Cow Gestation Period: How Long are Cows Pregnant?

Written by Brandi Allred
Published: July 13, 2022
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Cows are some of the most easily recognizable animals on the planet. We rely on them for food, milk, and leather. But, just how long is a cow’s gestation period? Wherever they are on the planet, and no matter what breed, all cows reproduce the same way. In fact, cow is the word we use for female cattle that have had at least one calf. Multiple members of the Bos taurus species are known as cattle, and baby cattle are known as calves. Intact male cattle are bulls, and gelded male cattle are known as steers.

Here, we’ll learn a little more about what makes a cow a cow. Then, we’ll discover just how long cow gestation lasts and how many babies a cow can have at once. Finally, we’ll learn what signs to watch for to tell whether or not cows are pregnant.

Read on to learn more about cow gestation period!

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Cattle: The Facts

steer vs bull

Thanks to domestication, cows live on every continent except Antarctica.

©Berezovaya Nonna/Shutterstock.com

Cows are large, cloven-hoofed bovines kept by humans as livestock and pets. The first cows were bred from wild ancestors around 10,000 years ago in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Today, there are over 1.5 billion cattle on Earth. Without selective human breeding, cattle wouldn’t even exist! That’s why, for cattle ranchers, it’s important to understand cow gestation and just what it takes to raise cattle for human use and consumption.

Appearance

Cattle have four legs, long bodies, and heavy heads set on thick necks. Most cattle have long tails tipped in hair, which they use to flick flies away. They rely on their size, sharp hooves, and strength in numbers to fend off predators. They have excellent senses of vision, taste, and smell, which they use to find food, and avoid dangers. Cattle come in various colors, including brown, white, black, tan, and combinations of any two colors.

Size

Zebu bull in a field

There are many different breeds of cattle, each with its unique size, coloration, and behavioral tendencies.

©Scott Bauer – Public Domain by United States Department of Agriculture

Modern cattle stand anywhere from 30-65 inches tall at the shoulder. The largest breed of cattle in the world is the Chianina, which can reach over 71 inches tall at the shoulder. These cows may weigh over 2,000 pounds and have some of the longest cow gestation periods. One of the smallest cattle breeds in the world is the Zebu, which reaches around 42 inches tall at the shoulder and generally weighs around 600 pounds. 

Diet

Cattle are herbivores and eat strictly plant materials. Their typical foods include grass, hay, grain, and other forbs. Cattle can eat several pounds of feed per day. But, because they’re ruminants, they actually chew their food twice. 

Cattle use their front teeth to grasp and pull grasses and forbs into their mouths, along with their large tongues. Then, they use their cheek teeth to mash up the tough grass before swallowing it. The grass is partially digested in the stomach, then regurgitated to be chewed once more. This constant chewing is known as “chewing the cud” and is one of the cow’s most characteristic activities.

Behavior

steer vs bull

Cattle are herd animals, which made them prime targets for human domestication thousands of years ago.

©iStock.com/Rodrigo Narvaez

When it comes to cow gestation, it’s important to understand that all extant cattle are domestic animals. This means that owners and ranchers carefully control the ways their cattle spend their lives. Many cattle are free-ranging and spend spring, summer, and fall foraging on managed cattle ranges. Like other herd animals, like horses, sheep, and goats, cattle stick together, with older cows and bulls dominating younger members of the herd.

How Long are Cows Pregnant?

Cow gestation periods range from 279-287 days. That means that cows are typically pregnant for a little more than nine months. Interestingly, cows’ gestation periods are almost exactly as long as human gestation periods, which typically last about 280 days. Cow pregnancies may seem long, but they’re nothing when compared to the 645-day gestation of African elephants. Sperm whales also have very long gestations that may last up to 590 days. Virginia opossums have one of the shortest known gestation periods, lasting only 12 days. 

Can Cows have Twins?

cow and calf

Cows typically have only one calf at a time, with a period of 50-60 days in between pregnancies.

©iStock.com/Diane Kuhl

Twinning is very rare in cattle, less than 2% of births result in more than one calf. Cow gestation is long, and calves are large and well developed at birth, which makes twins very uncommon. When twins are comprised of a male and a female twin, the female is known as a freemartin

Freemartins are infertile female calves born to twin fertile male calf brothers. In almost every case of male/female calf twinning, the male twin is fertile, while the female twin is infertile. This is because of certain effects of sharing a womb. During development, the freemartin twin is genetically female but does not develop female sexual characteristics. She may even develop some male characteristics. 

How Can You Tell a Cow is Pregnant?

One of the first signs that a cow’s gestation is underway is a lack of heat, or estrus, in the cow. Pregnant cows don’t go into heat until after they’ve given birth. Also, mother cows to-be develop bigger udders; the further along they are, the larger their udder. As the fetal calf grows, the cow’s belly will also grow rounder, firmer, and larger. Further, bull cattle have almost no interest in pregnant cows. 

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Mostovyi Sergii Igorevich/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Brandi is a professional writer by day and a fiction writer by night. Her nonfiction work focuses on animals, nature, and conservation. She holds degrees in English and Anthropology, and spends her free time writing horror, scifi, and fantasy stories.

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