As silly as this may seem, one of the most important and absolutely crucial things to know with regards to keeping and raising cattle is this:
Telling, not to mention fully memorizing, the differences between cows, bulls, heifers and steers.
It seems so rudimentary and basic because well, it is. For the real newbie cow keepers, understanding that sexing a bovine involves having to look between the legs and under the tail may seem a little awkward at first, but believe me, it gets easier and far less awkward with time.
Common misconceptions that only cows are black and white and bulls are only solid brown with horns first need busting, because these are only partly true. Those B&W cows are actually just a type (breed) of bovine, called Holstein (or Holstein-Friesian). The Holstein breed is the most common dairy breed in the world, known for its high milk production. Not just the cows are black and white, but so are the bulls, steers and heifers that are identified as that breed.
As for those brown horned bulls, they also belong to various different breeds where their female counterparts are also brown and horned. Braunvieh, Brown Swiss, Jersey, Gelbvieh, Tarentaise, and many other breeds are identified with the bulls, cows, steers and heifers as brown and horned. Where the myth that only bulls are solid brown and horned escapes me, however I can only think of the portrayal by the media of Spanish Fighting bulls in bullfighting rings as the only possibility for the perpetration of this urban legend.
Speaking of horns, one more myth that commonly hangs out there is that only bulls have horns and cows do not. For most cattle breeds except some Afrikaaner strains, both bulls and cows have equal chances of being horned or polled (not horned). Horn genetics are determined by an autosomal gene which both parents carry. I will write another post about horn genetics at a later date to expand on this topic.
Now, let's get down to business of how you actually tell the difference between cows, bulls, heifers and steers!
A really good cattle person can tell whether a cow is indeed a cow by just looking at the body and facial features. Cows should look feminine, with a fairly fine head and neck, and a smooth top line from the head to the base of the tail. They will have no shoulder/neck crests nor as much muscling around the shoulders and hips like a typical bull. Zebu or Brahman-type cows will have a small hump over their shoulders, however this is indeed smaller compared with their intact male counterparts that have a much larger and bulbous hump. Over all that though, the best place to look to see if you're actually looking at a cow is between her hind legs.
There, you will find the udder. The udder is basically a pink (or black or brown, depending on the cow) bag-like organ with four cylindrical "knobs" hanging down called teats. This is, of course, where milk comes from, where her calf will be often suckling from to fill its belly with good nutritious milk. Some producers call this the "milk bar." With exception of most dairy cows and beef cows after weaning, cows often have a younger Mini-Me version of themselves (not always, but close) at their side, nursing away.
The third way to tell if the bovine you're looking at is indeed female, is to have a peek under the tail (easiest when she's swishing flies away, her rear end is in your direction, or she's holding her tail off to the side.) This is where you'll see her vulva. This is where she urinates from, where the penis of the bull goes in to breed her, and where a newborn calf emerges from. It's basically a slit with a little prepuce hanging down from it. The vulva is always found just below the anus. A cow's vulva is typically bigger and more defined than a heifer's, mostly because they get that way after having at least one calf in her lifetime.
As a cow keeper, you will often find yourself checking a cow's vulva for different colours of mucus discharge, or swelling and reddening, or other signs to see if she's going in heat, or is ready to calve. And believe you me, she won't mind you checking her out.
Bulls are built to be big, muscular, intimidating-looking beasts. They look masculine, with their wide foreheads, thick muscular necks that often form a nice crest, broad shoulders and muscling in the hind quarters. They often have a blocky appearance, with their feet set somewhat wider apart. Once a person has figured out the differences in just physical features between cows and bulls, it can actually be pretty easy to find the bull in amongst the cow herd. Usually, though not often, he'll be a little taller than most of the cows, and certainly more muscly.
Look for a football-like-shaped sac hanging between his hind legs. That's the surest sign you're looking at a bull; easiest done when you've got a good side-view of him, and when one of his hind legs isn't blocking the view. Don't be surprised by the sheer size of the testes: Bovines are big animals, so just like where a cow is going to have some pretty large mammary glands, bulls are going to have some good-sized gonads too. I'm serious!
