What is a Heifer?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
A young heifer cow.
A young heifer cow.

A heifer is a young cow, typically one that has not yet given birth to a calf. These cows are an important part of herd dynamics, since they represent replacements for older cows. In the dairy industry, they are desired, since they will eventually produce milk. In the meat industry, the gender of young cattle is not as important, since they are generally destined for slaughter in either case, although some heifers may be retained to produce more calves.

Uncastrated adult male bovines are called bulls.
Uncastrated adult male bovines are called bulls.

Cattle in general are widespread throughout the world, and a number of complicated terms are used to refer to cows in various life stages. A bullock, for example, is a young bull, and he may grow up to be a bull or ox, or he may be neutered to become a steer. Adult female cattle are often referred to as cows, and ranchers and farmers may have additional specific terms to define the animals that they work with. These terms can get a bit confusing outside the industry, and some cattle terminology requires rather graphic explanations.

Dairy producers breed heifers as quickly as possible to see if they produce enough milk.
Dairy producers breed heifers as quickly as possible to see if they produce enough milk.

The exact use of the term “heifer” varies. In some regions, the term is used to describe a cow who has not yet calved, up to the time of giving birth. One in the last weeks of pregnancy will sometimes be called a springing heifer. In other regions, a cow may be referred to by this term even through her first lactation, after which she is considered a fully adult cow. In some areas, the term “first calf heifer” is used to describe a cow that has produced a single calf.

Heifers are an important part of herd dynamics, since they represent replacements for older cows.
Heifers are an important part of herd dynamics, since they represent replacements for older cows.

The handling of young cattle varies, depending on the end destination of the animals. Cows are generally sexed at an early age across the cattle industry, with most bull calves being castrated so that they are easier to handle. Young female cows have potential economic value, since they can produce calves and milk. A dairy producer generally breeds heifers as quickly as possible to determine whether or not they produce adequate milk.

After giving birth, a cow is no longer a heifer.
After giving birth, a cow is no longer a heifer.

In regions of the world with programs that sponsor young farmers, such as 4-H or FFA, many people like to raise heifers as a project. A young cow is generally more amiable and easy to handle than a bullock. When she reaches full size, she may be auctioned off at a livestock auction, which can be an interesting learning experience, or the student may breed her to expand the scope of the project.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon244270

Well I think that cows are nice living animals and I don't think people should beat cows.

Tufenkian925

Different meat from different types of cow in various stages of life can vary in cost and demand. Veal is a more controversial form of expensive meat which is taken from young calves. Many Vegans object to the use of any animal products, and even the milk of Cows is seen as not within our right to consume. Cows produce many different nutrients and can be a very helpful measure of riches in agricultural societies.

Renegade

Cows were and still are an important part of European society. Many words for money derive from words for cows (pecuniary) and many modern surnames have to do with raising cows (Buckley). If it were not for the symbiotic relationship held between many human groups and their livestock, it is likely that we would still be hunter-gatherers.

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    • A young heifer cow.
      A young heifer cow.
    • Uncastrated adult male bovines are called bulls.
      Uncastrated adult male bovines are called bulls.
    • Dairy producers breed heifers as quickly as possible to see if they produce enough milk.
      Dairy producers breed heifers as quickly as possible to see if they produce enough milk.
    • Heifers are an important part of herd dynamics, since they represent replacements for older cows.
      Heifers are an important part of herd dynamics, since they represent replacements for older cows.
    • After giving birth, a cow is no longer a heifer.
      After giving birth, a cow is no longer a heifer.