Lots of guests come into the farmyard, see Max, and call him a “cow.” I assume that a few know he’s not a cow but choose to use “cow” rather than “steer” because it’s an easier word of small kids, but I’d bet more people just don’t know what the difference is. So here’s a quick run down of the various common terms used for cattle:
Cow – A female who has had a baby (or many babies).
Heifer- A female who has not had a baby.
Bull- An intact male.
Steer- A castrated male.
Ox/Oxen- adult, male or female, trained in draft work (pulling). Often males that have been castrated as adults.
Calf- A baby, male or female.
Bullock- In the UK, a castrated male. In the USA, an intact male, less than a year old.
Cattle- either gender (or both) in a group.
What about the horns?
Horns are common on both males and females, especially in dairy breeds. It’s not usually possible to tell if you’re looking at a bull or cow just by looking at their face. You’d need to get a look at their bellies to tell them apart for sure. Udders are only visibly present in cows. Heifers have udders but they aren’t typically distended or visibly hanging because she’s never had a calf. Intact males are bulls, castrated males are steer.
Some cattle are naturally hornless. This is called being “polled” and is a genetic trait in cattle that can be passed down to their offspring. It’s also common for cattle on farms to have their horns removed as very young babies, so they never grow, and to have the horns on adult cattle cut or blunted so they don’t hurt each other or the people working with them. Max keeps his own horns blunted by rubbing them on all sorts of stuff, like toys, stumps, and his fence.
Max, napping in the sun
An adorable little Jersey heifer with her horns
Here’s a handsome naturally polled, Jersey bull from MaryJanesFarm in Idaho.