Cows have various specific descriptors, which are used in agriculture to describe their sex, age, reproductive status, and lots of other characteristics. Today we’ll be looking at the term “Heifer”, what it means, and how it differs from the term “Cow”.
The main difference between a heifer and a cow is that a heifer has not yet given birth whereas a cow has given birth to at least one calf, although the term ‘cow’ is often used informally to refer to any type of cattle, and there are specific subcategories of heifer which have their own names too.
In this article, we’ll be exploring the term ‘heifer’ and some other common terms for cattle, learning their differences and definitions.
What is a Heifer?
In broad terms, a heifer is a young cow who has not yet given birth to her first calf. Farmers may further differentiate between pregnant heifers (which are usually called bred heifers) and heifers who are expecting very soon (usually called springers).
Farmers developed these terms to help them keep tabs on how their cattle are doing, so they can care for them appropriately.
As an example, a heifer needs to be kept away from bulls if the farmer doesn’t want her to have calves, a bred heifer needs additional feed to help her calf grow, and a springer needs to be watched more closely to ensure she can give birth safely.
Read More: Cattle Birthing Process Explained
Types of Heifer (Definitions)
|Type of Heifer||Definition|
|Heifer||Any female cattle who has not yet given birth to any calf.|
|Bred Heifer||Any female cattle who has not yet given birth, but is pregnant with her first calf.|
|Springer||Any female cattle who has not yet given birth, but will give birth to her first calf within a few weeks.|
As you can see, there is some overlap here. A springer is a type of bred heifer, which is a type of heifer, all of which may be called a “cow” in common language regardless of the technical definitions.
How is a Heifer Different from a Cow?
Although there is sometimes some overlap between the terms, there are clear differences between heifers and cows.
Let’s take a look at some of them:
1. Cows Have Had At Least One Calf
This is the most important difference between heifers and cows, and is the definition of a heifer. Cows are female cattle who have had a calf, heifers are female cattle who haven’t had a calf yet.
2. Cows are Usually Used for Dairy
This is not a hard and fast rule, but cows (female cattle with calves) tend to be used more often for dairy than for beef.
This is because dairy cows must be perpetually pregnant in order to produce milk, whereas farmers prefer beef cattle not to have a calf because it wastes energy and means the farmer has to feed the cow for an extra year.
Related Article: What is a Replacement Heifer?
3. Heifers Have Smaller Udders and Thinner Bodies
When a cow gives birth, her udders grow in order to accommodate the milk she needs to produce for her calf. With a heifer, since she hasn’t given birth yet her udders are usually smaller.
You really notice this with beef cattle breeds, which also have smaller udders in general since they haven’t been specifically bred for increased milk production.
What are Heifers Used For?
Heifers are regular cows, and can be used for three different purposes: breeding, beef, and dairy.
1. Heifers are used for Breeding
Depending on the breed, heifers may be used for breeding. This usually only happens with beef breeds, since dairy herds naturally sustain themselves anyway due to the annual pregnancies of dairy cows.
2. Heifers are used for Beef
Farmers usually decide between having a breeding herd (where the farmer raises beef cattle and sells the calves) and having a meat herd (where the farmer buys calves from breeding herds and raises them for market).
Beef farmers usually keep their female beef cattle as heifers (they don’t let them have a calf) because pregnancy wastes a lot of energy, and looking after a calf is a lot more expensive than looking after a heifer or a steer.
Heifers can spend most of the year grazing with minimal intervention, so it’s more cost efficient for the farmer to buy in heifers and steers to raise for meat, rather than trying to raise them from calves.
3. Heifers are used for Dairy
Dairy cows must be kept perpetually pregnant in order for them to produce milk. When a dairy cow gives birth to a heifer calf, the calf is often kept on the farm and raised until they are old enough to breed, so that they can be added to the dairy herd.
Can Heifers Be Pregnant?
Heifers can be pregnant. Any cow who has not given birth is still classified as a heifer, even if they are currently pregnant with their first calf. Heifers who are pregnant are sometimes called “bred heifers” to differentiate them from non-pregnant heifers.
How to Pronounce Heifer
Heifer is pronounced like “Heffer”.
IPA pronunciation: /ˈhɛfɚ/
To sum up, heifers are young cattle who have not had a calf yet. The difference between cows and heifers is that the term ‘cow’ means a female cattle who has given birth to at least one calf, although in common speech, ‘cow’ is often used to refer to any cattle.
Heifers may or may not be pregnant with their first calf. Pregnant heifers are sometimes called ‘Bred Heifers’ and when the cow is heavily pregnant she’s called a Springer.
Heifers are mostly used for breeding, or raised for meat as part of a beef herd. Dairy heifers are often bred and added to the dairy herd after calving, once they are able to produce milk.
Stuart is the editor of Fauna Facts. He edits our writers’ work as well as contributing his own content. Stuart is passionate about sustainable farming and animal welfare and has written extensively on cows and geese for the site.