Bulls also have an unmistakable hairy prepuce hanging down from the middle of their underline, or belly, right at their navel. The prepuce or sheath is much more defined in bulls than in steers, and occasionally you may see a pink protrusion hanging from this prepuce. This is the tip of the bull's penis. The sheath is actually where the penis is housed and protected from being stepped on or damaged in anyway, and remains until the very moment the bull is ready to breed a cow. Cows and heifers never have this sheath. Some cows and heifers may have some loose skin hanging down from their navels (often in Zebu-type cattle), but this is just skin, not a sign that they're male.
Heifers are basically just the younger, more immature versions of cows. They tend to have that youthful look about them; like they're overgrown calves, but not at full maturity yet. Heifers are going to be smaller than their more mature and older female counter parts, simply because they are young female bovines.
Heifers and steers, particularly steers that are the same age as most heifers, tend to be the toughest to tell apart. As I'll explain more below, steers lack the masculine characteristics of bulls, and thus appear more feminine. The only thing is that heifers don't urinate from their bellies like a steer or bull does. Heifers always pee out from under the tail, which is where the vulva sits. A heifer also doesn't have the prepuce nor the little long tuft of hair hanging down from her navel.
Heifers also haven't developed their udders yet because they haven't birthed a calf. If you can get close enough and squat down and get at the right angle to see under her hind legs, though, you can see four little teats. On many beef and dairy cattle operations, a heifer is typically bred at around 15 months of age to have her first calf when she's 2 years old (or 24 months of age). The udder won't begin to develop until a heifer is in the last trimester of her pregnancy. A heifer's vulva is also quite small as well, and will get bigger both as the heifer reaches maturity, and after she's had her first calf.
Because a steer is a castrated males, he tends to bear similar physical characteristics as bulls do, such as the prepuce at their navel, except without the obvious testicular sac hanging from between their rear legs. Steers still have a penis like bulls do, don't worry about that, and as mentioned above, they definitely urinate from under their belly.
Most steers are castrated when they are quite young. They're born intact as bull calves, but are castrated as per industry standard (in much of North America anyway). Steers are typically more safe to handle than bulls are, which is the main reason why bulls are made into steers when they're quite young, or before they are sold off the operation to be fed as feeders for the meat market. Bulls don't go into puberty until they they are almost a year old, where the testosterone kicks in and they begin developing their secondary sexual characteristics like more muscling, a neck crest, increase in scrotal size, and a more defined sheath. Thus when they are castrated prior to sexual maturity, they tend to have more feminine characteristics like heifers do: a smooth top-line, and a finer face and neck.
Here's the kicker though. Bulls can be castrated at any time in their lives; they don't have to be cut when young to become steers. They can be castrated at 2 years old and still be then called steers, even though they will still retain most of their masculine physical characteristics typical of an intact male bovine. But because most steers are castrated much younger, they bear more of a feminine-like look than if they were kept intact.
As mentioned above, telling steers apart from heifers can be difficult. Other than watching from which part of their body they urinate from, the next best tell-tale sign is whether a vulva is present or absent from under the tail. If there's no vulva and just the anus, then it's a steer (or bull). If there's "two holes" (vulva and anus present), then it's a heifer (or cow).
And there you have it!
Now I have made you experts in how to tell the difference between cows, bulls, heifers and steers!
I hope this has helped you on your journey on to become good cow keepers. Now you know that coat colouration and horn presence makes no different in telling the sexes of bovines, you are much better prepared to know what you're looking at when you start looking at what to start raising, or simply when visiting a farm.
This is more of a "farmers/ranchers only" section where I share and expound on the various tips, tricks, and information on how to raise cows and cattle, from feeding and grazing to breeding, to handling and keeping them healthy. This is really for anyone who wants to raise cows, or is already doing so!
Range Nerd, Forage & Grazing Fanatic and a Bovine Enthusiast. A love for farming, and for the soil.