The Difference Between Cow And Cattle (FAQ)

There is something so peaceful and nostalgic about passing a field of cattle, but what is the correct terminology to describe them? 

Most people use the terms cow and cattle interchangeably, but did you know there are some major differences? 

While they are related terms, the difference between cow and cattle comes down to major characteristics. 

On the other hand, the term cow refers to a very specific type of cattle.  

The difference between cow and cattle comes down to the sex and purpose of the bovine. Cattle refers to all bovine animals, while cow specifically refers to female cows who have birthed a calf. All cows are cattle, but not all cattle are cows. 

Whatever sparked your interest in the difference between cow and cattle, it is quite interesting how different types of cattle are separated.

We’ll help you learn everything you need to know about cattle and cows. 

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What Is The Difference Between Cattle And Cows?

When you drive past pasture and see a herd of our moo-ing friends, what do you call them? 

Cattle or cow? 

Chances are you, like many of us, have used the terms cattle and cow interchangeably. 

There is a common misconception about these two words. 

Many people think they mean the same thing, but they are quite different. 

Cattle refers to all bovine animals. 

The term encapsulates all breeds of cattle. 

Different types of cattle are determined by their sex and what purpose they were bred for. 

There are also different terms based on whether or not a female cow has given birth to a calf. 

All of these aspects dictate what type of cattle the animal is. 

Female cows who have birthed a calf transition from a heifer to a cow. 

Cows are responsible for milk production, but not all breeds of cows are prolific in supplying their farmers with ample amounts of milk. 

The different terms for cattle describe their purpose to a rancher. 

Many of the terms dictate whether the cow is predominately used for meat production or dairy products. 

Next time you find yourself driving past a herd in a pasture, the correct way to refer to the animals would be cattle unless you are sure of their sex and age. 

Farmers rear cattle for a variety of purposes. 

Most keep cattle for either meat or beef. 

Sex and age make a significant difference in what they are better at producing. 

Female cattle are used for both meat and milk, depending on age. 

Some females are kept for meat production and are not impregnated, while others are specifically bred to produce calves and milk. 

What Are Cattle?

Cattle are all bovine animals. 

The term is a broad-spectrum term referring to all bovine creatures regardless of sex. 

Cattle refers to all breeds, ages, and purposes of the animal. 

Speaking of breeds, check out our list of the fluffiest cow breeds (with pictures!).

Many different classifications fall under the umbrella term “cattle.” 

All cows, bulls, steers, heifers, and calves are considered cattle. 

In many ways, the term acts similarly to the old phrase of all squares being rectangles but not all rectangles being squares. 

Certain attributes define what type of cattle an animal is in, and it mostly depends on the age and sex of the animal. 

It seems most of us use the term cow when we should be using the word cattle. 

Certain breeds of cattle tend to serve better purposes for meat or milk production. 

This is why it is important to consider whether you are looking for meat or milk when choosing a breed for your farm. 

What Are Cows?

The term cow is often used as a blanket term to cover all types of cattle when in fact, the word refers to only those falling under certain characteristics. 

Some people think the two different types of cattle are cows and bulls. 

They also tend to think the main difference is whether or not the animal has horns. 

Another common misconception involves people thinking the iconic black and white spotted cattle are all cows, and the black cattle with horns are bulls. 

These common misconceptions are very limited and do not address the wide range of colors, physical attributes, and characteristics making up different types of cattle. 

The only cattle falling under the term cow are female and have birthed at least one calf. 

Female cattle are not cows until they give birth. 

Before they birth a calf, they fall under the term heifer. 

Different Types Of Cattle By Label

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We may be tempted to call all cattle cows, but if we want to correctly label the animals, we need to know which characteristics to look for. 

If you are interested in learning the correct titles for each category of cattle, we’ll help you know what to look for to correctly identify the animal. 

Each type of cattle serves a specific purpose for ranchers and farmers. 

Having the correct title makes it easier to specify which type of cattle you’re referring to. 

Steer

A steer is a male cattle. 

One of the most distinguished characteristics is castration. 

Not all male cattle are steers. 

Only the castrated males are considered steers. 

They cannot reproduce, so their main purpose is for the production of beef. 

Many people find steer meat to be of higher quality than beef from other types of cattle. 

Heifer

Heifer is a term referring to female cattle. 

The animal is only a heifer if it has not given birth. 

Often the term refers to young female cattle. 

Often the heifers are bred for the sole purpose of producing meat. 

Like steers, the meat produced by heifers is considered one of the most high-quality beef. 

Cow

As we have mentioned, a cow is a female who has given birth. 

The main purpose of the cow is to produce milk. 

Cows produce milk for roughly ten months of the year. 

During the other two months, no milk is taken from the cow as they prepare for the annual birth of their calf. 

Cows are bred to give birth once a year to produce a calf and keep their milk supply. 

Different breeds of cows produce different levels of milk, but all cows need to have had a calf to produce milk. 

