What exactly is the difference between cows, cattle, bison, heifer, bulls and more? During my time working on a cattle ranch I really struggled to get my head around all these terms, thinking everything that’s “mooing” simply is called a cow. Well, now I know better and want to share with you the differences between all these terms.
It’s actually not that complicated. Cows describe female bovines after they have given birth for the first time. Heifers, on the other hand, have yet to give birth. Bulls are male bovines, that have not been castrated. Sterilized bulls are called steers. An Ox has more to do with the use of the animal, which is mostly drafting, for that reason most Oxen are also steers. Buffalos are quite simply another genus of the bovine species.
All this information can be quite overwhelming, so I will break it down in a more detailed manner also going a bit more in depth. Winning the next bovine related pub-quiz, or bragging about your “Cow-knowledge”, will be an easy task once you finished reading.
But before we can start getting into the differences between all these different terms, we first have to establish, what a bovine is.
What is a Bovine or the Bovidae family
“Bovine” is the subfamily, which includes all different kinds of cattle, Bison and all other similar looking animals. This might sound a bit alien, the only important thing to know is, that all bison, cattle, buffaloes, etc are all considered Bovines, you’ll get a clearer picture towards the end of the article.
Difference between Cow, Heifer, Bull, Steer, Ox, and Calves
Let’s start with the easy one. Cows are female animals, that already gave birth at least once. A cow does not have to be from the bovine species. Mature female whales, elephants, and some other animals are also called “cow”. Despite all this “Cows” are generally associated with mature females of the bovine species. Sometimes “Cows” is used as a synonym for Cattle, I will go into more detail on that later.
Heifers are female bovines, which are not yet mature and have not given birth. After having a calf a Heifer automatically becomes a Cow. There are still some more distinctions. For example, a Heiferette is a Heifer older than 2 years. An infertile Heifer is called a Freemartin, but you probably will never need these terms, except for the odd pub-quiz.
A Bull is simply an intact (and mature) male used for breeding. Bulls tend to be a bit more aggressive and should be treated respectfully. When working with bulls getting in their way is a mistake you can only make once.
A Steer is a male, that has been castrated before maturity. Castrating a male after maturity makes him a stag. Steers are (obviously) not used for breeding, but rather for meat production.
An Ox is used for manual labor like drafting or hauling. Oxen can be both male and female but are mostly cows or steers.
Now the funny part, all these terms can be used for different animals, as these terms are not bound to the bovine family. It’s for example, common to say an Buffalo-bull, or an Elephant-bull. The only exception is the term “Ox”, mainly because we only use bovine animals for this purpose.
Difference between Cows and Cattle
Probably the most confusing difference is between the terms “Cows” and “Cattle”. As explained earlier Cows are mature female animals. We can describe a mother elephant as Elephant-cow this way. To make it a bit more confusing, the term “cow” does not say anything about species of the animal. In everyday language “cow” is used to describe mature female bovines.
Cattle is used to describe a group of bovines, regardless of age, sex, and purpose. So simply but all (Bovine) Cows are cattle but cattle does not have to be Cows. This is at least the theoretical approach to this issue.
In everyday language, both terms are used synonymously, which created a big confusion for me, when I had to work with cattle for the first time. So, when speaking about a group of bovines the term cattle is correct to use and not cows, as it is commonly done.
So now let’s take a look at some other terms, which might be confusing at first. Buffalo, Bison and Cattle, are they all the same? And if not, what is the difference?
Difference between Buffalo, Bison, and Cattle
Buffaloes, Bison and Cattle all belong to the Bovidae family, they do however have quite some difference between them.
One of the key distinctions between cattle and bison has to be the role of domestication. Cattle have been domesticated for more than 10000 years. This results in animals much more accustom to human farming. Bison, however, are generally still considered wild animals, even though there are some bison farms out there.
Bison are also more resilient to whether conditions, require little to no shelter and prefer grazing over being feed. Another big difference is the use of these animals, Bison are not used for milk production. They are only breed to produce meat on a commercial scale.
There is however one other kind of milk, which is sometimes found in stores: Buffalo Milk. So what is the difference between Buffaloes and Bison ?
Bison and Buffaloes are often confused with each other, but there are some key differences between these two bovines, which can help you to tell them apart.
Bison are native to North and South America as well as Europe, Buffaloes reside mostly in Africa or Asia. While being part of the same family, Buffaloes have been domesticated, unlike Bison.
To easily distinguish between Bison and Buffaloes, you can look at their horns. Bison in general do have smaller horns similar to regular cattle. Buffaloes, on the other hand, have much larger horns, used for protection.
As mentioned Buffaloes are also used for milk production. While there are a lot of different Buffaloes types, most commonly used are Asian Water Buffaloes. Because of the difference in location Bison and Buffaloes developed some distinct trades, to adjust to local climate.
Bison, for example, are more cold resistant and can live in places like Wyoming. They do however share more common
Compared to Cattle, Bisons, and Buffaloes are build with broader features and are generally bigger in size. While cattle can have horns, Bison and Buffaloes always do
Some Fun facts:
- Bison do have a Beard and are the largest land animal in North America
- Calves of Bison are often called “red dogs” because of their orange-red color
- A Bison can run up to 35 miles per hour, are very agile and can even swim
- Buffaloes use their horns to protect themselves from larger predators like tigers and lions
- Buffalo milk has a very high-fat content when compared to regular milk
- There are more than 800 different cattle breeds recognized worldwide.
- Cows can sleep while they are standing
- Cows actually can see color, still a bull charging a Matador is caused by the movement of the flag, not the red color.
What is the difference between herd and cattle? A Herd describes a big group of animals living or travelling together. Cattle only applies for a group of animals of the bovine species. Its not uncommon to say a Herd of Cattle.
What is a yak? Yaks are related to Cattle and also belong to the subfamily of Bovines. They live in colder climates, are native to the Himalayas and Tibet with dark long hair, a mane, and a horse-like tail.