Heifer vs Cow: What Are the Differences?

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Written by Kyle Glatz

Updated: January 23, 2023

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When you’re looking out upon a field of large ruminant animals, you might be tempted to call them all cows. That’s not a very precise term, though. The same bovine animal can be called cows, heifers, steer, bulls, and more. We’re going to take a closer look at a heifer vs cow, and you’ll learn how to tell the differences between these animals and the others that belong to the same family as them. Some of these distinctions might be smaller than you would see between different species, but you’ll know the most important ways that a heifer and cow are unique.

Comparing a Heifer vs Cow

Heifers are female cattle without calves, and cows are female cattle with calves.

The term cow is often used to refer to any animal within the Bos genus of domestic and wild cattle. Yet, it’s possible to distinguish the animals within this family in several ways. What is a heifer cow anyway? Heifers are mature female cattle that have not given birth to any calves (baby cows). The term cow specifically refers to adult female cattle that have had calves at some point in their lives.

As we’ve said, many people refer to any member of this family as a cow, such as when they drive by a field of cattle and exclaim, “oh, cows!” Not only are heifers and cows different, but many other terms exist to refer to cattle.

Key Differences Between a Heifer vs Cow

cow and calf

A heifer is a female bovine that has not given birth to calves, but cows have given birth to calves.

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The most significant differences between a heifer and a cow are their age, whether they have reproduced, and morphological differences stemming from reproduction such as udders. By definition, a heifer is between one and two years old, but a cow can be any age as long as it has given birth to a calf.

The heifer is different from a cow because they have not reproduced, but cows have reproduced. As a result of having calves, cows will have more pronounced udders and a thicker body than heifers. These differences represent the easiest ways to tell a heifer apart from a cow.

Heifer vs Cow: Age

Heifers are between one and two years of age, but a cow can be any age as long as it has had one or more calves. One reason that heifers are distinguished by their age is that they are usually considered calves when they are below one year of age.

The other reason that age matters in this situation is that cows usually become mature around 12 months old and they can breed a few months after. If a heifer becomes older than two years of age and has not had a calf, they are referred to as a heiferette.

Heifer vs Cow: Size

Animals Elected to Office: April the Cow

Cows are larger than heifers due to their age and changes in their bodies after having children.

©l i g h t p o e t/Shutterstock.com

Heifers are smaller than cows. Cows are older than heifers and have added thickness in the midsection due to carrying a calf and giving birth.

The average size of a cow is between 880lbs and 1,760lbs, with a length of between 5 feet and 6 feet, and a length of 7 feet to 8 feet. You would be more likely to find a cow than a heifer at the upper range of these measurements, especially considering the changes following childbirth. During the first breeding season, a heifer produced by a cow weighing 1,200 pounds would weigh around 770 pounds.

Also, think about the differences in age and how they impact a cow’s size. Remember that a heifer is less than two years of age. They are not fully grown, so they are not going to reach the largest size possible for their species. As cows continue to age and have more calves, they will continue to grow and reach their full size.

Heifer vs Cow: Reproduction

By definition, heifers are cattle that have not had calves. Cows are cattle that have had calves. If you have a heifer that is currently pregnant, it is called a bred heifer. Any cattle that are older than two years of age and have not had calves are called heiferettes.

Thus, the main difference between a heifer and a cow is whether or not they have given birth to calves.

Heifer vs Cow: Udders

Cow vs Heifer - Cow Udders

Cows have more conspicuous udders than heifers.

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Cows have pronounced and elongated udders from rearing their young, but heifers’ udders are harder to see and less prominent because they have not used them in raising their young. Other physiological differences between a heifer and a cow exist in the times leading up to and following birth.  

The cow’s vulva will look different following the birth of a calf, the most significant of which will be the prominence of a cow’s vulvar lips. The changes exhibited by cows that have given birth are very noticeable if you compare a heifer and a cow.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

What is the Difference Between a Heifer and a Bull?

A heifer is a female bovine that is between one and two years of age and has not given birth to a calf. However, bulls are male bovines that are sexually mature and remain intact; they have not been castrated or otherwise prevented from reproducing.

What Do Heifers Eat?

Like cows, heifers are ruminants that eat grass, hay, silage, and more. They chew these foods and regurgitate the bolus several times, forming cud. This will be further chewed until it is ready for digestion. Their chosen foods do not have a lot of nutrition in them to most animals, but their unique stomachs make sure that heifers can extract as much energy from grasses and other plants as possible.

What is a Pregnant Heifer Called?

Cattle that have given birth are called cows, and heifers are cattle that are sexually mature and have not given birth to any calves. Yet, a gray area exists when it comes to these cattle, and that’s when a heifer becomes pregnant. In this case, they are called bred heifers, and they become cows after they have given birth to their first calf.

What is the Difference Between a Heifer and Steer?

A heifer is a female bovine that has not had any calves. They are raised to breed, produce milk, and produce meat. However, steer are young, neutered males that are being raised specifically to be used as meat.

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About the Author

Kyle Glatz is a writer at A-Z-Animals where his primary focus is on geography and mammals. Kyle has been writing for researching and writing about animals and numerous other topics for 10 years, and he holds a Bachelor's Degree in English and Education from Rowan University. A resident of New Jersey, Kyle enjoys reading, writing, and playing video games.

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