Beef cows have a natural lifespan of approximately 20 years, though they are typically slaughtered at around two or three years old on the farm in order to maximize the efficiency of meat production vs feeding costs.
In this article we’ll learn about the natural lifespan of different types of beef cattle and how it compares to other types of cow, when beef is usually slaughtered and why, and look at what circumstances determine how long a cow lives both in the wild and on a farm.
How Long Do Beef Cows Live Naturally?
A cow’s natural lifespan is around 20 years, though they have been known to live much longer. (The oldest known cow was 48, her name was Big Bertha)
Beef cattle tend not to live much older than a few years on farms since by that point they are almost full sized and to let them grow any older would be a waste of food.
How Long Do Beef Cows Live On the Farm?
In three years, the cows have reached their full size and continuing to feed them after this point would be inefficient, since they wouldn’t produce more meat but would continue to consume food or use up pasture that could be being used for another cow.
The USDA grades cuts of beef in to eight separate categories based on a range of factors including marbling, fat coverage, and age.
Here are the categories with the age limits as specified by USDA.
It’s important to note that beef is graded for quality, and these age specifications are just guidelines by the USDA as to the most common age of meat in each category.
|Beef Grade||Age Guidelines|
|Prime||Under 42 Months|
|Choice||Under 42 Months|
|Select||Under 30 Months|
|Standard||Under 42 Months|
|Commercial||Over 42 Months|
|Utility||No Age Guidelines|
|Cutter||No Age Guidelines|
|Canner||No Age Guidelines|
Source: USDA Cattle Grades and Standards
Do Beef Cows Live Longer Than Dairy Cows?
Although both dairy cows and beef cows have a similar natural lifespan, beef cows tend to be slaughtered sooner than dairy cows. The lifespan of a farmed cow depends on what the cow is being used for.
According to the USDA, beef cattle are typically slaughtered at between two and three years old.
According to a report by Wageningen University in The Netherlands, a dairy cow’s average lifespan on a dairy farm is around 6 years.
Animal nutrition expert Roselinde Goselinke explains in the report that fertility problems, and health issues such as mastitis and hoof injuries are common in older cows.
Though these issues could be overcome, the expense of veterinary treatment and the loss in milk production are enough reasons for the farmer to slaughter the cow instead of spending resources trying to improve their health.
According to a paper published in GeroScience (Official Journal of the American Association of Ageing), farmed dairy cows have an average lifespan of 5.7 years, or approximately 27% of their total natural lifespan.
How Old Can Beef Cows Get?
Beef cows have a typical natural lifespan of 20 years, however in agriculture beef is usually slaughtered between two and three years.
In the same GeroScience study mentioned above, it was said that some species of beef cattle (Texas Longhorn) could live to be up to 30 years old.
How Old Do Kobe Beef Cows Live?
Kobe beef is from Japanese Wagyu cattle, which is a crossbreed between native Japanese cattle breeds and imported European cattle.
Although Wagyu shares a similar natural lifespan to western beef cattle (around 20 years) they also share the same fate as western cattle in that their meat is harvested at around 2 or 3 years of age.
According to the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotional Organization, Kobe beef is 32 months old at the point of slaughter on average.
Do Beef Cows Die Of Old Age?
Beef cattle rarely die of old age, because farmers typically send their beef for slaughter at around two or three years old.
Around the world, there are a few areas where beef cattle have escaped and are thriving in the wild as feral cattle herds. These cattle live longer and may die of old age.
How Do We Know How Old Beef Cattle Are?
Farmers know the age of their cattle, but occasionally it’s necessary to verify a cow’s age, for example when tracking feral cattle, when buying or selling cattle, and by agricultural inspectors checking that the declared cattle matches the cattle present on a farm.
1. Ear Tag / Cattle Passport
The number one method to age cattle is to look at their documents. In Europe and North America this usually comes in the form of an ear tag, which contains a unique identifier for each cattle.
In most jurisdictions, the tag must be on both ears (for redundancy, in case one falls out) and contains information about the specific cow. These tags and the associated entries in official registers of cattle are required to be able to sell or export beef.
The exact data varies from country to country, but at a minimum the tags and associated register will contain:
- Unique Identifier
- Date of Birth
- Identifier of Mother and Father
2. Brucellosis Tattoo
Absent an ear tag, there is one other way to accurately identify a cow’s age.
When cows are born, they must be immunized against brucellosis within 20 days. In North America, cows are tattooed as proof of their immunization, and this tattoo remains visible throughout their life.
According to the California Dept. of Agriculture, tattoos must show the year and the quarter in which the cow was vaccinated, and must be printed legibly in the ear of each calf.
3. Tooth Measuring
As a last resort, cattle age can be very roughly determined by the wear on their teeth.
Cow teeth take a long time to fully develop, and up until around 4 years old, cattle can be broadly aged according to their teeth, with an accuracy of three to six months.
This method of aging is controversial, because teeth can vary wildly depending on diet and climate.
To sum everything up, beef cows have a lifespan of around 20 years, although they are usually slaughtered at around two or three years old.
Beef cows and dairy cows have roughly the same natural lifespan, although beef cows are typically sent for slaughter sooner than dairy cows, since dairy cows can keep producing milk year after year.
The oldest breed of beef cattle is thought to be Texas Longhorn, which can live for up to 30 years if not sent for slaughter sooner.
The most common way to keep track of cattle age is with their ear tags and associated documentation. Every cow in the western world needs a unique identifier and associated documents (sometimes called a cattle passport) which accurately notes their age and other information.