Telling the Differences Between Bulls, Cows, Steers and Heifers

The biggest problem I find among many who are just starting out with cattle or even learning how to raise cattle is that they often can’t discern the difference between what bulls, cows, steers or heifers are. The biggest problem is the word “cow”, which I will touch base with first.


A cow is actually a mature, female bovine that has had at least one or two calves. Many people mistakenly refer to a “cow” as a highly general (or colloquial) term for all bovines regardless of gender, size, age, type, or breed. It should be noted that most, if not all veteran cattle people do not use the colloquial term “cow” as frequently as one may think. Quite often, in order to refer to a group of bovines in a general term, instead of calling them “cows,” they are called “animals,” “cattle,” “critters,” or even one or more explicative words that should never be mentioned on this site. Cows, on the other hand, can be distinguished apart from other genders by simply looking for a pendulous sac with four cylindrical knobs at the base–which is called an udder–between the hind legs.

Cows are not just black and white, nor are they without horns. A cow can be any colour and colouration, horned or not horned, dairy and beef, and comes in every breed of bovine imaginable. It is pure myth that only the bulls are horned. If you spotted a bovine with horns that was nursing a calf, there is a very high chance that that “bull” is actually a cow. Bulls do not nurse calves; they are incapable of doing so because they lack the “means” to do so. The udder of a cow is not simply a useless, pendulous appendage, but rather a piece of anatomy that produces milk for that calf to get its food and nutrition from. Thus simply seeing the horns of an individual bovine and using that as a means to determine the sex of a bovine is definitely not the solution to use in distinguishing the difference between a bull and a cow!

Cows are distinguished from their male and younger female counterparts by not only their udder, but also their conformational features, such as less muscling over the shoudlers and neck, and lack of a broad head. A cow is typically smooth from the poll (which is the top part of the head) all the way to the tail head, or top/base of the tail. She usually has no navel prespuce except if she has some Zebu or Brahma in her, and will have a prepuce under the tail beneath the anus. This is the vulva, the female reproductive organ where she copulates with the bull, urinates and gives birth to a calf. Only the female bovines will have this prepuce, no bulls nor steers will have this, only the anus.

A bull, by definition, is an intact (uncastrated) male bovine, regardless of age. A young bull is often referred to as a bullock. Bulls that are younger than weaning age and still suckling from their dams are called bull calves. Mature bulls themselves are large, muscular, intimidating-looking beasts. If you thought a big cow was intimidating, you won’t know intimidating until you’ve seen a big bull. A bull can be easily distinguished from other bovines in a herd by his immense size and muscularity. A good bull is well muscled in the neck, shoulders, and rump, and will often display a muscular crest in his neck due to this.

It’s impossible to not be able to distinguish a bull from a herd of cows if you know that a bull is bigger and muscular than a cow will ever be. Bulls of the Brahma or Zebu type will have a very large circular hump over their shoulders, and a more “looser” sheath than bulls that are non-Zebu or of the European type. The majority of bulls in North America, if not around the world today are polled or not horned. This is mostly due to safety reasons for the owner and handlers as well as market demands for naturally/genetically polled cattle. Bulls also come in a wide variety of colours and colourations, from black and white (yes, even bulls come in the Holstein colouration!), to all black or all white and any other colour–except green, purple, pink, true blue, and bright, fluorescent colours.

Many bulls, however, cannot be identified by their intimidating size and masculine muscularity. Some may look like a cow at one end and a bull at the other. By that I mean that all bulls have an oblong, often football-shaped sac hanging down between their legs. This is called the scrotum where the testicles are housed. Moving further towards the center and underline of the belly is a navel area where a hairy prepuce is found. This is called the sheath and is where the penis comes through during the time a bull mounts and copulates a cow or a heifer. All bulls have this from even before the time they are born. Steers also have this but often to a lesser extent.


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