Bull

Bulls are intact male cattle. Bulls are often more easily distinguished by their physical attributes. 

Because they are intact, the bulls tend to produce more muscle. 

Bulls tend to have a hump form over their shoulders from muscle growth. 

They do have horns, but this is not a tell-tale indicator of a bull. 

The primary role of bulls is to reproduce with the cows. 

Young male cattle are not considered bulls until they reach sexual maturity around two years. 

Calf

The only term for cattle referring to both sexes is the word calf. 

All young cattle are considered to be calves until they reach maturity. 

Both male and female cattle are calves until they reach their next classification. 

Female calves eventually become either heifers or cows, depending on whether they are reared for meat or milk production. 

Male calves either become bulls or steers until castrated and used for meat or kept intact and used for reproduction. 

Types Of Cattle Table For Quick Reference

Use this chart to check your understanding and refer back to as needed for what the terms on different types of cattle and cows mean. 

NameGenderDefining CharacteristicPurpose On Farm
SteerMaleAdult, castrated and unable to reproduceMeat
HeiferFemaleNot yet given birthMeat (or waiting until older for milk)
CowFemaleAdult who’s given birth at least onceMilk
Bull MaleAdult and able to reproduceReproduction
CalfBothYoung cattleWait until grown

What Are Dairy Cows?

Many people tend to think all cows produce milk by nature. 

They think it is similar to the way chickens will always lay eggs. 

However, it is not as straightforward with cows. 

Like humans, cows only produce milk to feed their babies. 

Because of this, dairy cows are specifically bred to give birth to one calf a year to keep their milk supply up. 

After a certain amount of time has passed after the calf’s birth, the cow will stop producing milk and need to be bred again to restart the milk supply. 

If you pass a field or farm with dairy cows, you may notice their smaller stature when compared to beef cattle. 

The reason behind this is how they convert their energy. 

Beef cattle and bulls use most of their energy to form muscles and increase weight. 

It is very beneficial for farmers rearing cattle for meat. 

For dairy cows, most of their energy goes towards milk production. 

Since they use their energy to produce milk, they are not building as much fat and muscle as beef cattle. 

This is the reason behind their smaller and often more angular stature. 

One of the most telling physical attributes of dairy cows is their large udders. 

Dairy cows bred for milk production produce about 8-10 gallons of milk a day. 

Some breeds of cattle, like beef cows, do not produce as much milk and are not successful as dairy cows. 

These breeds only produce enough milk for the calf and average about 1-2 gallons a day. 

Dairy cows are usually milked a few times each day to keep them comfortable. 

When their udders get too full, it causes discomfort. 

To keep the milk supply up and keep the dairy cows happy, they are fed balanced and nutritious meals to ensure all their dietary needs are met. 

Many farmers keep dairy cows in barns and stalls and feed them there. 

Other types of cattle tend to graze, and often, this contributes to a more muscular physique. 

Because dairy cows tend to stay more stationary, they do not get the same exercise from grazing and have a more slim physique. 

What Are Beef Cattle?

Many farmers rear beef cattle to produce high-quality meat. 

These types of cattle tend to be significantly more muscular and wider than your average dairy cows. 

In many ways, beef cattle are similar to bodybuilders. 

They eat healthy diets rich in grains and grasses to promote the formation of strong muscles. 

If you put a beef cow next to a dairy cow, you’ll see a substantial difference in size and shape. 

Many people may confuse beef cows with bulls because of their large and muscular size. 

One tell-tale sign to look for with beef cattle is their stocky and round bodies. 

They also tend to have stronger and thicker legs formed by their frequent grazing. 

Another physical characteristic of beef cattle is the defined and large muscles on their shoulders, rumps, and backs. 

High-quality meat comes from a delicate balance of fat and muscle. 

The marbled colors on high-quality steaks are from the proper fat to muscle ratio and are desirable to get beef with excellent taste and texture. 

Most beef cattle are heifers and steers. 

They are not intended to be bred or reproduced. 

Their main purpose is to bulk up and gain mass through eating and grazing. 

Grazing not only helps them to gain weight, but it also helps to build muscle in their backs, shoulders, and rumps to create high-quality meat. 

Some beef cattle are cows, but they do not produce nearly as much milk as dairy cows. 

They only produce milk for their calf. 

This is because most of their energy goes toward building muscle and storing fat rather than producing extra milk. 

Chances are, if you drive past a field of roaming and grazing cattle, you are looking at beef cattle. 

They are encouraged to graze and walk around to build muscle growth. 

The grass they consume while grazing also helps add to their weight. 

Farmers have learned the difference the exercise makes in cattle. 

It helps to know this if you want to increase milk production or meat. 

More exercise and grazing mean more meat but less milk, while less exercise increases milk supply but drastically limits the amount of meat on the cattle. 

What Does Bovine Mean?

The term bovine refers to a certain type of animal. 

Cattle are considered bovine, but the term also describes other types of animals. 

Bison, buffalo, ox, and certain types of antelope are also considered Bovine animals. 

