Cattle: Part 1: Terms

A heifer calf

A heifer calf

As you probably know, I live on a cattle ranch. Since I know about cattle, I often notice mistakes in books. Here, I’m going to try to help you avoid those mistakes.

The most common mistake is terms used. There is no good unisex name for a single bovine. Most people mistakingly call the animal a “cow” but “cow” is reserved for an older female of the species. If your character is a city kid, he or she may not know this, but if you’re writing about ranchers, you should get these right.

Cow: A female, generally two years of age or older. They’re the ones who produce milk. Keep in mind, they need to give birth to produce milk. Once the calf is weaned, generally at six to ten months, the cow stops producing milk unless someone is milking them. Cows normally have one calf a year. When the calf is old enough, the owners wean it so the cow gets a break before she calves again. Cows are often protective of their calves. Trying to approach a cow with a newborn calf is likely to be more dangerous than approaching a bull. (Our milk cows are accustomed to people around their calves, but the beef cows are not.)

Heifer: A young cow, normally two years or less. (The dictionary says “One who has not borne a calf.”) We also sometimes call calves a “heifer” or “steer” calf if we are specifying gender.

Yearling: Year-old cattle of either gender. They tend to be playful. Bulls of this age aren’t likely to be as aggressive as an older bull.

Our dog Sam with some calves who are only a month or so from being yearlings. As you can tell, they are curious but not likely to get aggressive toward a dog. (Cows often consider dogs a threat to their calves.) These yearlings are heifers and steers.

Bull: An intact male. They weigh around a ton, though it depends on the breed. A ranch has about one bull per 10-20 cows. Bulls can be aggressive toward people. Most ranches try to get rid of the aggressive ones. An injured or tired bull may charge if it doesn’t want to be moved. Most of our bulls are more likely to want fed than to attack a person. Bulls will often fight with each other, which sometimes leads to serious injury.

The big one on the left is a bull. The four on the right are our milk cows.

Steer: A castrated bull. Castration makes them less aggressive than bulls and they don’t have serious fights with other steers. (This generally happens before they are six months old.) It’s rare to see a steer older than two years since they are only used for slaughter, though we sometimes keep one until he’s three because they get huge. (I believe the oxen were steers broke to the plow, but I have no experience with that.) Year-old steers are very curious and playful.

Calf: A baby of either sex, generally under a year old.

Next: Cattle stampedes, Horns, and Intelligence.

I’ll do my best to answer any questions you have about cattle or livestock in general.


About Jessi L. Roberts

I live and work on my family’s cattle ranch in eastern Montana. I have a flock of chickens, a hyper golden retriever, some cows, and a few horses. I enjoy fantasy and science fiction and my head is full of wild sci-fi story ideas, some involving apocalypses and others involving aliens. I have been published twice in Havok Magazine, an imprint of Splickity.
This entry was posted in Musings, Ranch, Writing Tips and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Cattle: Part 1: Terms

  1. FaithSong says:

    This information will be useful! It almost makes me want to write a story involving cattle… *makes a mental note to finish Camp novel first*


  2. Pingback: Cattle: Part 2: Stampedes, Horns, and Intelligence | Jessi L. Roberts, author

  3. Pingback: Things I Dislike in Books | Jessi L. Roberts, author

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