Steer vs Cow: What Are the Differences?

steer vs bull
© Laura Hedien/Shutterstock.com

Written by Kyle Glatz

Published: February 18, 2022

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The nomenclature surrounding bovines can be quite difficult to understand. The words steer, cow, ox, and bull can all refer to members of the Bos genus of animals that are all basically the same creature. So, what are the differences between, say, a steer vs cow? We will perform a deep dive on these mammals and differentiate them for you in several ways. By the time we’re done, you’ll know a steer from a cow along with how they’re related to bulls, heifers, and oxen!

Comparing a Steer vs Cow

Steer are castrated male bovine, whereas cows are adult female bovine reared for breeding.
SteerCow
SexA castrated male that has reached maturityA mature female reared for breeding
Size– Larger, heavier, and more muscular than cows
– Smaller and less muscular than bulls and oxen
– Smaller than steer and not as muscular
– Larger than heifer
Purpose– Raised almost exclusively to be slaughtered for meat– Used to birth calves
– Raised for milk
– Slaughtered for meat
Morphology– Most species’ males have horns
– Muscular, rounded shoulders
– Large head
– Thick neck
– Some species’ females have horns
– Possess udders
– Wider midsection and more angular shoulders
Age12-15 months and older2 years or over as long as it’s had a calf

The 5 Key Differences Between a Steer vs Cow

brown cow with tongue sticking out

Steers and cows differ in their size, sex, and morphology.

©SehrguteFotos/Shutterstock.com

The greatest differences between a steer and a cow are their sex, purpose, and morphology. Steers are male bovines that have reached maturity after they have been castrated, and cows are mature female bovines.  

Besides, steers are raised to be slaughtered for meat, and cows are also raised for slaughter, to produce more calves, and produce milk.

Thus, steers are larger and heavier than cows, and they have more muscular shoulders and may have horns depending on the species. Cows have udders, a wider midsection, angular shoulders rather than rounded ones, and may have horns.

These are the main differences between a steer and cow, but we’re going to plumb the depths of these differences and show you what sets these animals apart.

Steer vs Cow: Sex

cow and calf

Cows are female bovines that have had calves.

©iStock.com/Diane Kuhl

Steers are male and cows are female. Unlike oxen, we cannot separate sex from the creature. Specifically, steers are castrated males that have come into maturity after they have been neutered.

Cows are mature female bovines that have already had at least one calf. The sex of these animals is their most apparent difference, and it can help you tell them apart.

Steer vs Cow: Size

Steers are larger than cows in almost every case. However, it’s important to remember that steers are castrated males that did not have the chance to mature before they lost the ability to produce large amounts of certain hormones.

As a result, steers will have a larger frame than the average cow, but they will also be smaller than oxen and most bulls. Cows are smaller than a steer and still less muscular. Yet, they are larger than a heifer, a young female cow.

On average, cows will grow between 800lbs and 1,700lbs, stand about 4.5ft-5.5ft at the shoulder, and measure 5ft-6ft long. Steers will grow between 1,500lbs and 2,000lbs, stand 5ft-5.5ft at the shoulder, and can measure between 7ft-9ft long. Steers are large, but not as big as their species can get.

Steer vs Cow: Purpose

Cows are used to breed calves and produce milk.

©iStock.com/Scott Allan

Steers are bred to be slaughtered for food, often at a young age. Cows are bred so they can give birth to more calves, provide milk that will be sold, and be slaughtered for meat.

Unlike oxen or bulls, steers have a rather macabre purpose when one considers that they are usually less than two years old when they are killed. Bulls breed for some of their lives. They may or may not be slaughtered. Oxen are working animals like horses, and they are certainly not used for their meat unless the situation is desperate.

Steer vs Cow: Morphology

ox standing in field

Cows have more prominent udders than steers.

©iStock.com/vbacarin

Although steers are castrated at a young age, their bodies are notably different than cows. Steers will have horns if the species grows them. They will also possess muscular shoulders, thick necks, and large heads. Steers will maintain the tuft of hair in the middle of their body that hides their penile sheath, but they will not have the scrotum seen in bulls.

Cows have a wider midsection from calving, and their shoulders are not rounded. Instead, their shoulders are more angular. Lastly, they will have udders and prominent teats that are not seen on steers. Thus, telling these two animals apart is simple.

Steer vs Cow: Age

By definition, steers are mature males that have been castrated before they reached the age of maturity. Thus, a steer is between 12-15 months of age or older since that is the time in which they mature. Cows are usually about two years old or older.

A cow is a mature female bovine that has given birth to at least one calf. In this case, a female bovine comes to maturity at 12-15 months. Combined with the gestation period, a cow is usually defined at a later age than a steer.  

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

How Are Steers Different from Bulls and Oxen?

Steers are mature castrated male bovines. Bulls are intact male bovines that are used to breed. Oxen are usually castrated male bovines that have been raised to work on farms or in other industries.

What Are Heifers Compared to a Cow?

Heifers are mature female bovines that have not yet had a calf, but cows are mature female bovine with a calf. Heifers are usually younger than cows since they technically become heiferettes if they reach two years of age without a calf.

What Do Steers Eat?

Steers, like other ruminants, primarily feed on grass and other plants. Using their incisors, they will pick up choice bits of plants before moving the food to their jaws where they can chew the food into a bolus. They will then swallow and regurgitate the food, forming a cud. Steers will chew their cud until it is finally ready to be digested by their multi-chambered digestive system.


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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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