The word bovine comes from the Latin word for cow. 

Goats and sheep also fall under the Bovine family of animals. 

The word is often used to describe certain things like food, medicine, and illnesses relating to cows. 

Often the word bovine is used to describe cattle, but not many people know it also describes other types of animals. 

Most Bovine animals are herbivores and bear some resemblance to each other. 

Cattle were domesticated as early as 8000 BC in the Middle East. 

It’s fair to say those cattle probably looked very different from the domesticated cattle we use today. 

Over time we have bred cattle for their different functions. 

Some are bred to be excellent beef cattle, and others are bred to be prolific dairy cows.

Related: How long do domesticated cows live?

Why Does My Cow Have Horns?

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Many people, especially children, who are unaccustomed to the different types of cattle may look at the horns to identify whether the cattle are male or female. 

Contrary to popular belief, many cows have horns, and some bulls don’t have horns. 

The reasoning is genetic and varies based on the breed of cattle. 

Female cows and heifers may have horns due to their breed. 

Sometimes steers will not produce horns due to their lack of testosterone from their castrations. 

We tend to picture the iconic bull with big, curved horns, but this is not always the case. 

Many dairy cows are born with horns despite how we see cows depicted in cartoons and toy stores. 

We do not think of cows having horns because most dairy farmers will remove the horns from their cows. 

Why would they do this? 

The reasoning has to do with safety for both the cows and the farmers. 

Cows are social animals, and sometimes this results in fights. 

Cows will headbutt each other when fighting. 

Removing the horns from dairy cows keeps them from hurting themselves and each other whenever a power struggle emerges. 

Horns are also dangerous for farmers. 

Cattle are large animals, and having one charge at you is dangerous enough. 

Imagine the damage an angry dairy cow with horns could inflict on a farmer. 

Even though most dairy cows grow horns, many of us are accustomed to the iconic images we see in cartoons, art, and toys. 

The image we are so accustomed to is not the natural state of cattle despite contrary belief. 

What Types Of Cattle Are Best For Meat?

If you are new to keeping cattle, you may be wondering what the best breed for meat is. 

The best types of beef cattle are those capable of building mass through muscle and fat quickly and easily. 

Like with people, genetics help determine how they will fill out physically. 

We all have friends who seem to eat whatever they want without gaining a pound. 

We also probably know some people who tend to have muscle mass even if they do not exercise. 

Part of this is genetics, and it works the same way with cattle. 

Through domestication, humans have strategically cross-bred certain types of cattle to produce the most muscle and meat. 

Another important aspect of the best types of cattle for meat is their ratios of muscle to fat built. 

While part of this relies on diet and exercise for the herd, genetics go a long way in creating high-quality meat. 

If your main objective is to grow high-quality meat and lots of it, you’ll want to consider choosing from the following types of cattle breeds known for their superior meat:

  • Angus
  • Brahman
  • Highland Cattle
  • Herefordshire
  • Beef Master
  • Limousin
  • Piedmontese
  • Gelbvieh 

What Types Of Cattle Are Best For Milk?

If you are looking to shepherd a herd to produce high quantities of high-quality milk. 

Genetics plays a significant role in milk production. 

There are so many reasons to farm dairy cows. 

Cow milk is an excellent source of calcium, protein, and other nutritional needs. 

Certain breeds of cows tend to be better at producing large quantities of milk. 

Dairy cattle have different needs than beef cattle. 

Milk from cows has been a staple in diets since ancient human civilization. 

Throughout this time, humans have successfully bred cows to produce lots of milk to keep their families fed and nourished. 

Holstein Dairy Cows

Holstein dairy cows are generally considered one of the most prolific milk producers when it comes to cattle breeds. 

They are a fantastic breed to consider if you want to collect as much milk as possible. 

Jersey Cows

Jersey cows are another excellent choice for dairy cattle breeds. 

They are significantly smaller than other cattle breeds and are often referenced for their sweet and gentle demeanor. 

Many farmers find the milk from Jersey cows to be one of the best choices for butter and cheese. 

Jersey cows produce between 8-10 gallons of milk a day, making them excellent and productive dairy cows. 

Related: Are jersey cows good for meat?

Guernsey Cows

Another excellent choice for breeds for dairy cattle is the Guernsey cow. 

One of the most notable attributes of this breed is its reputation for producing high-quality milk. 

Their milk is also famous for its golden hue. 

The reason for the gold-tone in their milk is high levels of beta-carotene. 

Beta-carotene is a great source of vitamin A and adds to the nutritional profile of their milk. 

Dexter Cows

If you are just looking to have a few cows for your homestead, we recommend looking into adding a Dexter dairy cow to your farm. 

Dexter cows tend to be much smaller than other cattle breeds and are great for supporting a small family. 

They tend to be more docile and easier to manage than other breeds, making them an excellent choice for those new to milking cows. 

The average Dexter dairy cow produces about 3 gallons of milk a day, making it perfect for supporting the needs of a single family.