In my first year of my dairy project in 4-H, my new Holstein Cheddar had a unique dilemma. I bought Cheddar on discount from a dairy because she miscarried her calf. Although she had lost the calf, she was giving milk, not as much as she normally would have had she carried the calf full term but it was sufficient for our family’s needs. The dilemma set in when my 4-H leader and I sat down to enter Cheddar in our county fair’s dairy show.
Was Cheddar a cow? Was Cheddar still a heifer? We contacted my Future Farmers of America (FFA) advisor, who wasn’t sure either, but advised us to enter her as a heifer, because she hadn’t actually given birth. Also, Cheddar would be the only dairy animal at the county fair, because seeing a Holstein in Wyoming is akin to spotting a jackalope in a tropical rainforest, so I could have entered her as a feeder steer for all it was worth. After moving the next year from central Wyoming to the dairy-rich state of Michigan, I explained the situation to my new FFA advisor. She said that it was obvious that Cheddar was a cow, because she was giving milk. Duh.
Cheddar has officially earned her cow badge since those confusing early times. Most situations are not that baffling, but to a newbie in the cattle world, the terminology for cattle can get confusing. Sure, cow and bull are pretty generally known, but what’s the official definition of a heifer? Can you tell me what an ox is? A freemartin?
Baby cattle are generally called calves until they are weaned, then generally they are referred to as weanlings, although oftentimes you will see young cattle referred to as calves far past even yearling age, especially in the show cattle circuit. In certain regions of the country, weanlings may also be called feeders or feeder calves.
As the cattle mature, their label becomes more gender focused. A female beef or dairy animal that has given birth is called a cow. If she has not given birth, she is called a heifer, unless she is giving milk and aborted her calf, then it gets confusing and the most simple solution is just to ask the girl herself. To call a woman a cow is an insult, to be sure, but I feel that being called a heifer is to be called a beautiful and coy young lady, if a bit fleshy. When a female is close to calving, heifer or cow, she could be referred to as a springer if you’re in more old-fashioned company.
The boys get a bit more complicated considering the whole castration business. Bulls are, of course, mature, intact adult male cattle. A young male that has gotten the cut as a weanling is called a steer. This is probably what you’re eating when you buy meat at the grocery store or a sit-down restaurant. If the young male is castrated but destined for draft work instead of the kitchen table, the lucky lad is referred to as a working steer. In the old days, if a male was castrated after reaching a mature size, he was called an ox. The term has since been altered a bit to cover any mature draft cattle, most of which were castrated when they were weanlings. An ox can be any beef or dairy breed, but dairy males are the most common oxen in North American.
There are a few weird ones that can pop up sometimes in the cattle industry. For example, a “freemartin” is a female that was born twin to a male and does not have internal reproductive organs. On the outside, to all the world, she looks like a healthy heifer, but she will never go into heat or carry a calf. A “maverick” is an old term that became outdated with the advent of barbed-wire fencing, but in the old cattle trail days it referred to an unbranded beef running loose in the wild west. If you want to impress your friends with extensive cowboy language, you could refer to an orphaned calf as a “dogie” or a “leppy”. You won’t find a maverick or a leppy at the local stock auctions, and I don’t recommend that you ask for one unless you want to be branded (haha) as the local nitwit.
So, in conclusion – not all cattle are cows, but all cows are cattle (unless they are elk cows, moose cows, whale cows, elephant cows, or hippo cows).