calves that are not destined for breeding purposes should be castrated between one week and around 6 months of age. Some cattle owners prefer to wait until after the calf is weaned from its mother while others have it done within the first week of birth.

The older the calf is, the more pain it will experience from the removal. Older calves are also harder to manage, making the whole process more difficult all around.

cow inside the fence on the farm

Cows vs Steers

Do We Eat Cows or Steers?

We eat cows and steers because they both produce high quality meat. Steers are more often intended for meat production, so they are more likely to be harvested for meat on small farms.

Cows can end up being processed because they are unable to produce offspring anymore or they are too difficult to handle. The meat from both cows and steers has superb quality, although some farmers prefer one over the other.

How Can You Tell if it is a Cow or a Steer?

You can tell if a bovine you encounter is a female cow or a steer by looking for a couple of tell-tale characteristics. Cows will have a vulva under their tales that sits below their anus.

Cows will also have noticeable udders. Steers do not have vulvas or udders.

How Can You Tell if it is a Heifer or a Steer?

You can tell the difference between a heifer and steer much the same way you do with female cows and steers. The easiest method is to check for an udder, although they are smaller and harder to see from a distance on a young heifer.

You can also check under the bovines tail to see if it has a vulva. Do not bother checking for a male’s testicles, as they will be absent from a steer.

Cows grazing on a green summer meadow under blue clear sky

Important Cattle Terminology

TermDescriptionIdentifiable Characteristics
HeiferFemale bovine that has not given birth before.Small udder, smaller body frame, vulva under tail area.
CowFemale bovine that has given birth at least once.Large udder, larger body frame, vulva under tail area.
SteerMale bovine that has been castrated.Testicles absent, no vulva.
BullMale bovine that has not been castrated.Testicles intact, no vulva.
Cull CowOld cow that is no longer producing calves.Thin frame, poor body score.
Free MartinFemale calf born along with a male twin, likely infertile.Small udder, vulva under tail, otherwise unidentifiable without testing.

Final Thoughts

Learning the right terminology for cattle is extremely important when getting into cattle or if you just wanted to understand what exactly cattle owners are talking about.

Cow does not mean just any ol’ cow, in the eyes of a cattle farmer. There is a distinct, and hopefully now a more understandable, difference between a heifer, cow, bull, and a steer.  


Researching the differences between cows, heifers, steers, and bulls is extremely interesting and important if you are delving into the cattle field. Here are the resources used in this article.