brown cow

Bovine Basics: They’re not all cows


It’s June Dairy Month, and with temperatures over 90 degrees almost every day this week, it sure feels like summer! Based on how quickly my boys started sweating when we played outside yesterday morning, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that we weren’t quite ready for this heat, but we’re definitely loving the sunshine!

To celebrate Dairy this month, I’m planning to focus on the stars of the show (at least on the farm): the cows! I didn’t grow up on a farm, and my exposure to cattle prior to meeting David was limited to my grandpa’s beef cows. Even with that little bit of exposure, I knew very little, so I’m well aware that the average person may only know that cows live in a barn, eat hay, and say “moo”. That’s all pretty true, but with some needed elaboration and exceptions, of course.

Society as a whole has decided to call all cattle/bovines cows, and that alone has made it harder for farmers to have conversations about what we do because it almost creates a language barrier. In order to talk to consumers, we also end up calling most of our animals cows, but it can be a struggle because when we’re here at home, or at an industry event, they’re definitely not all cows.

Bovine Terms Defined

I’ll start with the basic definitions, and then I will elaborate on what that means, specifically, at our farm. The correct term for an animal can vary based on gender, age, and reproductive status.

  • Cow: A female bovine who has had at least one calf.
  • Heifer: A female bovine who has not yet had a calf.
  • Bull: A male bovine with all his reproductive parts.
  • Steer: A male bovine that has been castrated.
  • Calf: A young bovine, typically under 1 year.

As you can see, many animals might be identified by more than one of these terms at different points in their lives.

What do we call our animals?

When a calf is born, it is either a bull or a heifer. On our farm we generally refer to these to newborns together as hut calves because they live in hutches (the technical term), which we have always called huts. Male and female are identified before weaning as bull calves and heifer calves.

We continue to call the heifers calves until they’re around a year old (close to breeding age). At that approximate breeding age, we will start calling the females heifers. Once they’ve been confirmed pregnant they are bred heifers, and after they calve, they finally become the much-acclaimed cows! The cows are the only ones who give milk, and they each have a calf roughly once a year. Between calves, a cow takes a little vacation from milking, and during that vacation is known as a dry cow.

These female animals make up the majority of the herd, but we do have a few males around. Before weaning, any males that stay on our farm are castrated, so they become steers. All males we raise are fed to become beef, so they don’t have any use for their reproductive parts. Steers still grow well and are safer to handle than bulls. We use 100% AI (Artificial Insemination) breeding, so when we talk about bulls, we’re usually referring to male animals owned by or housed at genetics companies, whose semen we purchase and store frozen in a tank filled with liquid nitrogen.

As of June 2020, we have roughly 80 dairy cows, 85 dairy heifers (all ages) and 10 dairy steers. So now you know that if you ask us how the cows are doing, you’re probably going to get an answer that mostly pertains to the milking herd, which is a little less than half the animals on our farm. If you’re curious about them all, the term cattle would apply. The cows are, however, the primary focus, and we wouldn’t have dairy farms or dairy products without happy, healthy cows! Happy June Dairy Month!

4 thoughts on “Bovine Basics: They’re not all cows

  1. Hi, I love your posts. They help keep me balanced while I am inundated with more propaganda than truth. Also, thanks for the vocabulary. We can’t communicate if we don’t know what words mean. Good job.

    Why are there more heifers than cows? Is this an unusual, temporary situation or pretty much the norm?

    1. Thanks so much! Usually there are roughly equal numbers of cows and heifers, at least on our farm. It can vary year to year and month to month based on numerous factors. Our heifer count is a little bit higher now because we’ve actually been reducing our milking herd size.

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